“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying.” Adopting a harsh new resonance in light of funding cuts and tuition fee increases, this sentiment has never been truer for young performers and youth theatre organisations alike. Yet the Lyric Hammersmith is taking a decisive step towards tackling the limitations facing youth theatres nationwide.
In a groundbreaking collaboration between a youth theatre and an independent school, the Lyric Young Company (LYC) is joining forces with St Paul’s School to perform FAME! Involving young performers from both organisations, this partnership is redefining the role of youth theatre within the wider community, revolutionising the way young people’s creativity is supported financially and transcending the boundaries that have kept drama students in the classroom instead of where they belong – on the stage.
A lack of financial support for youth theatres pre-dates the 2011 spending cuts. In 2008, the National Association of Youth Theatres (NAYT) spoke out against the decision of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education) to remove its financial backing from the organisation. The shortfall was aggravated further when the NAYT lost its Arts Council England funding. It now faces closure. Whilst the DCMS’s manifesto proclaims that children should be able to take part in the arts both in and outside school, it is individual organisations that must make participation in theatre not only possible, but accessible to all.
Charitable agency Action for Children’s Arts highlights a key contention in current drama provision: the tension between the artistic and educational objectives of youth arts organisations. Not a product of funding cuts, it’s true, but certainly a problem that has grown now that grants have diminished. Yet the agendas of youth theatres and school drama programmes are one and the same: they both encourage engaged creativity in participants. The FAME! project seeks to harness the artistic solidarity of schools and theatres in a bid to secure a new level of involvement and financial support for youth theatre.
Adam Coleman, Head of Young People’s Strategy at the Lyric Hammersmith, seeks “to develop partnerships with schools and colleges in our local area, both in the state and independent sectors, and at primary, secondary, further and higher education level”. Universities have long implemented this ethos, with applied drama programmes at Central School of Speech and Drama championing local, national and international industry collaboration. However, the advent of £9,000 yearly tuition fees has necessitated industry exposure at an earlier stage. Tamasha Theatre Company’s response to this was to embark upon an innovative scheme to script a new piece of writing about and for a specific inner London community in partnership with the Mulberry School for girls in Tower Hamlets. The Lyric/St Paul’s production of FAME! is similarly specific and self-referential. Krystal Dockery, who plays Iris, notes, “The FAME! story is quite like what we’ve done”. In both narrative and philosophy, FAME! explicitly dramatises the complex but mutually dependent relationship between the teaching of drama and the production of professional shows.
Professionalism drives the project, highlighting the potential for youth theatre to support, engage and enthuse without ostracising, patronising or underestimating. Edward Williams, Director of Drama at St Paul’s, is at the artistic helm, and Karolina Czerniak, Head of Dance at Tiffin School for Boys, has choreographed the show. Preye Crooks, who plays Tyrone, comments: “It’s hard work, but that makes a quality show at the end. Karolina has been great – she’s had to teach all the dance moves to the St Paul’s boys which must have been a challenge!” Crooks adds, “We’ve really learnt from each other”, emphasising the immersive and reciprocally beneficial nature of youth theatre. Refreshingly, the organisers are just as aware of the advantages, with Coleman noting with pleasure that the Lyric “is far more alive when it is full of young people!”
Community cohesion is at the heart of the Lyric’s Young People’s Strategy. The LYC’s membership consists of a “diverse range of young people drawn from across West London”, and its Creative Learning strand established the foundation that enabled the FAME! collaboration. Coleman explains that the theatre works with teachers to develop projects specifically for individual schools and GCSE or A-level students alongside “extra-curricular enrichment activities or use of the Lyric’s facilities for schools and colleges to deliver work themselves”. The Lyric nurtures these relationships, with Coleman affirming, “There is ample and persuasive research evidence that students exposed to theatre perform better in school, have more consistent attendance, demonstrate more empathetic behaviour towards others, and have greater self-esteem”. The result of this, Coleman continues, is that “we see massive improvements in young people’s concentration, imagination, collaboration and listening skills, all of which improve academic performance and are undeniably invaluable in the work place and in everyday interactions with people”.
It is the support of local schools such as St Paul’s (which first approached the theatre with the concept for FAME!) that has enabled the Lyric to combine the educational, vocational and creative aspects of youth theatres to offer opportunities for professional interaction. This in itself breeds enthusiasm and commitment of a professional standard in the cast, with Dockery and Crooks agreeing that “everyone is really willing to put in the effort to make FAME! great” and demonstrate their skills across “the triple threat of acting, singing and dancing”. Herein lies the heart of the collaboration: making professional theatre available to young people without patronising or diminishing their dedication, passion and abilities.
FAME! has used the unique nature of its collaborative origins to encourage new methods of funding youth theatre. With Gold and Silver Gala Evening tickets available alongside regular tickets for the show, the partners hope to attract the support of parents, stakeholders and St Paul’s alumni. Coleman points out that profits will be “shared between the Lyric and St Paul’s and reinvested into future projects with young people”. This sets the stage for future collaborations, but also takes the onus away from membership fees in an attempt to make youth theatre more readily, and more widely, available. Other projects for 2011/12 include a summer outreach project with three local secondary schools and a project with the Bridge Academy Pupil Referral Unity in Hammersmith – community development is clearly on the rise in the area. Reassessing relationships between creative and educational arts organisations in the UK is nonetheless a lengthy process that must reach beyond the support of local independent schools. But as projects such as FAME! begin to attract attention, the need for re-evaluation is affirmed and begins to take root.
Above and beyond the financial rewards of creative partnerships, it is the community spirit they create that perhaps benefits the participants the most. In producing FAME!, each organisation has given something of themselves – their passion, ambition and resourcefulness – to the other in order to support the foundations of successful youth theatre enterprises: accessible opportunities, educational balance, financial sustainability and artistic integrity. Let this spirit of unity and creative camaraderie flourish beyond the pastures of West London and, in the immortal words of Dean Pitchford and Irene Cara, live forever.
FAME! is at the Lyric Hammersmith from Thursday 18th – Saturday 20th August with gala performances on Friday and Saturday night.