‘Young people telling their own stories’ – youth theatre boosted by £422,000 Lottery grant

Senior Acting Company in Confessions Pic: Tunde Euba Photography

Lewisham Youth Theatre has recently received a £422,000 National Lottery Community Fund grant.

The theatre has grown into a community for its members of which “70% identify as having some kind of disadvantage.” It has been active in the borough for nearly 35 years and around 800 young people a year take part in LYT.

Executive director Victoria Shaskan said: “What this money allows us to do is double, triple, down on this idea of young people being at the centre of the work.”

Victoria Shaskan Pic: Tunde Euba Photography

She said that the majority of the theatre’s costs “are staffing costs … but it will also go to freelance artists and production budgets.” Shaskan says this grant is a “significant step” and that now “when young people come to us and say we really want to do a project… we can respond to that.”

Summarising what LYT is, Shaskan said: “It is a theatre where young people are at the centre not only as performers, but as writers directors and technicians and producers.”

The central ethos of the theatre has always been: “No auditions, no fees.” “It’s not about the talent that young people bring in an ‘all singing and dancing’ way, but about their commitment and desire to push themselves creatively,” she said.

Shaskan joined as a facilitator in 2011 when the theatre only had two full time employees. Now it has ten. “We’ve continued to grow through a global economic crisis, through a pandemic and through 12 years of Tory austerity.”

Shaskan said: “A big challenge is changing the perception of what young people’s art looks like… people see it as some little thing, ‘oh it’s so valuable what you do with those little people’,” mimicking the condescending comments she is often faced with.

Instead, LYT wants to defy this preconception by “looking at complex topics in creatively challenging ways… these are not little skits about knife crime.”

Last week LYT put on a performance about the climate crisis which pushed the boundaries of immersive theatre by creating an escape room where the audience had to solve tasks.

The senior acting company, aged 16-25, is currently working on a play called Confession Challenge, which asks “how to be good in a digital world and how [to] seek forgiveness when things go wrong online.”

The theatre allows young people to write, direct and tell their own stories. Above all, Shaskan sees theatre as a tool: “We’re more interested in raising young people’s self-belief and their social skills and their sense of belonging in the borough, and also their perception of what they can go on to do in the world, whether that’s in theatre or anything else.”

Many of the artists they work with “have come through LYT as participants themselves and gone off… to the National Youth Theatre and then come back to us.” An old member, now a Guildhall graduate and Royal Shakespeare Company actor, will be joining the board soon.

Their impact goes beyond the creative world too. At a recent Lewisham Council meeting, Subari Damali, who was once a select mute, spoke about how LYT helped her find her voice: “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for LYT”, she said. Damali also spoke at a TEDx event this year about her journey with the theatre.

Subira Damali speaking at TEDx Lewisham

Originally from San Francisco, Shaskan studied in Los Angeles, but following three years at a major regional theatre she thought: “there has to be something more that theatre does for the world than two people sitting on stage talking about how they’re cheating on each other!”

She did a Masters at the University of Leeds in Applied Theatre then moved to London to work with the African theatre company Collective Artists, and eventually found her way to Lewisham.

LYT are based in Catford Broadway Theatre, but have relocated to central Lewisham until August due to refurbishments.

You can watch excerpts of a number of plays here.

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