Keys For Change: Unlocking Unheard Voices

How often do we see the full spectrum of society represented in the arts? With diversity and equality constantly a hot topic, we can sometimes feel like we are trying really hard to capture a range of voices, only to realize that there are still some of society’s most disenfranchised falling through the net. Below, we chat about how one project brought this to our attention, and how other companies can reach out to make those voices a part of their work.  

There’s no denying that the Arts’ are an advocate for change. On all levels, theatre is the act of changing; characters usually go on a journey, either physical or emotional and return changed in some way. The audience have their opinion of a character or topic awakened and come out enlightened or seeing things differently. Narrative takes the story from an inciting incident to climax to resolution. Artists are then the key drivers of this change, but how do you decide what changes you want your art to make in the wider world? At Zest we are firm believers that a company needs to stand for more than the products on its’ shelves and be prepared to do the ground work with communities to develop shows and audiences. Considering all our productions go through development with groups of young people up and down the country, we thought we were pretty good at this. However, our recent 2030 project with North East Lincolnshire Council challenged our own approach in a whole new way.

Over the two weeks of Easter 2017, Zest staff worked intensively with Youth Offending Service to deliver an Easter Arts Project with six young men aged 14 – 16 in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, one of the most deprived areas in the country. All participants had previously committed offences and were classed as medium to high risk. The task was to create a piece of theatre on the theme of ‘Aspiration;’ what were their hopes for the future, both individually and for their community, and what could the local people in power do to help them build these dreams into a reality? Over the course of the project, we started to get to know these young people, who began to open up about their lives and their experiences. From this, Zest used a combination of live and recorded performance to produce a 25-minute promenade style piece, which gave an insight into their hopes and dreams. These ranged from life aspirations to smaller, more immediate goals. The final piece featured four of the six boys on the course, as well as two of Zest’s professional actors. Here are some tips we picked up along the way:

Get To Know Each Other – Preferably on Even Terms
When working with high-risk groups, this becomes a vital part of the process as it allows everyone to settle into the feel of each other’s company and to gently ease the young people into the idea of working with you. It also allows for any teething problems that come up to be dealt with before the working begins, and means that on the first day seeds of relationships have already formed. It also gave us insight into the intricacies of the group; the hierarchy, the personalities and the particular triggers of each young person, meaning there were no surprises on when the project began the following week.

Don’t Assume Anything
When working with marginalised groups, you may need to adapt your approach, sometimes several times a day. The usual cultural benchmarks; films, theatre, TV, music, may mean nothing to them. For some, their own life and family circumstances are often so chaotic that they have no space, opportunity or inclination to consume these things the way other young people do. For the most at risk, the stakes of day to day are often life-changingly high, which makes culture an obscure and irrelevant concept to those who are living in fear and deprivation. This can make your job more difficult as you have few points of reference when it comes to making art, and means to have to be ready to question yourself and your process and always have another angle to come from. You can’t force feed culture; you need to find a way to make it real for them and relate to their circumstances in order to get the best from them.

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There’s No Place For Ego
Artists spend years honing their craft, and are often very protective of it. It is important to remember that, to young people who have never experienced art, all those years of expertise, hard graft, sweat and tears can mean very little. It’s harsh but true, and it’s vital you know how to park your ego at the door when it comes to sharing your art (and yourself) with them. In groups such as this, it takes time and effort on the artists part to build trust with participants; they need to see the value in what you are trying to do very quickly – they don’t care about complicated theories or practitioners or techniques, and many of them may not even fully understand what your art form is. In this sense, the artist really is stripped bare of all the vocabulary, processes and other things that provide a cushion of protection. The best practice we found is to connect with them firstly on a personal level, and then start to drip feed elements of art in a way that is accessible and relatable.


Understand Behaviours
High risk young people will often present with challenging, confrontational and even violent behaviours. It is important to understand that any outbursts towards you are not personal ones, and it is important you don’t take them as such (see above about ego). As artists, its’ easy for us to forget how unusual our ways can be – from the games we may play, to the idea of a rehearsal or even what we call certain parts of our process. These young people will likely be totally out of their comfort zones – and this will probably result in a lot of fear, insecurity, worry and stress which can play out in different ways. Sometimes the smallest thing could trigger a vulnerable young person, so even minor things like timings of the day, suitability of venue and break options should be carefully considered. Couple this with the likelihood that many will have specific behavioural needs and you almost need a tailored behavioural plan for each young person. Being sensitive to these behaviours and knowing when to change tack with a group or individual is essential in these situations. Similarly, praising good choices is a good way of positive reinforcement. For our participants, they seemed to constantly be hearing negative comments or voices of authority telling them that they were in the wrong (police, schools, parents), so this is a great way to boost self esteem and confidence.

Boundaries should be established early on, but practitioners need to be fluid with this. Overall best practice in times of heightened behaviour should include staying calm in your voice and body, never shouting or provoking as this can aggravate the situation. Most of all remember your own safety; we were fortunate to have a brilliantly proactive YOS team working alongside us who were trained to properly de-escalate aggressive behaviours – it isn’t your job as an artist to break up a fight.

In It Together
Any project like this will most likely have staff to support you in managing the behaviours of the young people. Having a good working relationship with these people is vital. Set the tone for a hardworking but enjoyable environment and always make sure you present a united front to the participants. Although you each bring different skills, it is important to see yourself as one team. Whilst it may not be your job to deal with behaviour issues, if you are best placed to safely do so in that moment then other staff will appreciate it. In short, these projects are tough mentally and emotionally – supporting each other will make it that little bit easier.

Clear Communication – Get To The Point.
Be clear in your communication, both to the young people and other staff. We found that Participants were most responsive when task instructions were short, sharp and had an obvious goal and immediate value. Abstract concepts and feelings will be beyond some of the young peoples thinking, so you almost need to mould the task around them to get what is required from it. Similarly, always ensure you brief and debrief the supporting staff each day, no matter how chaotic things get. We found that when we didn’t do this, there were mixed messages which slowed the day down, but also gave off vibes of uncertainty to the young people. Having said that, make sure you are open to plans changing quite suddenly depending on the mood of the group – just be sure to brief again so all staff are on the same page.

Manage Expectations
After a chaotic day, it can be hard to feel like you have made any progress. The key is to manage your previous expectations and experiences of a creative process. Working with vulnerable young people will challenge your previous knowledge and confidence to the core. We realised that we needed to give ourselves a break and accept that 20 minutes of concentrated game playing in a 5 hour day was actually a huge achievement for the young people. For some of them, even standing in the middle of the room and saying a sentence to their peers was too much at first as they were scared of getting it wrong or looking stupid; it’s important not to force the issue or get confrontational, but to remember that they are just finding their feet in a world that is totally alien to them. Allowing them to watch from the fringes until they feel comfortable is totally fine. We also had breakout sessions where the participants could let off steam and do something totally different – such as play football or go to the skate park – these times were just as valuable to us in getting to know them and seeing them as individuals, as well as rewarding good behaviour.

Similarly, knowing when to plough on and when to call it a day is equally important. Far from feeling like you have failed if a day goes badly, sometimes the best thing you can do is let everybody cool off and start fresh tomorrow.


Authentic and Participant Led
Don’t be afraid to deliver the product in its truest form. To sanitize the participants’ words, voices or experiences is to do them a huge disservice. It needs to be authentic and led by them. It’s fine for you to have a vision, but you need to take your inspirations and ideas from the things they share with you. This may mean that your final piece isn’t as polished as you like, and that’s ok. As long as it is a true reflection of the young people, you have done your job. This is a case of ‘process’ being more important than ‘product’ (see below).

In terms of putting the final piece together, the performance was built up around them, not the other way around, which meant that the whole team needed to have vision and be able to picture a finished project then mentor the young people as to their role in it. In short, come with ideas, but be ready to have them changed, challenged and reformed to fit the unique individuals you are working with.

A project like this generates numerous ‘soft outcomes’ that are life changing for the participants. The challenge is capturing this. In a busy, and often chaotic, project we found it impossible and counter productive to try and gather data on their thoughts and feelings on the project – even in the most interesting ways that didn't involve forms. Commissioners should therefore be mindful of this and also prepare their own expectations of what this data should look like. In our case, is the fact that our participants defied expectations and performed in the final show a big enough evaluation point in itself?

Process Over Product
Working with challenging, high-risk young people is probably the hardest thing an artist can do. The important thing to remember is that it is all about the journey the young people go on throughout the process. Whether you end up with a perfect product or not is irrelevant; the discipline, learning, relationships and sense of achievement for participants and practitioners can be huge. It will take everything out of you, but you can also gain so much. Overall, we found that as long as we were open, flexible, resilient and treated the young people with respect, we were able to get the best out of them, whether that was a full day or half an hour of work. Above all you need a lot of patience and mental stamina, and be prepared to reimagine your usual processes to properly capture the voice of some of society’s most vulnerable young people.

Having had our resolves shaken with this project, Zest feel compelled to speak out about our experiences and encourage others to get involved with similar schemes. As artists we’re usually from somewhere on the left / progressive / liberal end of the political spectrum. We care about the issues that these communities face and have empathy for their position. But if we’re honest, how often do we read about the plight of deprived communities in The Guardian, get annoyed over our latte and then do nothing about it? This has to change. Commissioners, Funders, Artists of all kinds, we can hold the potential key for change for these young people. Not only will you evoke change, however small, in your participants, but you will learn so much about yourselves in the process. You have the tools, the compassion and the skills in your art form. In a time of uncertainty and austerity, this has never been more important.