Graham Hopkins reports on a drama project in Bournemouth that tackled the issue of young people’s sexuality

Despite social care’s general commitment to training and personal development, training courses can become much of a muchness: from the same old mildly embarrassing ice-breakers (“if you were a fruit what would you be and why?”) through to the generic groupwork exercises, badly but economically photocopied from some hideously over-priced 10-year-old training manual.

Bournemouth Council wanted to make a dramatic impact on tackling issues of young people’s sexuality and so looked to the stage. “Our colleagues in Inclusion and Achievement had a connection with a theatre in education group,” says children’s reviewer Rebecca Hirst. “It just struck us as a useful way to do it. The only available training being offered seemed so dry. It tended to be around sexual health matters and it just wasn’t getting the message across about bullying, homophobia or the pain young people were feeling because they didn’t feel able to talk. It felt far more powerful and appropriate to use drama.”

Shrouded in Silence was developed following consultation with Over the Rainbow, a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support organisation. Says Hirst: “They gave us general points: the need to build up relationships with young people before they will trust you; saying positive things about gay and lesbians; letting people know you are not judgemental; and challenging homophobic language.”

The 30-minute story, aimed at social workers, youth workers, foster carers, teachers and Connexions staff, centred on “Steve”, 16, in foster care, who was being bullied at school because of his sexuality. The other characters included a foster carer, social worker and teacher all of whom grappled unsuccessfully with Steve’s unhappiness and isolation.

“It wasn’t about showing workers making mistakes, more that they couldn’t deal with the situation because they didn’t really know,” says Hirst. “For example, Steve was accessing information on the internet but the foster carer was horrified at the downloaded images she saw. The social worker was seen to be overwhelmed with work – each visit was characterised with her mobile ringing about other crises.”

It was decided to base the format on a technique of forum theatre pioneered by Brazilian social activist and director Augusto Boal, best known for his Theatre of the Oppressed. “You watch a scene performed by professional actors and rewind it and the audience coach the actors how to behave more positively and then the audience steps in to play the parts,” says Hirst. And, with about 80 people attending the fourth and final presentation, there was no shortage of people willing to get up and play the parts differently.

The feedback has been remarkably positive. One social worker said: “It was brilliant to see our work mirrored – it really helped me to think about my work and to reflect on my mistakes.”

Hirst adds: “Staff liked the fact that it offered an informed representation of social work practice: not like on EastEnders – who knows where they get their social workers from?”

She adds: “There was a general feeling that this was a real life situation that could happen to any of us. It created debate and made people think about their practice. It struck a chord in a way that a lot of training couldn’t.”

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