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Arts ageism works both ways

Are we marginalising young people in the arts? We mount lots of theatre for them and are good at telling each other what (say) under 21s need. But do we actually involve them enough? Do we listen to them? Do we let go enough to give them space? I attended part of a conference entitled Uprising last week at the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury which seemed to be suggesting firmly that young people get far too few hands on opportunities to show just how capable many of them are.

The Gulbenkian has a youth board called ART31 and was this group which – supported by the Gulbenkian, Lizzie Hodgson at Thinknation and Chris Duncan of Spark Film Production – who had organised the eclectic, busy conference. There is also Arts Council funding for ART31.  The day was vibrant and imaginative with lots of scope to share and discuss ideas with a wide range of people. Performances, discussion groups, break out sessions and lots more were the order of the day. Proof, if we need it, that many young people are dauntingly competent. They also know exactly what young people want and, usually, how best to do things. “We’re the experts. Ask us. We can provide most of the answers about young people” said Daniel McCormick, 23, Young Arts Advocate from Dunbartonshire (in amazing gold shoes)

The day began with a panel discussion chaired by Billie JD Porter writer, documentary film maker and TV presenter – and aged only 24. Along with McCormick the panel comprised Darren Henley (CEO at Arts Council England), Jasmin Vardimon (Director of her eponymous dance company), Michael Hill (KCC Cabinet Member for Community and Regulatory Services) and Brendan Relph, 16, CEO and founder Gocreative Group.

Describing ACE as “a talent agency – probably the biggest in the world” Henley wants to “bring young people to the heard of decision making because it brings them to the centre of power”. As McCormick says “We are the future”.

But the strongest message was subliminal. A retired army officer, Mr Hill is not a gifted speaker. There was a lot of fumbling with notes and stumbling over words as he delivered what was effectively a paean of praise for Kent County Council’s arts record. The words “political” and “spin” came to mind. He was followed by Brendan Relph. What a contrast. At 16, he has started his own profitable company and speaks without notes – and plenty of wit and inspirational verve.  Yes, youth has many advantages especially when it is as accomplished as Mr Relph, probably half a century younger than Hill.

None of that, however, justifies the public ageist putdown flashed at Hill by Porter as Chair. And I joined in the applause he got for his reply. Older people should never exclude young ones but the opposite is true too. Ageism can operate in both directions. And it shouldn’t. Surely it’s a case of working together and sharing complementary skills with shedloads of mutual respect?

However accomplished and imaginative a young theatre producer (for example) might be, he or she can still learn a lot from one who’s been doing the job for a decade or three. And it is both ignorant and arrogant to pretend otherwise. When I interviewed actor Julian Glover, 80, recently about his Lear with students from Bristol Old Vic he told me he was learning as much from them as he modestly hoped they might be from him. It is a two way process. Always.

I left the conference reflecting that yes, we in the arts must all work much harder at making young people integral to everything we do. But let’s also stop pigeonholing. “Folks is folks” as Scout observes more than once in To Kill a Mockingbird. We need boards, collaborative productions, companies and so on in which young people and older ones work together. The energetic imagination of the former combined with the expertise and experience of the latter is a powerful mix. The people we should be trying to ease out are the closed thinkers who pour cold water on every idea, the ones management textbooks call “blockers”. And they can be any age.

 

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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