Looked-after children don’t often get the chance to shine but in Rotherham they are taking centre stage

In his song, Sir Noel Coward advises Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage as, notwithstanding young Miss Worthington’s perceived personal shortcomings, “the profession is overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough.”

It is still a tough career move but theatre can also take socially excluded young people out of day-to-day drudgery and inspire and motivate them; it provides a chance to do something different, a chance to shine.

Actors often talk about the challenge of “becoming” someone else. For young people in care so much in society prevents them even being themselves.

In Rotherham, South Yorkshire, looked-after children take centre stage both politically, where the council champions its role as corporate parents and also artistically with their annual production. “As a youth worker I had been involved in drama work,” says activity co-ordinator for looked-after children, Brian Sampson. “The young people involved got so much out of it – enjoyment and boosted confidence. So, we started working with a professional drama tutor and students from the Rotherham College of Arts and Technology.”

It began in 2003 with a show called Cinderfella – based on TV’s Popstars – where the ugly sisters were a girl pop band called Cat’s Claws. “It went down a storm,” says Sampson. It was followed by a production of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and in December last year by Grease – the 1978 smash hit film being an adaptation of the original stage musical. “We had about 15 young people in the show with a live band made up of foster carers. The performance was filmed and all those involved got a DVD.”

Importantly, a big fuss is made of those involved, says head of service Pam Allen: “They are picked up by white stretch limousines, the mayor or chief executive gives awards at end of the night, and we treat them to pizza – the sort of things we would do for our own children. We try to make the whole event special for a special group of youngsters who wouldn’t otherwise hit the limelight.”

Over the three years about 70 young people have been involved in productions – either performing or backstage. The feel-good aspect proves contagious. “The positive attitude they bring to the drama sessions is transferred back to their placements,” says Sampson. “A few young people have gone back to the college to become students – some also want to go to college to do drama or performing arts once they finish school.”

The positive effects on attitudes, self-esteem and behaviour are reflected in the case of one young woman with a significant youth offending history. Says Allen: “She helped re-write the script to Grease setting it in the bus station in Rotherham – a favourite hang out for young people in the town. Rydell High became Rotherham High. She hadn’t been to school for a significant amount of time – and there she was coming into her own rewriting the script. It helped get her back to school and she got four GCSEs including English.”

The productions have also provided a novel way of consulting young people about their life in care. “We have staff spend three or four hours a week with a group of 20 young people in our care – what better way to do some active consultation work?” explains Allen, who says in doing so she was “nobbled” to increase birthday allowances for care leavers: “which is what I did! They saw it as an opportunity.”

Opportunity is, indeed, the word: “In the average day-to-day life of these youngsters they wouldn’t be on stage at school. Theatre is a fantastic medium for working with these socially excluded youngsters,” says Allen.

Sampson agrees: “Support them but let them express their ideas: they’ve got a lot of talent, skill and abilities and if you can motivate and encourage them in the right way – they have no problem bringing this out.”

Being on stage is a physical and mental challenge – and it takes some bottle. The process of learning, rehearsing and performing can positively improve your well-being. It can improve confidence and raise self-esteem and (certainly while the applause is thundering) fill you with a sense of achievement. It can help you understand and develop relationships. It can improve your communication and negotiation skills. And it’s a hoot.

You can see why the Worthington women, despite the noble knight’s opposition, thought the stage worthwhile.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.