How the Exeter Northcott is Teaching a New Generation to Become Better Human Beings
Drama teacher Lisa Hudson left the school classroom behind after 20 years to join the theatre. In just four years she has established a thriving youth theatre which is not afraid to let children tackle the burning issues of our age, from mental health to plastic pollution and fake news. This summer sees the staging of a world premiere of a celebrated book about a family torn apart by a father’s descent into mental illness, The Family Tree. She explains how children are learning to get in touch with their emotions and making great theatre.
A combination of funding cuts and a focus away from creative subjects has seen a decline in the teaching of drama in schools.
Responding to this, arts organisations are increasingly taking on more responsibility to educate and inspire the next generation of artists and audiences.
Since making a welcome return to home-produced work in 2015, the Northcott has also been reconnecting with the city through drama.
The Creative Learning department makes theatre with schools, disabled groups and has ambitious plans to engage with the wellbeing and innovation hub, Colab.
The youth theatre offers an important first step to a career acting or backstage but more importantly provides a unique opportunity for self-expression and teaches important life skills.
In what is quite a coup, senior members of the burgeoning Northcott Young Company – around 60 budding thespians aged between 9 and 16 – are preparing the first dramatization of Mal Peet’s heart-rending book, The Family Tree, with the blessing of his widow, Elspeth Graham.
The story about a family broken apart by mental illness is the third in a trilogy of productions tackling important issues which follows an environmentally-themed adaptation of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 2017 and last year’s ‘fake news’ interpretation of W H Auden’s famous poem, 1 September 1939.
Auden was moved to write his famous verse by the way people went about their daily business despite the terrifying approach of the Second World War, and the young cats gave it a modern twist.
At the end of the show, as they entered the stage one by one, illuminating their phones and stating their real names, one or two seasoned theatregoers were reduced to tears.
Lisa Hudson, the Northcott’s Creative Learning Manager, encourages the youngsters to take control, a philosophy which inspired the children’s convention-breaking finale. She recalled,
“People were genuinely moved by that.”
“It wasn’t the kind of youth theatre people were expecting.
“Some people told me they were blown away, overwhelmed by it. I was pretty broken by the end. I couldn’t believe what they had achieved.
“The poem is about how people are so blinkered, how nobody looks up from their daily routines, from their own obsessions, to look at the world – we thought this was an amazing thing to put to children aged between 12 and 16.”
The young performers had wanted to talk about social media and phones – the idea that voices can either be really destructive or really positive.
They concluded that to speak up together, collectively, can be really positive – and that’s how they ended the show.
“The whole point they wanted to make was to use their voices constructively and positively and the way to do that was by breaking the theatre convention and saying ‘I am…Thea …I am Joby…I am Noah…”.
“The idea of shining light from the screen of the phones comes back to the poem. Auden talks about points of light being exchanged by people who are just and the kids really understood that. They understood his point that people who fight for justice exchange positive messages and they wanted to say that their phones can do that. It is not just about the negativity that comes through social media, bullying and all of that. It is about them saying ‘this is me and I am going to stand up for other people’.”
Lisa began rebuilding the education and outreach department in 2015 after former artistic and executive director Paul Jepson asked her to do some workshops for A Christmas Carol.
Since then – and under the new artistic director and chief executive Daniel Buckroyd – the theatre has engaged with around 5,000 young people.
Associates PaddleBoat Theatre joined forces to run a sector-leading project which brought together staff and students from schools along Topsham Road – ERADE, Isca, Southbrook and WESC and Wynstream Primary.
In April, a play about the daily joys and frustrations of four proudly independent disabled actors was created with CEDA (Community Equality Disability Action) and staged at the Northcott.
The Young Company was relaunched in 2017 after a dozen years without any children’s theatre group and has now grown to three Saturday groups.
Drama teacher and workshop leader Lizzie Hedden runs the company with Jacob Blackburn, while Lisa and her former teaching colleague and Head of Expressive Arts Conor Magee, co-direct the shows.
This core team give young aspiring actors a taste of professional theatre – but the philosophy of a caring collective runs much deeper than useful stage skills.
“It gives them a real insight into professional theatre and how it is run – this is the first and least important. The second is that it makes them generous – it is not about one person. The Family Tree will be 26 young people making decisions together, considering other people and their needs. They will all understand it on different levels. It is a very adult story though it presents as a picture book. The 12-year-old will be accessing those issues on a very different level to the 16-year-olds – everybody has to be generous with each other and that’s a fantastic life skill to learn.
“The third and most important thing when you are exploring a story like that – issues such as mental health within families – is that it makes those young people more emotionally literate. That’s for me the most important thing that drama does: it makes people understand the world and therefore different people in a way they wouldn’t without theatre. My drama has always been issue-based, about empathy, walking around in other people’s shoes.”
“This is what we promote – our philosophy – we enable young people to understand the world and themselves better. It might sound incredibly hippyish…it is not what some other theatres do – and there is place for all of them – but that is where we come from.”
For Lisa, this is ‘all the best bits of teaching’ without much of the stress and her way of helping to plug the gap in dram provision in schools.
“It is massively inspiring to see the creativity that is out there and that so many people are really desperate to make work and see work and gain opportunities. The flipside is that it is really sad that schools have to fight for that these days so it is so much more difficult to bring school trips to theatre and bring arts to schools. The arts are being cut back. That’s why I think people are really crying out for it because they know how important it is. That is what we are fighting for. A local teacher not long ago said to me ‘thank you for flying the flag for this’. I am not. I am doing a tiny, tiny amount but there needs to be much more but at least I am trying to do something to keep people involved in the Arts. And I am not the only one.”