It’s a warm night in June 2012, and at the Scottish Stoytelling Centre in the Royal Mile, an audience of cheerful parents and friends gather to watch a double-bill of new plays set in Edinburgh, performed by teenage members of Strange Town, an independent young people’s theatre group based in the city.
The first play, Sam Siggs’s Love Bites, is a graceful, witty midsummer comedy set around a bench in Princes Street Gardens; the second, Alan Gordon’s Occupy Meadows, is a hugely ambitious attempt to create a Midsummer Night’s Nightmare for 24 characters around a chaotic end-of-school drinking party. The young actors turn in some terrific performances, the audience roars approval; and the critic from The Scotsman heads off to write a review, since it’s rare to find a youth theatre company that works so consistently with local writers to commission work that will speak directly to the young people in the group.
Strange Town, though, is just one element in Scotland’s hugely complex youth theatre scene; and the company’s fifth anniversary, celebrated at the Festival Theatre last week, acts as a sharp reminder of the need to find ways of supporting theatre for young people, without forcing it into a one-size-fits-all model. Founded in 2008 by director Steve Small, Strange Town is now based mainly at Out Of the Blue in Leith, and offers classes and a chance to perform to more than 300 young people across the city, in three age-bands; it has aready commissioned 55 new plays from ten different writers, with more to come.
Yet from the outset, the organisation has struggled to survive, on an income based on the £6.50 a week it charges its members, plus a patchwork of funding from charitable foundations, and one crucial if short-lived Scottish Government grant. And while the fact that the organisation has its own independent income has helped Strange Town develop its unique style and priorities, it also creates obvious problems in ensuring equal access for young people whose families can’t afford the fees.
If there is an answer, though, to ensuring a more secure, ambitious and inclusive future for organisations like Strange Town, then it cannot lie in any top-down attempt to organise and standardise youth theatre across Scotland. A glance at the website of the existing umbrella organisation, Promote YT, shows a membership of over 100 companies, ranging from groups that operate within larger theatres – like the hugely successful Lyceum Youth Theatre – to those heavily backed by local authorities; if Steve Small invented Strange Town specifically for Edinburgh, with its double identity as small northern capital and global festival city, then it’s likely that every community in Scotland will have different needs and possibilities, when it comes to youth theatre.
Two things, though, remain clear. The first is that the amounts involved are small. The total annual budget of Strange Town is barely £100,000, a sum which many wealthy individuals in Edinburgh could cover at the stroke of a pen; failure to find this kind of money from private or public sources, for a type of initiative that provides so much activity and employment for every pound spent, would be a sign of failure both in our public spending priorities, and in the wider distribution of resources in our society.
And the second is that for young people on the brink of adulthood, the provision of a safe space where they can work with young writers on plays which express many of the dilemmas they see around them seems to offer a tremendously creative and positive experience.
“Some of our members have gone on to study drama at university or college,” says Steve Small, “but that really isn’t what it’s all about. The feedback we get is that young people feel this is a place where they can be themselves, take risks, and make new friends. And for people in their mid to late teens, that’s a very important experience, no matter what they go on to do in later life.”