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The National Youth Theatre's dramatic approach to the question of identity

Children’s author Richard MacSween looks at a National Youth Theatre initiative to reach out to new audiences

Issue No. 2065

Young people in the National Youth Theatre rehearsing a production of the Deptford Tales (Pic: National Youth Theatre)

Young people in the National Youth Theatre rehearsing a production of the Deptford Tales (Pic: National Youth Theatre)

It’s the final performance of a new play. One of the main performers has never acted before, but he’s doing really well. Then, in the middle of the show, his mobile rings.

Everything stops. He takes the call. “Oh, hi! Sorry, mate, I can’t talk right now. I’m in the middle of this play thing.” And then, hardly pausing for breath, he carries on with the performance.

Rebecca Manley hopes the question of mobile phones has been resolved for her current project. Called Identity 1000, it has been set up by the National Youth Theatre (NYT) to try and connect to people who normally wouldn’t go near drama.

It involves young people who’ve been in trouble with the police, most of whom have been excluded from school.

“The NYT realised its reach wasn’t as wide as it should be,” explained Rebecca. “Excluded and at-risk young people have as much to offer as those who are more successful in traditional terms – and they are often more artistically interesting.”

Identity 1000 is running in four parts of the country – Kent, the West Midlands, Barrow and Tower Hamlets in east London. It focuses on the heritage of these four areas and the identity of the people living there.

“We recruit as widely as possible and never turn anybody down,” says Rebecca. “It’s crucial that individuals themselves choose to come on board – we don’t do the selecting.

“The group itself decides how it will work. If we imposed rules it wouldn’t work. They’ve already suffered a disciplinary system in schools and anything that smacks of traditional ‘teaching’ would be doomed.”


Rebecca is struck by how the group can encourage a cooperative spirit. “Take the issue of mobiles. To begin with this group decided to allow people to keep them switched on, but increasingly they realised how disruptive it could be – so now they want them switched off.

“But the important thing is this pressure has come from other members of the group, not from us. In other words, they’re learning about how to work as members of a group, and that’s one of the main points of what we’re doing.”

But as well as getting on with each other, the group also has to devise a piece of drama to be performed in three weeks’ time in a non-theatre space.

The Tower Hamlets group’s first week was spent in research, looking at the history of the people who live in the area, such as Jews and Bengalis, and traditions such as music hall.

In the second week they have focused on their own ideas of identity. They are now coming up with a play – which has to be ready for Saturday at the Tower of London!

This is no holiday – it’s hard work undertaken voluntarily by young people, many of whom have been written off as failures.

Rebecca has also worked on domestic violence projects, designed to address young people’s attitudes and prevent domestic violence happening. Dramatic method has been invaluable here too.

“We have produced a DVD which can be used by teachers for discussion, but we also use ‘forum theatre’ in schools. This involves a short scripted drama, performed first by actors, but it is then performed again with some of the young people taking part. This time round the play can be stopped, changed, and discussed, as the group decides.

“Because the issue of domestic violence is approached through invented characters and situations people feel able to talk without becoming too defensive or personal. Drama creates a very useful space for ideas to develop.”

Funding is scarce and unreliable – the NYT is a charity – so there aren’t nearly enough of these projects. In addition Rebecca believes that more schoolteachers could use drama if they felt confident about how to do it. Training teachers is an important part of her work.


But she has no doubts about the benefits of drama being used in this way. “To anybody who said it was a waste of time and we should be concentrating on work training, I’d say – come and see what happens to the young people who take part.

“They develop confidence, learn how to work with other people, become more articulate and take pride in being creative.

“I remember one particular girl who was completely overwhelmed because the rest of the group were describing qualities in her she didn’t know she had. No one had ever been that positive about her before. Well, that’s what we’re all about.”

The Identity 1000 performance is at the Tower of London, this Saturday 25 August at 6pm. Rebecca Manley’s adaptation of Richard MacSween’s book Victory Street is showing at the Soho Theatre this week and will be at the Lowry, Salford, 17-27 October. For more information go to

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Tue 21 Aug 2007, 19:11 BST
Issue No. 2065
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