I’ve been reading and listening to quite a lot of discussion about the state of Theatre for Young audiences in the UK, and how this will affect future audiences for theatre. One worrying theory appears to be emerging that plays experienced in schools (Theatre in Education) is largely to blame for young people’s reluctance to engage with theatre elsewhere.

Although the arguments are complex I’m going to invite discussion on three main areas:

• Quality
• Access
• Competition

There seems to be an idea that if a piece of theatre is written to fit into the school curriculum that it must be in some way artistically compromised. The main argument seems to be that young actors see Theatre in Education work as a way to get a start in the business, and that this has meant some companies produce work that is not as high quality as it should be. Of course there is bad work out there, but it is not the majority case. Until recent cuts hit hard there were a number of excellent companies with highly skilled actors touring across the country. A few are still hanging on in there, and amongst these companies is Big Brum, based in the West Midlands. I had the pleasure of seeing them in action at Warwick Arts Centre this weekend, where they performed Edward Bond’s ‘The Broken Bowl’. This was an extremely complex piece of theatre that could only have been delivered in an educational setting where the themes and dynamics of the piece could be unpicked by skilled actor/teachers. In no way was the writer’s artistic vision compromised, in fact it seemed to be stimulated by the opportunities offered by working in a setting where young audiences could be safely taken on an extraordinary journey.

Many young people’s only access to theatre is through companies that visit their school, or on trips to see a Panto at Christmas. Is that something that should worry the theatre community? I’m not sure it is, as exposure to performances, good or bad, will develop young people’s ability to view theatre critically. It’s unrealistic to think that all of them will become lifelong theatregoers, but if enough of them do then theatre still has a future. The aspect of this debate that worries me most is that theatre professionals themselves value work in theatres more highly than work in schools. My own company has been booked back more than twenty times by many schools, so we must be doing something right, but I recently spoke to an award winning playwright whose plays for young audiences appear in theatres across the UK, and when I asked who attended these performances the answer was ‘mostly yummy mummies’. Theatre in schools therefore has to be valued as a way of giving access to all young people to experience imaginative and creative explorations of their world.


It seems to me that the greatest threat to future audiences is the competition from film and television. Theatre can be seen as sitting in a darkened room where you can’t eat or drink, and can’t text or get up and wander around to chat to your mates, and all that at a price that is often well above going to the cinema where the production values are much higher. This was typical of the feedback given from young people after the recent ‘free ticket’ scheme failed to reach its full potential. When money is tight, it’s a difficult argument to challenge. Can any stage production challenge the experience of viewing an episode of Dr Who at home for free? Of course it can! Theatre in schools can allow young audiences to explore the power of live drama, and plays in theatres can allow young audiences and family groups to experience the unique and extraordinary talent we have in the UK.

IN CONCLUSION: I warmly invite feedback on any of the points I’ve raised.

Views: 86

Tags: TIE, access, audiences, discussion, quality

Comment by Samantha Butler on November 23, 2012 at 14:40

Hi Jarek, this is a great blog post, thanks for starting a discussion on this, I'm hoping that someone else will respond to your points, but until then, here are some thoughts.

I think that until we develop into a country which values its children, all work produced for them will be considered inferior to work for adults.

I think that all work for children must have high production values and not patronise young people.

I think that companies making work in educational settings and making theatre for young people must pay their performers wages comparable to those they would receive when doing 'real' plays. It must not be the job they took because nothing better came along. This is of course linked to my first point on valuing children and valuing the good companies out there making excellent work.

I think that all companies should make work for adults and work for children. That would solve the performer perception problem!

I think that work for children should not need to be linked to learning. When I go to the theatre or an exhibition I'm not expected to fill in a work sheet or tick boxes as evidence of my learning outcomes. Children have the right to experience art, full stop. 

That does not mean that we shouldn't have TIE; when done well, theatre is a valuable tool for learning and there should be more of it. But I do think we should be taking children out of school buildings to experience art whenever possible, only then will a quick trip to a gallery or theatre or dance house become the usual for them.

I think that seeing the annual pantomime does no harm at all, though there are some bad ones out there, I've seen some crackers too! BUT it must be offered alongside other art experiences.

Comment by Jarek Adams on November 28, 2012 at 14:56

Hi Samantha, thanks for responding to my piece. I've been trying very hard to stimulate debate about theatre for young audiences, and thought this forum would be a bit more lively.  I think it will always be the problem that theatre for young audiences is seen as less important than 'grown-up' theatre, but I'll keep trying to create work that values kids and young people as audiences.

Comment by Samantha Butler on December 13, 2012 at 14:17

Here here to that! Jarek, have you seen the arts council blog? blog.artscouncil.org.uk  They are talking and debating about quality og work for young people. Maybe have a look and try to fire things up there a bit. We'd love for some more lively debate here, its exactly what it's for, I'm hoping all the artists are just too busy making brilliant work for children to stop and talk about it!

Comment by Jarek Adams on December 14, 2012 at 10:42

I just think there can't be creation without conversation!  Will take a look at the arts council blog - thanks!

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