I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip - starring 20 Stories High Young Actors Emma Burns and Dorcas Sebuyange. Broadcast on BBC2 in February 2018. Photo: Gary Moyes
by Julia Samuels,Co-Artistic Director of 20 Stories High, an award-winning young people’s theatre company based in Liverpool and working both locally and nationally. Additional words by Nathaniel Hall.
Together with my Co-Artistic Director Keith Saha, I set up 20 Stories High twelve years ago with the aim of making high-quality theatre for young audiences, with cultural diversity and social inclusion at its heart. And crucially we wanted to collaborate creatively with young people to develop both the form and content of the work.
We created a tagline:“Everybody’s got a story to tell…and their own way of telling it…”
We have always been passionate about hearing the voices that are not widely heard and creating spaces where a much broader range of voices can be represented.
But we operate in the context of a theatre industry that feels very culturally unrepresentative of the young people we are working with.
We were frustrated when we first set up the company (a frustration that has not ceased) at how hard it was to find artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to work with here in Liverpool. This feeling seemed echoed around the country, especially outside of London.
We knew that if we were to attract a wide range of young people to our activities, we needed artists that they would find relatable. But how we might be able to do something significant to address this need?
It began with 20 Stories High Youth Theatre in 2008. We followed a fairly standard social model of youth theatre: there were no auditions or membership charges and we worked hard with outreach in schools to ensure that those who never considered theatre was for them got a chance to give it a go.
Over the years, some of that original group became more confident and needed further stretching, so we worked with them to set up a Young Actors Company. This offered a more focused and challenging space but as time passed, some of those coming through the Young Actors Company wanted to work as professional artists in their own right.
We found various ways of making that possible.
We offered some their first professional acting jobs in shows like Tales From the MP3 and ‘I Told My Mum I Was Going on an R.E. Trip…’ both of which went on successful UK tours (the latter, a co-production with Contact, Manchester, was also broadcast on BBC 2 as part of Performance Live).
Others were offered assistant directing roles for youth theatre shows, or opportunities supporting us as producers and workshop leaders when and where we could.
But the growing demand for such roles became faster than the growth of the company.
We simply didn’t have the money or resources to offer enough opportunities for everyone. We also knew that not everyone who wanted to be at the next stage was actually ready for it.
Our passion for diversity and inclusion meant that some of our young people needed considerable support making the transition into the professional arts sector. Some emerging artists we knew we could recommend and signpost as ‘industry-ready’, but others we felt weren’t quite there yet.
This September we are piloting a new programme of work - LAUNCH - aimed at culturally diverse, working-class young people in Merseyside. It’s a free-of-charge professional development programme for emerging theatre-makers
LAUNCH will kick-off with a series of ‘professional life skills’ workshops (from developing your project plan, to marketing to finances) and will also include mentoring and networking opportunities, individual training budgets, opportunities to apply for small commissions and even some paid traineeship roles further down the line.
We hope that this more formalised training offer will be the missing link in supporting some of the cohort of fired-up, diverse, working class young theatre-makers of Merseyside helping them make a success of launching their creative careers.
We also hope the rest of the theatre industry will be as excited as we are by their ideas, energy and commitment.
So, get ready to hear the amazing things they’ve got to say, and be totally bowled over by the new, dynamic ways they choose to express themselves.
To find out more about LAUNCH and 20 Stories High visit: www.20storieshigh.org.uk
Applications for LAUNCH close on Friday 29 June 2018 - download an application pack here.
Diversity, inclusion and equal access to all are the core values of 20 Stories High. Photo: Wesley Storey