So I’ve been designing for a long time now and something that has been on my mind for many years is the status and hierarchy that surrounds our theatre ecology.
I think I’m quite unusual as a designer because I’ve always moved back and forth between the world of small scale design work ( mainly for families and young audiences ) and much larger more high profile work at say buildings like the National Theatre.
So this is what I know.
The work I make for and with young people does not have the status of the work I make for adults.
It does not receive the funding, the resources, the reviews, the platforms and the artistic acclaim that the adult work gets and yet it serves nearly a third of the population.
I won’t bore you with endless proof of this but I’m happy to if anyone asks me ….
So beyond just having a personal moan about the strange prejudice that exists around work with and for young people, what can we learn from examining it to help us create a healthier, less hierarchical theatre ecology ?
For starters work for young people often gets created in a very different context to adult work one that is often much more rooted within its community.
Travelling Light Theatre Company for whom I’ve designed numerous shows is based at Barton Hill Settlement. It is a multi cultural community centre within a high density housing area of East Bristol. The company shares an entrance with the local nursery. Every day as the children enter they see theatre making going on through the windows. Local primary school children are also regularly invited to watch open rehearsals to help inform and steer artistic decisions.The shows will then tour to schools and in doing so reach the broadest range of children possible - the story tellers of the future.
Or look at The Half Moon Theatre in London with their participation mission statement “Creative learning is a parallel and equal component of the theatres work alongside the professional productions created”. This is obviously a good statement but it is more profound than that. It says that the thoughts, ideas, woes, joys and stories of the local community are just as valid as those of a playwright.
Most importantly for me though is the fact that theatre for young audiences fundamentally puts their experience above everything else. It pioneered the idea of relaxed performances. A radical idea that challenges the notion of a perfect polished production that must only be watched by a silent polite audience.
Many childrens shows are made with the assumption that English is not always the first language of the majority of its audience and so rely much more on physical storytelling, music and design.
All of these initiatives are amazing aren’t they ? They are all about inclusivity, showing young people they are important as well as high artistic aspirations and it is what keeps me wanting to still do this work. So why don’t we value it more ? And what does this mean for us as designers?
Well in the present climate it’s really hard to make a “name” for yourself designing work for young people and this is important because the higher your profile the more you can earn and the more opportunities are open to you .
So maybe in the future we can take more time to see and celebrate this often overlooked sector - this will be good for theatre and really good for the designers working within it.
For further reading on this theme here is an article by Tim Crouch and one by Lyn Gardner
The Dahl Project. Travelling Light Theatre Co.
Photography by Camilla Adams
The Tobacco Factory Theatre