SOUNDBITE: THEATRE PARTICIPATION
Friday 10th April, 2020
This is a soundbite from the forthcoming episode with Jenna Omeltschenko, Touring Partnership Manager at the National Theatre. The full interview will be on the next episode coming soon and you can subscribe via any of the normal places you get your podcast - links at bottom of this page - or via this page right here.
The context for this clip is my question to Jenna about something that I've found quite common - a perception (often whispered quietly) that working in theatre education, or outreach and participation work is "less than" the "real" shows. It prompted such an impassioned response that it felt right to share it in its entirety. As with all episodes of the Humanish podcast, a whole transcript is available below.
Over the last 10 years I've interviewed hundreds of people and without a doubt, my favourite moments are when a guest doesn't have to think or pause to or craft a response because the passion is natural and they're just speaking their truth. It inspires me and I then hope it has the same effect on you the listener. Sometimes, I have to think of what question will be the right spark to get a response. Then there's the challenge of editing those responses to flow and knit together. However. For this next bit, I'm just gonna to let Jenna's full response play out in full. Because when you work in the arts, you find yourself having to justify it a lot – why is it important? In particular there is a tendency to be a bit...snooty about those who work in schools or do theatre in education or participation. It was this topic that prompted this response from Jenna that I think perfectly sums up why ensuring that all children not just experience the arts, why making it possible for everyone one of them to have the same opportunities to tell and share their stories is absolutely vital.
I tweet about this all the time and I'm known for being quite irate about it, whether it's in the pub, or whether it's on twitter, or it's in a work environment. The idea that participation and learning, and all of that is seen as “less than” is one of the most short sighted thing that this industry could do, or think. Where are the audiences of the future coming from? Who's going to sit and buy tickets and fill those seats in your theatres? Who's going to be the new directors and actors, the people who revolutionise this industry and take it forward? If it isn't young people then who is it? And how do you get to them? Where do you find them? If budgets and time and all of these cuts are happening for Drama teachers and for art subjects? Those cuts aren't happening in the independent schools, they're not happening at Eton. They're happening in the state schools in areas like Rochdale and Sunderland and Wolverhampton. That's where it's hitting hard. Which means that working class kids, or kids with less opportunity, or kids from poorer backgrounds. They're the ones who won't make it through to being the director of the future, to being the head of the National Theatre, to being in my job, to producing the work, to deciding what stories get told. My worry is that we've made strides in the industry forward over the last ten years and there's some incredible people now heading up amazing venues in London and across the country, here in Manchester at the Royal Exchange with Roy [Alexander Weise] and Bryony [Shanahan] but if you stop the feeding ground of all that, which is getting to young people from diverse backgrounds, from different backgrounds, who maybe don't see their future in theatre, who don't have that sense of entitlement from birth or from a young age, then all that change stagnates and stops. It's not only about who will be running the buildings in twenty or thirty years, who will be making the work, who will be deciding what stories get told, who will be on the stages, but who will be in the audience? So, the idea that this work is less than is super short sighted. My director of learning, Alice [King-Farlow] put it beautifully about eighteen months ago: in terms of audience development we play the long game. We're here for the next ten, twenty, thirty years, we're to make sure that people still care in twenty, thirty years. For me that comes from not just schools touring – there are so many wonderful organisations across the UK doing this work. Hopefully, what we're doing at the National and what we want to do, is a massive part of that.