An awful lot has changed since those heady days of 2009 when York Theatre Royal first launched its Takeover Festival. For three weeks the theatre’s management stood aside and handed over complete responsibility for the programming and running of the theatre to a group of under 26 year olds. What was a brave experiment has since become a tried and tested model, with many theatres around the country using youth panels or young board members to programme special seasons that engage with younger audiences. Yet in the intervening period, the climate theatres operate in has also changed considerably. You can’t help but feel that just as purse strings are tightened and budgets squeezed, the sense of urgency about getting new audiences into theatre is mounting. It is in this frankly uncertain atmosphere that the Takeover Festival returns at the end of March, where for a fortnight the theatre and its audiences will once again be at the glorious mercy of the young.

Rhiannon Jackson is the festival’s Co-Artistic Director, and, along with Tom Bellerby, is responsible for developing an artistic vision for the festival and programming shows and events accordingly: “Our main aims are to engage people who wouldn’t usually see the theatre as a night out for them, be that young people or older people, as well as engaging young people and emerging artists, starting off projects within the Theatre Royal and getting us to develop our skills.”

Rhiannon admits that before she started working on the festival she didn’t realise how hard it would be to programme for teenagers, whose demands and tastes challenge preconceptions about what appeals to them. Through consultation with a board comprised of 11-24 year olds, the team have nonetheless created a programme that Rhiannon hopes will appeal to people looking for a different experience from the theatre, as they have “purposefully chosen companies that are changing people’s theatrical experience in terms of their performance methods.”

The programming is certainly adventurous and reflects the team’s broader aims of supporting new companies and allowing them space to develop their work. York Theatre Royal’s resident company Belt Up has performed at each Takeover festival to date and will be returning this time with its first musical: a resolutely up-to-date and politically charged take on John Gay’s eighteenth century The Beggar’s Opera. There is a strong musical theme throughout the festival which also features LittleBulb Theatre‘s Operation Greenfield and Catapulting Cocoon‘s band ‘mockumentary’ Life Support, first seen at Takeover last year as part of the Hatch project. Rhiannon is clearly proud of the way Takeover has nurtured Catapulting Cocoon and helped to realise the show’s potential, as developing new work for regional theatre was the aim that motivated Hatch in the first place. “As programmers of a regional theatre we found it really hard to find interesting, alternative work that could tour to us. We want young companies to feel like it’s okay to approach theatres in the regions because audiences are there, and we want to change that old view that avant-garde theatre doesn’t come out to regions, it tends to stay in London,” Rhiannon explains.

One of the most striking inclusions in the programme is Sarah Kane’s powerful 4:48 Psychosis, which will see Rhiannon directing a cast made up entirely (though not, she says, intentionally) of under 26 year olds. As a play which deals with the subject of clinical depression, it may not be an obvious or ‘safe’ choice for a young people’s theatre festival, yet it reflects the team’s determination not to patronise their audience: “We felt that 4:48 was the right sort of play for Takeover – challenging, contemporary drama. The whole ethos of Takeover is that young people like to be challenged!” She goes on to explain: “Sarah Kane is a perfect playwright for the festival – she was a young genius and had a very strong young voice in theatre, so that was a big appeal for us. It is a really difficult piece and deals with mature themes, but this play has a real appeal to people of our age group because it is challenging and absolutely formless.”

Rhiannon hopes that the challenging nature of the some of the content will leave people thinking and talking, and it was this that further attracted her to 4:48 Psychosis. “I’m really intrigued by how well it will be received, because it’s one of those plays that does divide opinion. That’s another reason why we wanted it so much – we love it when people talk about the work. We try and programme stuff that might not be our taste but we know will get a reaction, because we think people should be talking about theatre. It’s about engaging people – what makes theatre different from going to the cinema is that you come out and somebody hates it, someone will love it, and it’s that intellectual discourse afterwards that really make a difference.”

Over the course of the fortnight the whole building will be turned over to the festival, allowing the team to create a ‘festival buzz’, with gigs, open mic nights, performance poetry and craft events happening throughout the building. “We’re trying to make it an all-round experience,” says Rhannon. “We’re trying to let people know that if you come to the theatre then you won’t have the experience you think you might have. We’ve got secret events, which were really popular last time, which are small performances provided around the building. We want people to know that it’s good to hang out in the theatre, and that if you do hang out you might see something interesting.”

I ask Rhiannon whether she thinks seasons such as Takeover Festival – programmed by and for young people – are the best way of keeping this audience engaged in theatre, or whether in some cases they can be gimmicky, or a smokescreen used to cover up a failure to use suitable programming or outreach work the rest of the year. “You’ve got to not be scared about being surprised by young people. If there is a barrier there then I think some theatres might just be a little bit reticent to deal with the fact that young people can have some really strange demands, but then have some fantastic, energetic output.”

While she sees tremendous value in a theatre dedicating all of its time and resources to young people, Rhiannon admits that some youth schemes “don’t genuinely offer the experience they market,” by not allowing young people true freedom in programming or trusting them to make mistakes. “I think it’s one of the greatest things about the industry that we work in,” Rhiannon says, going on to explain that for herself and Tom complete artistic freedom has been accompanied by the responsibility of making decisions and solving problems when things went wrong. “You couldn’t imagine a banker just doing this, but they can say to us ‘just go and do it’, and they’re so trusting and supportive.” In return for this freedom, the confidence and skills the young team have gained will benefit the theatre for years to come: “from the very beginning we’ve always been treated as future cultural leaders, and the training we receive now is going to add to our future.”

York Theatre Royal is perhaps uniquely enlightened in its approach to letting the younger generation of theatre-makers have free rein to practise their craft, and the results can be seen across the national fringe. “It does seem to be a hotbed for new talent,” Rhiannon laughs, when I ask what makes York so special in fostering new talent and question (only half-jokingly) whether there might be something in the water. “We’re lucky here. We have two universities and the students aren’t shy in getting out and sharing what they’re doing, which produces some exciting stuff. But York Theatre Royal really does see younger people as the lifeblood of the theatre, and if we don’t develop these audiences now then who is going to come to the theatre in the future? The idea of people saying theatre is a dying art form does not exist here. The whole atmosphere is easy-access – everyone’s willing to meet for a coffee with you to share ideas on whatever level. I think that has a lot to do with it. There aren’t many boundaries to people getting involved here.”

Creating appealing theatre and environments to lure young people through the door is one thing, but for many the issue of cost is a harder barrier to overcome. For its part, Takeover is continuing the free ticketing scheme that was initially introduced under the soon to be defunct A Night Less Ordinary, meaning that for a large proportion of the target audience the whole festival will be open to them for absolutely nothing. Yet the responsibility to keep young people engaged in theatre goes both ways, and Rhiannon suggests that young audiences themselves have a duty to support theatre if they want it in turn to value them too. “To be honest, young audiences are quite unpredictable in the way they buy tickets. They tend to make decisions last minute, whereas an older person may look through a brochure and plan ahead. It’s a contract – young people who want to go to the theatre have to see that they have a role in going to it.”

Underpinning the whole ethos of the Takeover Festival is the feeling that a programme for young people can have much wider benefits for the artistic environment above and beyond the simple aim of getting pert bums on seats. “I hope it changes people’s perceptions about how regional theatre, young people and new theatre collide,” Rhiannon says. In the short term however, she just hopes the team’s hard work over the past year pays off and that people make the most of the opportunity on offer. “With funding cuts and the way finances are going now in theatres, I don’t know whether people can genuinely expect to have this experience in the future, either as a theatregoer or as someone who wants to volunteer.” The sad truth is, as the financial climate gets tougher for theatres, both the necessity and difficulty of initiatives for younger people such as the Takeover Festival will grow and it is down to both theatres and audiences to “realise how special the opportunity is and take it!”

TakeOver is A Night Less Ordinary and Arts Council England scheme supported by York employer CPP. It runs at the York Theatre Royal from 14 – 26 March, and tickets are available here.