How theatre can transform the lives of children 

'He's a boy. He's 12. He lives on an estate. He likes baked beans...': two local theatre companies – Immediate Theatre and Half Moon – explain how theatrical storytelling helps children navigate the pressures of their lives

Half Moon presents Daytime Deewane. Pic: Stephen Russell

When Arlo, Jo Carter’s child, was in nursery, they told their father a story on the bus. Like many profound literary works dreamt up by three-year-old storytellers, it included dragons in the woods, mummy being rescued, and fearless child protagonists brazenly defeating all odds. The main characters’ names? 

Microphone. And ‘Go to your peg’. 

“Clearly, Arlo hadn’t unpacked what it meant when teachers at the Nursery asked children to collect their coats at the end the day,” laughs Carter, who is the artistic director and founder of Hackney-based theatre company Immediate Theatre

Many parents would have cringed, succumbing to the urge to edit, correct and refine the storyline. “But Terry [Jo’s husband and Arlo’s father] listened. He wrote it down, typed it up and gave it to the nursery: ‘This is Arlo’s story.’ We all loved it, and it was hilarious. But how many times do you hear a parent say: ‘Well, that’s not a name. You can’t do that. Horses aren’t pink.’?”

This unrestrained affirmation inspired Arlo, now 19 years old, to pursue a career as an aspiring filmmaker. And in many ways, their journey stretches back to that innocuous moment on the bus — of having their story cherished and heard. 

Today, Carter is using the same principle to help young learners. She believes theatre and storytelling can be powerful tools for linguistic intervention at school. “The Speech Bubbles project is targeted to chlildren who are having problems with speech, but not necessarily that they need to speak to language therapist. It may be that English is their second language and that they’re speaking another language at home,” says Carter. 

Carter established Immediate Theatre in 1996. Pic: Devere Mahbeir

Speech Bubbles, a programme for Key Stage 1, Carter explains, is evidenced in schools to effectively tackle selective or elective mutism. Along with uplifted confidence, the structured nature of the sessions (students take turns, have a story square, sing a song and follow a set routine) fosters positive behaviours such as turn-taking. 

Most importantly, she says: “The stories are gathered from the young children every week, and whatever they say goes. So, there’s no grammatical correction, they can have pink unicorns, they can have anything. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s just affirming their story.” 

“I feel the role of theatre is to imagine difference and change. When we go and see Uncle Vanya or whatever — those big pieces — we’re still seeing a key story played out in a way we can make sense of it. We are hopefully seeing bits of our lives told because we would have had those feelings. But actually, you know, everybody needs to understand how important it is to tell your own story,” says Carter. 

Children at Half Moon Theatre get to exercise their creativity. Pic: Half Moon Theatre

Stephen Beeny, Communications Manager at Half Moon Theatre in Tower Hamlets, agrees. “Half Moon has always believed that theatre has the power to unlock creative journeys. For young people in particular, it can be the single most valuable place where they can explore the endless possibilities of their imaginations and what they can do.” 

Theatres such as Immediate and Half Moon, where Carter directed her first school tour before starting Immediate Theatre, harness the tremendous impact of the performing arts for young people. While the benefits of theatre in academia and research are well documented, grassroots level work with young people in the unique context of their boroughs paints a poignant — and powerful — portrait of youth theatre’s transformative potential.

From confronting knife crime, tackling blame games in sexting and fighting toxic masculinity at the teen/pre-teen stage, and promoting speech acquisition, confidence and fun for younger learners, theatre for school aged children can be paradigm-altering. 

Immediate Theatre’s wildly successful play Pressure Drop, for instance, reflected the ‘compound challenges’ experienced by young people growing up in London and across the UK. Conceptualised by and for young people, the drama toured schools in 2022 and 2023, sparking conversation and debate. In June and July of this year, the company will be debuting Abi Falase’s new drama, Rift, which looks at male privilege and sexism for Year 9 and 10 students and will tour in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. 

“It’s very difficult for a teacher to talk ‘on the nose’ about [something like] knife crime,” explains Carter. The reason theatre is so effective at confronting complex issues, she says, rests in the depersonalisation of the narrative. Many of Immediate Theatre’s classes begin with exercises such as collectively creating a persona; each person adds on a thought: There’s a boy. He’s 12. He lives on an estate. He’s dyslexic. He likes baked beans. He’s Black…

“It’s a very basic kind of GCSE level exercise, but if you do it with a little bit of ritual, you can then hotseat and question the character,” Carter explains, “The person representing can [then] speak really openly and honestly about their knowledge and understanding, without saying it’s them.” 

One of the characters born from this exercise in 2012, she says, was Kelvin. So immersed were the participants in Kelvin’s reality, so compelling their representation, that Carter took the ‘performance’ to Hackney Council. 

“We presented it to the Chief Executive of the Council, and he was so impressed by it, he got [many] lead departments to talk to and interview Kelvin,” she says. To Carter, one of the programme’s greatest wins was that later, at a Council meeting concerning the change in youth judicial rules, a council members suddenly asked: “Oh my goodness, how’s this going to affect Kelvin?” 

Kelvin, then, becomes emblematic of wider realities — a character representing young people at the heart of policy decisions, without being one specific young person at all. 

Similarly, Immediate theatre’s work with young people excluded or at risk of exclusion from education impacts — and transforms — the lives of many young people who perhaps need it most, allowing them to process emotions, make sense of their narrative and find a place where they belong. 

These wins are possible because of how entrenched local theatres are in their communities, and how sensitive they are to the borough’s youth’s specific needs. 

Half Moon is at the heart of its community in Limehouse. Pic: Half Moon Theatre

“For over 30 years, Half Moon has been creating professional theatre for young audiences as well as running participatory programmes for young people, ranging from youth theatres – we currently have eight – and after-school drama sessions, to early years creative play and work in local schools throughout Tower Hamlets,” says Stephen Beeny, Communications Manager at Half Moon Theatre. 

Half Moon has been helping young people for decades. “It opened in 1972 in a disused synagogue in Alie Street, Aldgate, and took its name from Half Moon Passage at the side of the building, an alleyway still there today,” Beeny says. 

Today, Half Moon is in its third home in White Horse Road in Limehouse, at the heart of its local community. “We work with the majority of the schools in Tower Hamlets,” says Beeny, “and many of their young people will have their first experience of live theatre with a trip here to see a show. This is often how they will first become aware of us. Some of those students will then join one of our Youth Theatre groups and then, perhaps, gain their first job here as one of our ushers.” 

To Beeny and his team members, getting young people to be part of local theatre is, “like a magical portal that transports kids to different worlds,” he says, and helps them acquire important life lessons in the process. 

Half Moon Disability Summer School. Pic: Half Moon Theatre

Often, Half Moon tailors its productions and educational programmes to address borough-specific needs. And with the belief that theatre should be available to everyone, they have launched services such as Half Moon on Demand (a streaming service) and digital archives. It was an onerous labour of love, he says, but worth it to capture these special moments for young talent, some of whom end up becoming professional actors in the West End. 

“Theatre serves as a powerful tool for sparking conversations, building empathy and nurturing important life skills such as communication, teamwork and resilience,” says Beeny. 

Ultimately, all this means that along with tangible benefits and language or skill acquisition, what local theatre gives young communities is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s being told your story is enough, being seen, and being validated in wanting a pink unicorn or a character named ‘Go to your peg’. What follows after such affirmation and rich storytelling, then, is nothing short of magic.  

As Beeny says: “The biggest misconception about theatre for young audiences is that it’s simplistic or dumbed-down. In reality, [it’s] often just as complex, thought-provoking, and artistically rich as theatre for adult[s]. Let’s banish the notion that theatre for young audiences is mere child’s play.”

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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