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THEATRE PROJECTS AND YOUNG PEOPLE

This article was written by Steve Beebee, for the December 2002 issue of Young People Now

If you work with young people, you'll probably have figured out for yourself that by and large youth and the performing arts go well together. The most difficult bit is getting them willing or confident enough to participate in the first place. And what exactly constitutes relevant drama for the young? For many, the idea of ploughing through page after page of Shakespearean prose is akin to their notion of hell and damnation. It's also got the ‘what we do at school' factor which might all too readily elicit a response of ‘I'm a young person – get me out of here'.

The London Bubble theatre Company is savvy enough to know that the best way to energise young people through drama is to give them a sense of ownership, to make it relevant to them. Their range of participatory projects work in a variety of environments, from schools to adventure playgrounds to parks, to the stage itself. They remove the fear factor by bringing relevant drama to young people's own doorsteps. Therefore, while the Bubble is a professional and highly regarded theatre company in its own right, its desire to reach the disadvantaged, its will to inspire and include, has taken it to schools and youth settings all over London's Bermondsey and Southwark areas.

Sylvan Baker is the Bubble's Community Projects Director. ‘Our youth participation projects come into contact with the professional side of our theatre either as spectators, giving them an idea of how theatre works, and once every three years when we do an amalgamated show in which all our groups work together on a big touring show. We take them to some unusual locations like parks and dockyards, where the audience walks with us from location to location. During these productions, there is no distinction between the young actors and the professionals – we're all working together. They all give and take direction irrespective of their age. Another element is to take young people to see West End Theatre. We arrange subsidised trips so they can afford to do so. Things like that spark their interest and inspire their own efforts'.

‘We go out to wherever the young people are – that's how we reach them', he emphasises. ‘We might be seeing them in a youth club or youth setting, or perhaps during or after school time. Many of these young people are the sort who would not normally be seen dead doing drama, but we show them that it's not all highbrow stuff, that drama can be fun and can be used as a tool to represent issues that are important to them'.

Typically, a young person might have witnessed one of the Bubble's issue-based workshops at their school. In 2001 the company created two projects that examined young people's experience of policing. The second of these, A Fair Cop?, was a peer education project that toured a range of schools and community centres in South East London. The Bubble worked with the police themselves, representatives of which were available for questions at the workshops.

‘It really gets to the heart of the issue', nods Sylvan. ‘Often when working with schools, we find that those young people who wouldn't normally contribute to a class discussion become the most vocal of the group. This is because of the way we present the information. They are used to simply being told about things, or perhaps aren't given the opportunity to discuss issues they can relate to. Perhaps they've seen something in the performance they've experienced, such as being stopped and searched. Now they're in an arena to discuss those issues in front of police officers, and receive feedback from them. It's an equally valuable exercise for the police themselves. Drama is a great way to break down those barriers, and for the participants it's a great source of creativity and confidence boosting. In fact, one of the young actors involved in the policing project has progressed so far that she's since gone to RADA. Hopefully she'll come back and work with us again in the future. It's wonderful when that sort of thing happens – it really closes the circle'.

With regeneration issues high on Southwark Council's agenda, the Bubble has found several good sources of funding, principally from the council itself and from London Arts (now the Arts Council of England, London). The company is also involved in the Karrot Project, a Home Office funded borough-wide crime diversion initiative that funds many arts and sports related organisations to work with young people at school, during school hours. As well as its own thriving youth theatre (of which there are several age-brackets), the Bubble also facilitates three after school clubs, and also ran a youth theatre on the Kingswood Estate in Dulwich.

‘We're not the biggest of teams, but we do reach a large number of people', claims Sylvan. ‘Young people that come to our summer schools may have been inspired by what they've seen in their schools or youth groups. We keep it fun – we don't turn it into Shakespeare. When we do approach things like Shakespeare we contextualise it in such a way that young people can relate to. That doesn't mean dumbing down – it could just mean encouraging more people from ethnic minorities to take on roles usually associated with white actors. We bring in the highest calibre of staff we can, and there's a definite desire to involve the whole theatre company in the youth and participation projects to some extent'.

Southwark Council has seen that issue-based drama can be used in consultancy with young people. London Bubble is not merely a good example of this in action, but it also provides an outlet for suitably inspired local youth to take their ideas further. Acceptance at RADA may be an unrealistic goal for some, but there are an awful lot of other, perhaps even more glittering prizes to be won along the way.