The future of the left since 1884

Taking centre stage

We must value the art young people create and resource them with good quality facilities, writes Deborah Bestwick.



On any given early evening at the Ovalhouse theatre in South London, you could find our café buzzing; young people with rucksacks sprawled on the stage, sitting on the steps or lounging on the sofas; actors who have been on TV; a director or writer who regularly gains five-star reviews in the Guardian; dancers from Corali Dance Company, that work with people who have learning disabilities; and elders from the Windrush generation who are part of Stockwell Good Neighbours, the charity who make Ovalhouse their base.

Our theatre, like many others across the United Kingdom, is social cohesion in action. And what brings all these people together is interest, engagement, and activity in the arts. In a world where economic polarisation and ideological differences push people apart, tensions – where they exist – evaporate, as shared creative endeavour brings people closer. In laughter, stories, empathy, and respect. There are many anecdotal case studies from Ovalhouse about sudden moments of understanding, whether it be when a group of 14-year-old newcomers encountered artist Alison Lapper, who is disabled, and it instantly changed their perception of disability; or the delightful cross-generational project between our Young Associates (young artists in training) and Stockwell Good Neighbours, learning to bake bread together in our café.

An inclusive organisation like Ovalhouse ensures that all voices are heard through the arts, and all members of our community can question their own and other’s perceived truths of the world. No one needs to give children and young people creativity and an imagination, but the youth arts organisations and artists lend a framework through which stories told and imaginations can bring truth and challenge to us all. Without the skills and outlet of an arts education and performance arena, we run the risk of gagging a generation and missing the all-important unheard voices. The arts rely on innovation, the constant re-invention and re-illumination of the way we see things. Without the resources to nurture young artists, we risk turning our world-leading arts into a heritage industry.

As ideas become ever more complex and sometimes hard to negotiate, the arts give young people an arena in which to test ideas and ask questions. The thin veil of fiction allows those of even violently opposing views to discuss their truths in a safe way.

How can a forward-looking government support young people to take their rightful place centre stage? Based on our experience at Ovalhouse some important ingredients of a healthy arts provision would include:

A place to go
An arts facility that is welcoming and open to children and young people, and where they have the same priority as adult professional artists. In coming to a mixed environment away from school, college or family, young people re-invent themselves. They engage as a young artist, not as ‘resident from a certain postcode’ or ‘year 9, not good at art’. They step into themselves as artists and citizens, bringing with them their potential, not their baggage.

A platform
A place to perform, a place to exhibit, broadcast or publish. This gives public profile to the talents and ideas of young people, in a way that makes us take notice. Giving access to our stages gives young people the opportunity to contribute to their communities, and to be taken seriously.

Open-access projects
Whilst targeted and inclusionary work has its place as an entry point or means of access, it is the very escape of identity that enables young people to develop the confidence of a young citizen and bring their voice, through the arts, into a mixed integrated space. At Ovalhouse we do have targeted projects for young people with disabilities, young migrants and refugees, and we are starting a research project into the role of the arts in supporting young women with mental health issues. But from each of these projects, we have provided stable stepping stones into open-access projects, where all young people can work together. The inclusion projects have taught us the ethical and practical considerations which are needed to support all young people in an open-access environment. There is no point in advertising a Youth Theatre and expecting it to be full of young people experiencing significant barriers, unless you are able to support them. Arts policy has sometimes tended to focus on access or talent development – there needs to be a holistic spectrum.

For the arts to be meaningful, there has to be a spectrum of stories told by the people who need to tell them to the people who need to hear. The unheard voices are the most valuable in enabling us to understand and, where necessary, change our society. We cannot do this without the authentic voices of a range of artists. Supported by a diverse staff, inspired by a variety of artists working in different cultural styles, attractive to an audience of the whole community, and signalled as such. Diversity makes a space safe. “I love it at Ovalhouse, nobody is different because everyone is different,” said actor Storme Toolis, a wheelchair user, when she was a member of our youth theatre. Young people have a strong sensor for box-ticking fakery, as is evident from the spoken word performance quoted in the box. They need to know that their experience will be free from paternalism and prejudice.

We must hand over skills to young people, so that they can take ownership of their own work. This means co-producing with young people, letting their ideas and content take centre stage. Create spaces of support where young people can make art, as they wish, beyond the demands of curriculum and attainment targets. Free them to create and express on their own terms, and give them the support and skills to make their work of the best possible quality. Understand exactly what they are doing, respecting their beliefs, experiences, and frustrations – which are not always the same as adult cultural managers’.

Let’s not assume that access to the arts always means a ticket to the opera or a naturalistic play or the ballet. Everyone has the right to see our subsidised cultural ‘greats’ but let’s also take notice of what young people produce for themselves and respect their artforms. It doesn’t always mean we offer young people graff art, as the default, but it means that where they use graff with wit and originality – as in London’s South Bank skate park – there should be an acknowledgement of that. Young people have raced ahead using digital media to produce and distribute music, so let’s support them in that, and give them academic credits and qualifications and the transferable skills to exploit their talent. Young artists at Ovalhouse have a taste for immersive and interactive theatre, finding it more democratic and inclusive than the ‘fourth wall’ of a traditional stage. Likewise, spoken word has sprung up as a way in which young people can use lyricism and music to take ideas to an audience live or digitally, without the big costs often associated with other artforms. Resource young people to support their work with good quality facilities – recording studios, theatre facilities, a gallery that shows their work off well. Let’s value their work.

Access to great artists
The narrowing of the school experience to preclude trips and cut budgets for artists in residence often means that young people have no contact with professional artists. The situation is such that you can now pass GCSE drama without ever seeing a play live on stage. The digital reproduction is sufficient. At Ovalhouse our theatre company members are tutors, and vice versa. Young people share the same spaces and see each others’ work. We build into big projects a budget for taking young people to a wide range of performances and events – to give them a palette of styles and approaches, and inspiration for their own work. Last summer a group made a piece about their relationship with the health service inspired by the non-naturalistic techniques used in The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time.

Youth arts funding is awash with small grants, for short projects, generally designed to address gang membership, or mental health or transphobia or some such important issue. We can do a bit with this. We can create a small gateway into longer programmes of engagement. But it takes more than six months to make an impact in challenging areas. It could take 10 years. And if you can make a small difference, it will best endure with a long term stable exit strategy – in the form of ongoing well-supported inclusive open-access work. We need established core funding for that. Specialist targeted services are invaluable, but they are so often made available only to small, grassroots or volunteer organisations – though these are also invaluable. In the last year, I have twice been encouraged to apply for anti-gang funding because of our proven success in work with those ‘at risk’ – only to find that we are not eligible because of our turnover.

And sometimes the ‘big moment’ for a young person occurs through an unexpected adventure. I worked with a young woman who had been referred to many projects for sexual abuse survivors. She was then offered a sailing holiday and came back buzzing. “They let me sail the yacht, a massive yacht”. Her view of her own self-worth and capability took a leap forward the moment she took the tiller, and from that moment she was confident and creative in our Youth Theatre. You can see her name in lights these days, but of course, I won’t tell you who she is.

Amongst Ovalhouse funders, we commend the Co-operative Foundation which initially funded us for three years to enable young people to make a place for themselves to establish The Truth About Youth – a project designed to turn the widespread negative image of young people on its head. Seeing the effect of this work, they extended the funding for five years. This saw over 20  participants gain professional employment in the arts amid hundreds who took part and made an impact in their communities. Our national and civic agencies often want a quick win, but the arts, though effective as therapy, (where the participant is a ‘patient with problems’) are arguably most valuable where the unexpected adventure brings us all closer to the debates and celebrations within society. Let the arts speak for itself and give it time and resources.

The participatory arts sector in the UK is a worldwide leader in terms of methodologies and innovation. The social and economic impact can be measured. For children and young adults growing up in the 2020s, I would like to see policies which:

  • Ensure that every young person has reasonable access to participatory arts provision. This requires investment – perhaps matched government funding for local authorities that invest in local provision, or support for a business improvement district, that invests in the arts as part of a healthy regeneration of an area. A percentage of corporate tax could be invested locally, in arts provision.
  • Respect the value of young people as artists as well as young audiences or recipients of education about the arts. Invest in partnerships between young people and artists and invest in those who provide training and development for a diverse new generation of artists. This needs to happen both inside the formal education system, and in more informal settings.
  • Respect the value of young people as artists as well as young audiences or recipients of education about the arts. Invest in partnerships between young people and artists and invest in those who provide training and development for a diverse new generation of artists. This needs to happen both inside the formal education system, and in more informal settings.
  • Establish the leadership of UK practice on an international stage. Let’s make opportunities for our young artists to be ambassadors, to engage in international dialogue through the arts, undertake fellowships, host young people from other cultures and engage in peer learning.

This essay is taken from Growing Up in the 2020s, a new Fabian Society report in partnership with NASUWT. Read it here.

Deborah Bestwick

Deborah Bestwick is director of the south London theatre and youth arts organisation Ovalhouse.


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