Roger Hill's speech

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Roger Hill, President of NAYT, delivered a speech about the past, present and future of Youth Theatre at our visioning day in May:

I’m grateful for the chance to share a few thoughts with you. I have been quite distant for some time from the day-to-day running of Youth Theatre, but I have kept a strong interest in the philosophy and practice, and will be glad if I can play my part in addressing what has been a crisis, is now a challenge, and will be, I hope, a renewal and a rebirth. I’m not here to provoke a division between Youth Theatre idealists or traditionalists, and Youth Theatre pragmatists. To everybody I say, We have all got some rethinking to do. In fact in my own recent performance work I have been concentrating on present situations and tracing them back to the ideals which generated them, and on how, by following an alternative path from those ideals, we might realize what they need to be now – and that is, I think, why we are here today.

I have three main thoughts to share and each has a name. I first I will call “Job Done”. Everywhere I go that which we do is thriving, it is everywhere. New Youth Theatres are being set up on a regular basis. The NAYT web-site is besieged with young people wanting to find a Youth Theatre. Ideas like “Involvement”, “Engagement”, “Participation”, “Facilitation” are used to describe project work – in fact you can hardly avoid using them if you make an application to the Arts Council, so much has the kind of work become current with arts organizations and funders. Things that we could never have dreamed of back in 1982 have been achieved – work with the digital media, social networking, large-scale events, site-specific work (though maybe we did that kind of work and never made as much of our achievements as we might have done). Everything that NAYT was set up to do has been achieved. So – Job Done.

But…..We have the Jennifer Ellison Fame Academy in my own city of Liverpool, and many such fame-school-type groups which have been set up where we cleared the ground for our work. But…..Not all engagement work has been facilitation or empowering, and much of it has been short-term. But…..we have often lost sight of the bigger picture, the politics and the history of the work. But… much project work seems to be constructed of a kit of parts, project-cliches,  - there will be a sharing, there will be “names” involved – designed to tick boxes about participants and outcomes, and to co-opt activities for other agendas. What has happened in the last few years has been a shift towards an emphasis on the  relationship between the produced work and audiences – for many funding bodies now the audience is the benchmark of work done – and away from the relationship between the producing artists and the work produced – what we in our work used to call “process”.  Something has been lost. So - Job Not Done. It is not time for business as usual in Youth Theatre – we need to reclaim our medium for its own best use.

My second thought has a name too. In the last few years I have not seen as much Youth Theatre work as I should have done but recently I went to see a performance. In many ways it promised to be exemplary, to tick many of the boxes of what an adventurous Youth Theatre should be doing now. It had a very large cast, it was site-responsive in a big warehouse venue, there was a gritty theme. As I wandered the spaces witnessing short scenes I found myself watching performances which were replete with the big sighs and behavioural tics of what I used to call “Brookside Acting” – it was as if the young people were acting out a version of the way they had been told young people behaved – and I thought (and this is the name of this thought) “We never taught them to act”. Now I have to say that what I mean by “act” is not anything derived from that wide range of current acting styles from say Mark Rylance to the verbatim plays of Alecky Blythe. By “act” I mean action, I mean having a bearing on the world. Now it happens that Jill and I have been talking about a project with Leeds University. The Department we have been talking to is concerned with a new curriculum for youth work, for citizenship. There are six elements to this curriculum – Confidence, Projection, Listening. Argumentation, Negotiation, Persuasion, - the skills needed to survive and prosper in today’s world. To them I would add two more – Media-savvy and the ability to Research, to establish the truth of things – and out of these elements I think we can derive an acting which is what our members need for themselves.

This thought led me to remember a quote which I have used before in speeches to gatherings like this. It comes from the Scottish drama critic Joyce McMillan and it refers to a 1990’s community production in Dundee which itself adventured into history and transporting the audience from venue to venue. Despite the difficult circumstances in which it was performed Joyce McMillan admired the production and she said “It all goes to show that great acting has frighteningly little to do with technique and almost everything to do with what you mean about the place and time in which you live”. “knowing what you mean,“ something about authenticity and articulation, about speaking from the intelligent heart, is what we need, as much as we did then. In Youth Theatre we have often played our strong suit, numbers and massed groups, spectacle, but we have also often neglected this aspect of our work and the fact that we need to be producing citizens before we produce theatre professionals. Some of our members will need to be good theatre professionals but all will need to be good citizens. Not just to survive the times but to change them, and for this they will need to be able to exercise leadership, and to achieve their own emancipation.

My third thought I will call simply “Development”. For the last ten years I have worked in the medium of Live Art, or Performance Art as it was once called. Two things interest me about this work beyond my own part in it. One is the way a medium dedicated to re-negotiating and radicalizing the relationship between the artist and audiences has begun to co-opt and deploy as part of its agenda those very techniques of involvement and engagement which we in our work pioneered over the decades. And I noted with particular interest that when the cull which resulted from the Arts Council establishing its list of Portfolio Organizations – a cull which, of course, took away NAYT’s financial support. – the Live Art Development Agency survived , and moderately thrived. As a similar secondary support organization to NAYT its “offer” was considered a priority. What then, should our offer have been? Well, we are not an art-form support organization in the way that puppetry or mime has support. Nor are we I think distinguished by innovation per se. Historically we have borrowed and converted performance forms and infused them with something youthful, something manifold, fresh, critical and celebratory. What would we call this quality? It is an authentic response to issues and experience derived from the special sensibility of young people, emphasizing contributions and renewal, and we might call it Authenticated Truth.

And who would pay for that – authenticated truth? I think more and more that it is to do with something I once saw as anathema to our work – Heritage – and public bodies concerned with the idea that what happens now is the result of what happened then, in the past. And if this is, in some way, our calling-card how would we deliver it? Well, I am going to dodge that question because I know that this is what we are going to be working on today.

A last thought – about context. If I had to find a previous period which pre-figures the times we are going through I might name the 1930’s, a dangerous time, when opinion and allegiances were extremely polarized and divided, and we know where all that led. To that character of the period I would add something particular to our times – mediatisation, and the thought that where once it was the street corner and the public spaces from which we decanted our membership it is now Facebook from which we need to entice our proto-citizens. This is why I have suggested that the project Jill and I are discussing be called “Occupy History” to indicate the impulse to assume a real power and influence. In all this it seems to me that the important element is the role of the Leader. I don’t just mean the professional staff who direct Youth Theatre work but any exercise of leadership by anyone involved in the work. We, our members and ourselves together, are about, if you like, devolving leadership. And historically, again, all the important developments in NAYT and beyond have come from the initiative of leaders. Leaders set it up, leaders fought for the full professionalization of our work in the early 1990’s, and so on.

You could characterize all this in an Arthurian way. We re-draw the sword from the stone, we wield it to fight for what we stand for, we set up the new kingdom – or republic of feeling as I have often chosen to call it – and there we do what we must do. Reclaim, Articulate, Occupy, Renew. But this is not the moment, people might say, the times are against us. But 1982 was not the moment, and we made our advances in the first full flood of Thatcherism. We brought a hunger for development into challenging times and we made, our own destiny, our own special energy. This time we have to begin again, to generate a new energy, a new level of power, for a new situation, and make it again. Reclaim, Articulate, Occupy, Renew.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “we cannot escape history”. 150 years ago this year he said, “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present”. He said, “the occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion”. Arriving for our gathering today, here, I have found myself hoping and expecting that this would be our occasion.

Thank you.