Enter the Youngsters

Unicorn Theatre London

Unicorn Young Company – Courtesy of Unicorn Theatre London

LONDON, United Kingdom — Theatre is often seen as the preserve of adults: a grown-up art for middle-class, middle-aged audiences, a form of entertainment more removed from younger generations than music, film, or even dance. Theatre can also be seen somewhat stuffy and often too expensive for anyone who does not have a full paying job yet – and most young people do fall within this category. This stereotype is belied by many of today’s exciting trends – from outdoors theatre that takes up whole streets and squares in our cities to the multiplying forms of immersive theatre and the attempts by many of the major theatres to introduce cheap tickets to entice younger theatre-goers. Yet, what about theatre made by young people and for them?

Beyond the school productions that many of us remember with dread, there are a few professional theatres that have taken up the challenge of making high-quality productions for younger audiences, and in many occasions have established young companies in which children and teenagers are actually at the centre of the creative and production process. The London-based Unicorn Theatre is a perfect example of a professional theatre that is trying to bridge this gap – with theatre made by professional actors for young audiences, flanked by the Young Company, a permanent theatre project that works with London teenagers aged 13-18. The Unicorn Young Company’s director, Ellen Edwin-Scott, explains about the two strands of work at the Unicorn Theatre, and how they interact with each other:

“The Young Company is an inclusive project that anyone can join, there is no audition process. We make work that draws on our member’s interests and experiences and perform in the theatre spaces here. The Young Company come to Unicorn Productions and work with our staff to create and promote their work. Sometimes, they are invited to help with the development of a piece, as audience at an early stage in the life of a project for example. They sometimes get involved with marketing for the building and we ask their advice about a whole range of things within the building. But mostly they function more or less as an independent theatre company under the umbrella of the Unicorn.”

Unicorn Theatre London

Unicorn Young Company – Courtesy of Unicorn Theatre London

How do you promote your activities to different groups, and are you able to engage with young people from different social and educational backgrounds? How do you recruit new members?

We have a long waiting list for the Young Company. Largely through word of mouth, and young people come to us for a lot of different reasons. Some are particularly interested in theatre and have the project recommended by a teacher or a friend. Some others are shy and looking for opportunities to socialise outside their usual sphere. Many live very locally, some come to us through one of our schools projects, and we fast-track applications from participants on our access projects. We also seek partnerships with relevant local organisations, for example Southwark Connexions Service.

How are members of the Young Company involved in the different stages of the creative process?

This depends largely on the project. We work a lot with autobiographical material, and most of the time we make up our own plays and stories rather than using a script. That feels like the most useful way to work with a broad age range and a mixed group that might have varying levels of literacy. Having said that, we recently asked three playwrights to work with our groups to create a set of short plays about parenting. The young people were very much involved with the first part of that process, improvising short scenes for the writers and talking over ideas. But in the end they really enjoyed working with a script and bringing the playwright’s words to life. Young Company mostly work with adult directors, although this summer one of our members is writing and directing his own play. He has been offered 2 weeks at Unicorn to work with 10 young actors to bring this script to life. He is 17 and this is the first time he has written and directed a play, so we are offering him some support from an adult dramaturg.

How does the company as a whole draw upon the experiences of its individual young members and nurture their skills?

It is important for us that all of our member’s contributions are valued equally, and that they can all access the work we do at the same level. That ethos is built into the way we work. The easiest way to describe that is to say that we start from the group and then plan the art, rather than the other way around. For example, when we made a piece of work about space travel we collected loads of facts and stories from the group – what exactly is space? What would you do if you went to the moon? When have you felt really small? When we had collected lots of material, we used that material to make a play that reflected everyone’s responses. Young Company is not a training programme but our members learn about performance through working with experienced practitioners from within the building and further afield. Over the course of their time here, we get to know them well so we can give them individual help and advice.

How and to what extent do members of the Young Company interact with professional actors and theatre-makers within the broader Unicorn setting?

Year-round the Young Company work with their regular director and a couple of assistants who might be directors or actors at an earlier stage in their career. They work with our production team, sometimes quite closely, on summer projects and other performances. And they work with visiting theatre practitioners. A couple of recent examples would be Joeri Smet, from Ontroroend Goed (a Belgian Theatre Company); Steven Camden aka Polarbear (a playwright and performance poet); and Non Zero One (An interactive theatre company)

What do youngsters who have been in the Young Company do once they ‘grow up’?

Young Company have a whole range of jobs when they leave Unicorn and ‘grow up’. Of those now in their early twenties I can think of one person who is a published poet, one who is a youth theatre facilitator, and many who are still at university studying lots of different things. One 18 year-old is already directing his own plays in London fringe theatres. Some go into the creative industries, but many go into totally unrelated professions. We do not have an agenda as far as this is concerned. If some want to go on and act then great, but we are not really a training programme, it is just about something you enjoy doing in your life.

The Unicorn Young Company’s next production – When I Think About The Universe I Laugh For No Reason – will run from 28 – 30 August, 2014. For more information click: here

Courtesy of and Photography by: Ellen Edwin-Scott, Unicorn Theatre | Website: www.unicorntheatre.com
Emma De Angelis About the author

A historian by training and editor by profession, reviews the glittering lights of the West End, unsuspected ballet classes in shabby Whitechapel and edgy shows in disused railway tunnels. With a PhD from LSE, she lives and breathes the London stage.