As West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest youth production opens, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to the director.
Gemma Woffinden remembers quite clearly a review I wrote for the Yorkshire Post four years ago.
It was in a review of Girls Like That, a production by the youth theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. In the review I used a phrase that clearly put Woffinden’s back up.
The sentiment behind the line I wrote in the review, the line Woffinden remembers, was that the production wasn’t just very good for a youth theatre production, but for a production on the stage of the Playhouse.
“I wish people wouldn’t think of it as ‘youth theatre’, it’s just theatre that happens to be made by young people,” says Woffinden.
She’s not annoyed at me, not really. Just finds it wearing that not everyone sees the effort put in by the hundreds of young people who have been through the youth theatre experience at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Even suggesting it is good ‘for youth theatre’ is somehow undermining the effort, ghetto-ising the work.
Woffinden is Youth Theatre Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a role she’s held since leaving teaching in 2012.
Working out of the creative engagement team at the Playhouse, she leads on one of the four strands concerning the team. The other strands are older people, creative communities and creative education.
“There is a really strong belief in our department that engaging with creative activities is, to put it really simply, good for people,” says Woffinden. “Part of being human is connecting with other people and creating something. When you have people working together with that kind of shared vision it is something that is very life-enhancing.”
One of the most important stages of life where the life- enhancing qualities of working together creatively is vital, is when young people are growing.
Woffinden has seen first hand over and over again the positive effect of drama on young people.
“As a teacher I saw that healthy young people are the ones with a level of emotional intelligence, the ones who can discuss how they feel,” she says. “They were the ones who had the self-confidence to ask for help and had a sense of self- worth.”
That, of course, doesn’t come down to simply ‘doing drama’ at school, but the truth is, working in a team, working towards a creative goal where you need to be able to express a thought or emotion are all skills acquired through drama. The more young people learn these skills, the more mentally healthy they are, all of which has to be good for wider society?
Woffinden certainly thinks so, and found the teaching profession being squeezed by outside forces and the inevitable squeeze on her area of specialism. All of this meant that when the role came up at the Playhouse to work with young people full-time, Woffinden grabbed it with both hands.
Since then, she has directed a number of productions that have appeared on the stages of the Playhouse, featuring young people, and perhaps more importantly, worked with young people off stage on various projects.
The latest project to make it to the stage is Zoetrope. Written by Rebecca Manley, the play follows seven young people as they tackle emotional and behavioural difficulties in a timely exploration of the mental health of our young people and the resources afforded to them.
“It’s important that the young people who are making the work are invested in it, so we talk to them about what the issues are that affect them, what is important in their lives,” says Woffinden.
“The things that came back to us were about pressures to do with exams, they talked about self- harm and about eating disorders.”
Not an easy collection of things to talk about, but those were the issues the young people Woffinden works with via the Playhouse’s youth group wanted to talk about.
“We talked to several writers about how we wanted to work, drew up a list and decided that Rebecca was the right person to write this play,” she says.
“Rebecca spent time in workshops with the young people so she could write something that is true to the way they speak, true to the rhythms of what they say and how they say it. There are lines in the play that were said by the young people in their workshops.”
Giving the young people agency, giving them responsibility, is also part of what Woffinden is able to do with the productions she mounts. It meant they were in charge of the photoshoot, had to run the budget for it, decide on the designs, the lot.
Then, of course, they have the responsibility of putting a piece of work on the stage of the Playhouse, a piece of work that audience members will pay for and watch. So back to that review from four years ago. Whether she likes it or not, Woffinden can’t deny that there are those who will look at the Playhouse’s season brochure and decide that a youth show isn’t for them. How can she convince them otherwise?
“Young people have a real energy and truthfulness about their performance. What we do is support that with professionalism,” says Woffinden.
“We take that energy and truthfulness and support the young people with a professional writer, professional director and production team. It ends up creating really powerful theatre that comes from the young people themselves and the stories that they want to tell.”
And, having seen the work this combination produces, I can attest that it is very strong: and I don’t just mean for youth theatre.
Zoetrope has been made in collaboration with Leeds Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), with young people and NHS staff being invited into rehearsals to share their insights and experiences.
The play tells the story of several young people and their relationship with both mental health issues and mental health services. Focussing on the story of Lily, it looks at what happens when a young person with mental health issues, falls through the cracks.
Zoetrope, West Yorkshire Playhouse, November 2 to 4. Tickets on 0113 2137700 or via www.wyp.org.uk