The Power of Youth Theatre Opportunities
New Horizons Beyond COVID 19
Tristan Jackson Pate - Artistic Director - Cherwell Theatre Company
We know that many young people experience tough times, nationally and here in Banbury, and can find themselves feeling isolated, struggling to transition into adulthood. As such, Cherwell Theatre Company work alongside children and young people from ages 2-25 years at all stages of their development, providing accessible opportunities with creative platforms to reflect and express themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic, has without a doubt shifted Arts initiatives for CTC, as with many others in the county's youth sector. We were deeply concerned that the vulnerable young people who rely on our workshops to stay creatively engaged, make positive friendships and feel less isolated, would have no way to connect with each other through the in-person group activities for the foreseeable future.
In 2019, we worked with 100+ young people in weekly workshops, reaching an additional 1,500 through outreach work in schools and community settings and holiday projects, awarding 43 bursary places. In our core youth theatre and young company groups, the ratio of male:female participants is roughly 50:50, rare amongst drama providers. Thirty percent of young people in these groups have autism.
In our 16th year, Cherwell Theatre Company reached an exciting stage of organisational growth, embarking on a new partnership with Banbury College. While COVID-19 stymied this somewhat, we remained determined to continue to extend and improve our service in these challenging times for the arts sector. Until 2018 we worked primarily with ages 11+ and our 3 year plan aims to develop and sustain arts provision that supports development from ages 2-25, tackling deep rooted inequalities in the early and primary years of development, removing barriers for participants by taking the work to them. By developing our successful model in new settings, some participants transition into core-groups. Others continue our tradition of becoming leaders, assisting in workshops, some returning to us post university in professional roles.
Cherwell Theatre Company encourage young people to take a lead. Our Youth Steering Board came up with some exciting ideas for 2020, which included a project at Woodgreen open air swimming pool, to create an immersive, celebratory musical theatre piece exploring the onset of adolescence titled 'The Changing Room'. The ‘Tell Your Story' Youth Arts Festival is also in the planning.
As lockdown took hold, CTC needed to re-evaluate and seek alternative ways to engage. We knew that we had to work fast, yet professionally, to provide an online platform for our young participants. We saw numerous organisations exploring virtual initiatives, but we had reservations about rushing into online work. After talking with other Oxfordshire based companies, representatives from Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire Youth, we developed safeguarding guidelines for online work, as well as a code of conduct.
We initiated many new projects with young people utilising digital and online platforms. In fact, since lockdown, CTC has created a series of radio adverts for Jack FM, our own digital time capsules, written, directed and performed radio dramas for BBC Radio Oxford, while devising and producing our very first 'Lockdown Murder Mystery' - a participatory theatre experience devised and delivered entirely over Zoom!
Following the success of all our online projects since May 2020, it is fair to say that we underestimated young people’s relationship with technology at points! CTC were always worried about how individuals might access the online workshops and forums, and whether they would need extra assistance. Least to say, we forgot that phones, video calls and being online is an essential part of some young people’s lives!
While we look ahead to explore the possibilities for leading in-person drama activities, I am confident CTC will continue to flourish, as long as we remain youth centred in our approach, to put young people at the heart of every programme, regardless of whether we are working online, in a school playground or socially distanced in one of our beautiful local parks.
It is with thanks to all our funding partners, including Cherwell District Council, Tourle Foundation, Ragdoll, Jack FM and the Oxford Community Foundation, who underpin and make our work possible. We have been overwhelmed by all the generous support we have received, which will enable us to support young people in our locality for years to come - whatever the changing landscape and COVID 19.
Cherwell Theatre Company