So all term there’s been a little spectre that has been lurking beneath the surface of every Youth Theatre session I’ve run this year between Harrogate Youth Theatre and York Youth Theatre, getting stronger and stronger as we entered this recent term. Like a force that imposes itself in the corner of your eye, this power has grown from a casual aside to almost dominating some games and exercises. The Spectre of the American Election.
Or, to be frank, mostly Donald Trump as a figure the young people go to as a boogieman who wants to build walls and dominate situations. Often, he ends up being assassinated in the scenes.
I believe that Youth Theatre should unpack current issues through the use of drama, and so to the best of my ability I wanted to explore what people in power do to stay in power, or get more of it.
The session with my 16+ group was like a role-playing adventure. Each person had randomly assigned traits (such as a keen gardener, happily married, born in another country, owns a football club, history with the military, holds a Doctorate in Sciences) and a single Secret Objective (put Arts in the spotlight, make sure you are the Leader, put your country on the world stage). Then the group did some character work to embody the character, we allowed 3 leaders to bring together 3 parties, put one group in ‘power) have them a table, pens, paper and water) and the others stuffed into the corners.
We presented the group with issues, which they had 2-5 minutes to decide who would issue a statement, and what this could contain. We gave them Marches for Workers Rights, Oil Spills and Remembrance Day. Instantly they all fought to make the most worthy statement, creating promises, raising concerns and trying to outdo the other parties. We raised the stakes on a refugee crisis, and added in question time elements. We allowed them to join other parties and when they made decisions, brought those back to bite them.
But we also tried to keep it fun. Fergus who works with me was the singular voter of this created country, and read out some invented Polls as the ‘Every Man’. We also gave 3 bits of breaking news bitingly reflective of our current leader’s misgiving (an indecent act with a balloon, caught in riots fighting police for worker’s rights and finally called the French “cheese eating surrender monkeys”).
What we found was these young people are all pretty liberally-minded, and all groups broadly agreed on centrist issues, such as raising wages, welcoming refugees and not escalating any conflicts. What was fun was not the decisions they made, but how they presented their decisions, how they wrangled for their own angle and spotlight.
This was an exercise in drama, each character had an agenda just like any complex play, everyone is after something with their intentions and back-story filtering into the current action. It also meant decisions made in ‘act 1’ affected events later in the ‘play’ (for instance in an example of one-up-man-ship one group renamed a stadium they owned ‘Poppy Stadium’ for Remembrance Day, only for us to claim that Nationalists had used it as a symbol of anti-refugee sentiment). And, finally, it was a theatre lesson in how devising can work making an immersive world, playing as character for longer than just a short snippet.
But in terms of understanding elections and parties, the very intelligent group had a keen sense of the language of politicians. There was a sense that good-must-be-done, as none of them attempted to really manage with their positions of power, but at the same time status became central to their decision-making and policies. I think although we positioned this workshop as a ‘game’, it was inevitable that they different parties would relish in trying to manoeuvre within the game, a small scale version of the larger was parties interact with one another.
But a shout-out must go to the members of York Youth Theatre who threw themselves into the political frame with gusto and, without such commitment, the game would not have worked so well, or given everyone such enjoyment.
Of course this was an experiment, and one I’d like to try again. We took some feedback from the group, and no doubt next week in evaluation we’ll hear more ideas for making the exercised work.
If you have any thoughts, or want a copy of the workshop plan, or even want me to visit your Youth Theatre group (or even adult drama group) to give it a try, drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org