Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Why is theatre important?


I just spotted this tweet from The Old Vic and it resonates so much with me. If I had a daughter, Mrs Worthington, I'd be putting her on the stage for sure - maybe not for a lifelong career but to learn all the skills critical for a career in business that you probably won't learn at school or university.

Publicity shot in black and white for the Swan Youth Theatre Worcester production of Grease.
Grease by the Swan Youth Theatre, Worcester. Publicity shot.

I joined my local youth theatre in Worcester when I was 14 and stayed for 7 years. A friend of mine was joining and she suggested I come along too. I ended up loving it even more than she did and became totally committed to the group. We had a meeting every week where we either did improvisation and role-playing or we were rehearsing for our next show. We typically did one major show a year in the main theatre as part of the summer festival and a few other smaller studio productions during the rest of the year. We also had the opportunity to audition for roles in the main theatre productions too as and when they came up. I was lucky enough to be in a few of those including The Wizard of Oz and Once a Catholic, both directed by Tony Award winner, John Doyle. I also worked with Rufus Norris and Lawrence Boswell, amongst others, who went on to do great things in the theatre. But that's beside the point. I wouldn't be who I am today without those years spent in youth theatre working with professionals and learning by doing and by example.

Thinking back to our weekly SYT meetings, the thing I remember most is all the role-playing we did. We called it improvisation but it wasn't comic improvisation as we've come to know from shows like Whose Line is it Anyway. We were put into groups and given a theme or a scenario to imagine and to create our own scene from it. We got to play other people. We got to walk a little in someone else's shoes and imagine lives and experiences very different from our own. And a major part of this was being able to think on your feet and respond quickly to whatever was thrown at you in the scene, or being able to improvise your way out of a mistake. I don't remember there being any fear about doing these scenes. It all seemed completely normal to me and it was about collaborative effort and not about one person's ego. We were free to experiment.

That collaborative effort, and learning to tune into one another, is an essential part of teamwork to this day. I think that's one of the things I miss the most about my time in youth theatre. That sense of all being in it together and having one goal of getting the show off the ground is exhilarating and brings a team together like nothing else I know. Of course, we fought and argued at times. Who doesn't? But the camaraderie and support we had back then were amazing. And it's not that dissimilar to the great vibes you can get in a start-up business. The energy is catching if you get the team and the goals right. 

I learned all my entrepreneurial skills in youth theatre. I see being an entrepreneur as someone who makes something of nothing - creates a business from the seed of an idea. And that describes what we did. Our youth theatre director would have an idea of a show and we'd pull together to make it happen. We had a head start in that we had professional directors and crew to work with. And we had access to a space in which to put on our shows but we never had much of a budget so you quickly learn to muck in and to make things happen - costumes, backstage, on stage, lighting, front of house, dressing - we did all of it. We had to market and sell the tickets too so getting PR coverage in the local press was important. after all, when you have a 300 seat theatre to fill for 5 nights, that's a lot of tickets to sell. I remember for one show, a bunch of us dressed up in costumes from Godspell and joined the carnival handing out flyers. We really shouldn't have been there, but we got away with it with sheer chutzpah. And you need a bit of chutzpah when you're starting out in business.

In doing all of this, I also absorbed (it was more osmosis than learning I think) how to put on a show so it's not a great surprise that I've ended up hosting and running events as a large part of what I do. It's a great way to connect people, to bring them together. And it's an opportunity for learning. I also learned stage techniques too - to speak well, to not be afraid of speaking in front of an audience, to think about lighting and staging, to listen for cues, to improvise, teamwork, to take direction, to think on my feet and lots more besides.

So yes, I think experience in theatre, especially as a teenager, is terrifically important whether or not you end up having a career in theatre. As someone quite famous once said, "All the world's a stage and the men and women merely players". I think he may have had a point.

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