The Value of Participation in Theatre: Theatre Peckham and the Magic Paintbrush

I'm already a massive fan of Theatre Peckham and have worked with them this year to carry out some research into what it is that young people value most about participating in drama, theatre and performance.

On Saturday 13th December 2014 I saw Theatre Peckham's Christmas production The Magic Paintbrush at the Canada Water Culture Space. It's a show suitable for children age 3 and upwards.

I'm already a massive fan of Theatre Peckham and have worked with them this year to carry out some research into what it is that young people value most about participating in drama, theatre and performance. It's important to me to see the work that the company makes with young people so I took my own children along to see this show. We know the story well and read Julia Donaldson's version often.

The Theatre Peckham production included young performers aged around 6 or 7 up to young adults who have participated in one of the courses over the year.

The company employ professional actors in the larger scale public productions too. This adds a level of experience and proficiency to the rehearsal room as well as providing role models - people who are working actors, navigating the world of work within the creative and cultural sector.

The research I undertook with Theatre Peckham is intended to be a critical step in setting up a two-year post-16 performing arts course for those aspiring to enter into education and employment in these sectors. We carried out interviews with young people from Theatre Peckham, two schools and a college in the London Borough of Southwark and London Bubble, another theatre organisation that provides education and training for young people. The young people were all aged between 14 and 21 years.

The interviews focused on their experiences of participating in drama, theatre and performance-related activities in various areas of their lives including school and youth arts providers such as Theatre Peckham, London Bubble and the National Youth Theatre. For some of the interviewees it also included work experience (paid and unpaid).

The majority of the young people interviewed described a deep sense of enjoyment as a significant and valuable aspect of their participation. Some described the pleasure they gained from a sense of achievement, a feeling of reward after working hard at something and the enjoyment of release or escape from the everyday as they took on a character's thoughts and experiences.

One person spoke about participating in drama and theatre as being "one of the greatest pleasures on earth."

Participants at Theatre Peckham and London Bubble valued the different subject content and the different working methods in those setting, compared to the content and approaches experienced through GCSE Drama in school. Approximately half of those interviewed said that the environment created by their teachers (both in schools and in theatre organisations) was invaluable to them. Some spoke of feeling comfortable, and feeling a strong sense of belonging. Some valued the relationships they built with peers as well as with staff. One participant talked about being challenged by working with a new group after being encouraged by a teacher at Theatre Peckham to apply for the National Youth Theatre. He described an initial feeling of being outside his own community and feeling very different to this new group but that the experience led him to challenge his own views of other people in a positive way.

The young people we spoke to reported using their skills which were cultivated in drama-related activities in a wide range of other areas of their studies and lives such as presentations in class and interacting with people generally. One participant said she felt the skills she had learned in Drama would be useful for her as a future Primary School teacher. One respondent commented that she had enjoyed learning about the political and historical context of events after performing political plays, and that it had increased her knowledge and understanding of historical events.

Perhaps the strongest way in which arts and culture contribute toward citizenship and social inclusion is by strengthening social capital - social relations and interactions between people that can have a range of positive effects. Indeed, this echoes Atkinson and Robson's research demonstrating that activities outside the curriculum and everyday routine are important factors in developing positive relationships with others. There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation and/or make communities feel safer and stronger (Mowlah et al., 2014: 33).

Atkinson, Sarah and Mary Robson (2012) Arts and health as practice of liminality: Managing the spaces of transformation for social and emotional wellbeing with primary school children, Health and Place 18: 1348-55.

Mowlah, Andrew, Vivien Niblett, Jonathon Blackburn and Marie Harris (2014) The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an Evidence Review. 2nd edn. London: Arts Council.

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