How performing arts can help disadvantaged young people

(The Myrtle Theatre Company’s City of One play. Pic Graham Burke)

The performing arts are moving out of their quirky corner of social policy and being taken seriously as a method to improve the self-esteem of young offenders. Rowenna Davis reports

This Christmas, 20 million of us are expected to tune into the finals of Strictly Come Dancing and the X-Factor. We will watch as the wannabe dancers and singers fight to complete their journeys from ordinary ability to extraordinary achievement.

But such journeys aren’t just about celebrity entertainment. Around the country, performing arts are being used to help transform the lives of disaffected and disadvantaged young people. The results might not be as high profile, but they are just as meaningful – if not more so.

Once seen as a quirky, eccentric corner of social policy, the performing arts are now being recognised by mainstream professionals. Last year, the Department of Health published a Prospectus for Arts and Health. In this groundbreaking document, the government publicly acknowledged that “the arts are, and should be, clearly recognised as integral to health and health services”. Since then, performing arts programmes have been rolled out across the country. In January 2007, the government announced it was investing £10m in Sing Up, a national programme to promote singing in primary schools. This year, health secretary Alan Johnson established a group specifically devoted to the arts at the heart of his department. And a partnership between Youth Offending Teams and performing arts organisations in Bradford has grabbed the attention of the Home Office by reducing reoffending rates by 17%.

Dance discipline brings out the best in offenders

Dance United works intensively with young offenders and those at risk of offending through dance. Their approach is professional, their standards are high and their schedules are unrelenting. Young offenders referred to the Academy programme in Bradford are required to attend dance training for six hours a day, five days a week for 12 weeks. At the end of that time, they are asked to perform to audiences of up to 200 people.

Andrew Coggins, executive producer of Dance United, believes that the organisation’s high expectations are a key part of their success. “Often, we ask participants for well beyond what they think they are capable of. There were concerns that the young people couldn’t engage with that level of intensity, but their achievements have been remarkable – you just have to support them through with clear boundaries.”


Such interest raises some key questions. How can the performing arts help young people in difficult circumstances, and what do they have to offer that conventional services can’t provide?

Of course, different performing arts demand different skills but there are certain core benefits that are offered by all those activities. Perhaps the most important is they convince vulnerable young people they aren’t defined by their problems. The young person participating in art is no longer just a criminal, a depressed individual or a disabled patient: they are an actor or a dancer or a singer. Many young people are beset by low confidence and self esteem, but the performing arts shake up their perceptions of themselves, and help them realise what they are capable of achieving.

Building this self-belief is vitally important to tackling a young person’s problem, says Helen Linsell, a dance practitioner who works with young offenders in Bradford. “Perhaps the greatest challenges we face is getting young people to believe in themselves. Once they’ve completed the course and performed to a live audience on stage, a lot more seems possible.”

But the performing arts don’t just challenge perceptions of the young participant – they also challenge the stereotypes of wider society. Take Streetwise Opera. Formed after an MP described the homeless as “the people you step over on the way out of the opera”, Streetwise has in the past year introduced more than 700 homeless people to the benefits of what is considered one of the world’s most elitist art forms. This month, Streetwise put its most committed singers on stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall in front of 800 people. If homeless people can do that, what else could they do given the opportunity?

Focusing on the can-do rather than the can’t-do

Classical opera is just about the last thing you’d expect to hear emanating from a homeless shelter. But thanks to Streetwise Opera, more than 700 homeless people were introduced to this art form last year alone in workshops and performances across the country.

“It’s about challenging perceptions,” says Matt Peacock, head of Streetwise. “It can sometimes raise the self-esteem that gives homeless people the confidence to engage with services.”

Peacock believes the organisation offers a type of support that is often overlooked by conventional homeless services. “Streetwise Opera springs from the need to have more than bricks and mortar – people need help on personal issues too. They need activities to look forward to that are about more than homelessness, and a way of celebrating what they can do instead of focusing on what they can’t do.”


The third benefit of the performing arts is that they teach certain skills. Stephen Clift, research director at the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, believes that many of the skills performing arts develop are applicable in everyday life. “You can’t put on a concert, perform a play or carry out a dance routine without learning something about teamwork, respect, dedication and concentration. These skills are very often the very things disadvantaged or disillusioned young people often lack,” he says.

An often underestimated, but equally important benefit is that participating in the performing arts is fun. For young people who are depressed, anxious or have a difficult home life, the chance to focus their energy on a performance is incredibly refreshing. “Their problems may still be there at the end, but young people often emerge from their classes better able to cope with them,” says Linsell.

Of course scepticism about the arts still remains. There is a worry that they will be prioritised over more practical services that young people need to get them on their feet. But as Matt Peacock, chief director of Streetwise Opera, explains: “The really exciting work happens not when social services and the performing arts work alone, but when they come together.”

Policymakers are beginning to realise the benefits of this partnership. The curtain is rising on the performing arts and vulnerable young people are starting to take their place on the stage.

Play that reached up to Westminster policymakers

For the Myrtle Theatre Company in Bristol, drama isn’t about escaping from social problems – it’s about engaging with them. Since 2004, Myrtle has been working intensively with vulnerable young people to explore their experiences in workshops and on the stage.

Heather Williams, artistic director at Myrtle, believes that young people often find theatre the easiest way to communicate: “Many of the people we work with have attachment problems, but theatre gives them an alternative means of expressing their concerns and worries – through character and scenario. In my experience, young people have found that theatre offers them a wonderful release.”

Last year, Myrtle produced “City of One”, a play about, and performed by, young people in care. The final production was taken to Westminster and fed into the government White Paper Care Matters. “

That’s the exciting thing about theatre,” says Williams, “it enables young people to reach people in policy.”


Further Information

Sing Up

Prospectus for Arts and Health

Sidney De Haan research Centre for Arts and Health

Related article

Profile on Dance United


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