When case workers at Sandwell youth offending service (YOS) suggested Ryan, then aged 16, take part in a drama programme as part of his court order, the teenager was sceptical. “I only agreed because I thought it would help get time taken off my order,” he says.
But since completing a 16-hour drama workshop on knife crime, run by Birmingham-based company Recre8, Ryan says his life has “completely changed”. He has attended further Recre8 workshops and has not re-offended. Now 17, he is enrolled on a business and media course.
Although government figures show re-offending rates among young offenders are falling, more than one-third (38%) still re-offend, often due to entrenched behavioural patterns.
How to change this, and promote positive choices, has long been a subject of debate but Carole Davies, of Sandwell YOS, says Recre8’s drama programmes always prove to be therapeutic.
Sandwell YOS regularly refers groups of young people to Recre8. “At first they worry they’ll be made to ‘be a tree’ or look silly,” says Davies, “but once they’ve met the team and seen what they’ll be doing they come round. They finish the programmes with self-esteem and awareness of others, and always say it has changed their life for the better.”
The brainchild of sisters Anulka and Daniela Varley – who have masters degrees in drama in education, and psychology, respectively – Recre8 offers targeted drama workshops, grounded in psychological theory, to young offenders and young people at risk of offending.
Since Recre8’s first contract at a pupil referral unit four years ago, workshops including Acceler8 (vehicle crime), Aggrav8 (violent behaviour), Segreg8 (gang culture) and M8’s (peer pressure) have been completed by hundreds of young people. Every commission, bar one, has resulted in repeat business.
Participants, aged 10-21, are usually referred by their youth offending team (YOT) as part of a group displaying similar offending behaviour. However, Recre8 has also delivered workshops to young offender institutions, schools and secure children’s homes.
Young people must consent, but if attendance is made a term of their court order, rather than a preventive measure, failure to comply can result in a recall to court.
Alternative learning method
Drama provides an alternative way of learning, says Anulka, 30, while allowing participants to creatively explore their feelings and behaviour in a non-judgemental and non-punitive environment.
Ryan says Recre8 staff “always showed us respect and never treated us like ‘young offenders’.”
Recre8’s workshops, which take from six to 16 hours, feature stories which are acted out by participants, with the aim of exploring complex issues through the lives of central characters.
The stories have key messages but are loosely scripted so participants can improvise, mapping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences onto the characters.
By using role play, says Anulka, “a prism approach can be used to explore a single incident”. By viewing an issue from different sides it helps to “develop highly functioned young people who are able to gain a better understanding of why they did the things they did…and how they can empower themselves to limit and eventually eradicate this behaviour.”
The psychological elements of Recre8’s programmes focus on changing patterns of negative thought and behaviour. Built into the workshops – which are evaluated and adhere to the British Psychological Society’s code of conduct – are exercises which aim to equip participants with skills including impulse control, consequential thinking and perspective taking, while helping them to develop empathy and victim awareness.
When participants are engaged “emotionally and cognitively”, says Daniela, 28, they gain a “much deeper understanding of the impact of their actions on others”.
Grow in confidence
Davies see participants’ confidence grow as they acquire new skills and receive recognition. Some workshops culminate in a public performance, such as Chances, which was performed before delegates at the Youth Justice Board’s 2009 convention.
The five-month project brought together nine young people under supervision by two different youth offending services, and from seven different postcodes, to devise a piece of theatre about gang culture.
Working in partnership, Recre8, Birmingham and Sandwell YOSs and West Midlands Fire Brigade, which provided free rehearsal space, ensured the project’s success and convinced local authorities, communities and police – who all knew the bitter effects of gang rivalries in the area – to support it.
Following a workshop, Recre8 provides organisations which have referred participants with detailed reports of the work undertaken.
But the good work does not end there. Recre8 remains in contact, organising social outings and opportunities for participants to talk to other young people about their experiences. Both Ryan and Glenford (see case study) are still involved with Recre8 and plan to become peer mentors.
Patricia Mutombo, a team manager at Birmingham YOS, which recently sent a group of young people to a Recre8 knife possession prevention programme, is fulsome in her praise of the scheme. “Throughout their involvement with Recre8, none of the young people re-offended,” she says.
“Young people have realised that they do have the potential to succeed and some are back in education as a result of Recre8 arranging and attending meetings and interviews with educational establishments and acting as advocates.”
Case study: ‘I think it made everyone see life differently’
Glenford, 17, had just come out of prison when he attended Chances. Although no longer subject to an order, his YOT deemed it beneficial and he agreed to attend. He says it was “amazing to act in front of a big audience, and have our hard work recognised. I think it made everyone see their life differently.” After leaving school at 13, Glenford is now back in education. Having discovered a love of acting, he is studying for a BTEC in drama and hasn’t missed a day.
● Most programmes range from six to 16 hours, delivered in slots of two to four hours.
● Costs range from £950 to £2,250 per programme
● The minimum number of participants is eight to 10.
● Recre8 can also create bespoke programmes.
This article is published in the 21 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Young offenders make a drama out of a crisis