Thinking about Families at the Theatre Educators Forum

For me, a walk through Nottingham city centre is like stepping back in time as I experience some of the funny (and cringe worthy) memories of my childhood rising from deep inside.  All the shops have changed (except good old M&S), but I can still see those places that held special significance - the Odeon cinema and the library which fuelled my dreams of being anyone, knowing everything and doing anything I wanted to (still dreaming about that one!), rock city where I cut my teeth on the alternative music scene, the Garage in Hockley where dancing was not for the faint hearted, the church that taught me how to play my violin with my soul rather than my arms, the bars we got into under-age, and the one that caused deep humiliation by throwing me out at 20 for looking too young...

So I was thrilled to be asked back to chair the Theatre Educators Forum at Nottingham Playhouse last week. The focus was on working with families, and it was clear from the hugely impressive family learning and eduation programmes already being developed by theatres across the country, that the room would be buzzing with expertise and ideas.

Following everyone's inspiring introductions, TEF co-ordinator, Steve Ball (Associate Director at the Birmingham Rep and one of the Earlyarts Pathfinders), designed a speed-dating session with a difference. Rather than explore ten versions of a high-speed L'Oreal advert in the hope that this may lead to some deep and meaningful connection (can you tell I've been to a few?!), TEF members were asked to present their opinions to each other on some key issues around their professional relationships with families.

This led into a series of role-plays exploring the main challenges for families coming to the theatre, captured in an entertaining series of 'before' and 'after' tableaux by each group. The whole Boal-style exercise enabled us as educators, programmers, producers or venue administrators to really get into the shoes and under the skin of those who are on the receiving end of our theatre 'offer'. The tableaux, whilst entertaining, were a powerful way of moving us beyond what can sometimes be an over-focus on the obstacles, to getting a sense of what balanced, positive relationships with families can and should feel like.

This sparked in my mind some questions about how we start to build those relationships, especially with families who live in areas of extreme poverty, whose children have the same rights as any other to experience powerful creative opportunities, and yet for whom those opportunities are probably far from the top of their agenda. By the way, the cultural rights of our children are clearly articulated in the Cultural Learning Alliance's recent publication the Case for Cultural Learning.

We know that these are the people who could benefit so immediately from techniques for effective communications, expression of their stories, empowerment to change their situations, mediation in challenging circumstances, building of their skills for future employment, and finding a greater sense of purposefulness and aspiration in their communities. All of which is on offer through most theatre in education programmes.

So, with these thoughts in mind, we started to pool some of our best ideas to meeting some of the hardest challenges. Starting with the hardest question of all - what's in it for them? How do we make theatre stand out in the madding crowd of entertainment, sports and other equally valid opportunities? How do we make it an irresistible and, at the same time, meaningful offer? Of course, its a complex mix of getting the programme, marketing, family-friendly venue, transport, timing and price right. But even with a perfect offer in the bag, where is the emotional engagement for a family member for whom theatre is way outside of their cultural comfort zone?

We heard about some great examples of how theatres were achieving these relationships through work with babies, health visitors, social care workers, sibling offers, grab-a-grannie intergenerational events, parent-craft groups, youth workers, schools and early years settings.

The marketing, programming, production, education and admin teams were working with the languages of families, through subsidy offered by non-arts agencies, putting out-reach on an equal footing with in-reach, considering a values-based, cultural entitlement approach before an audience development one, and so forth. But the overall message was loud and clear: Partnership. Partnership. Partnership.

Theatre Education has its roots in the pioneering community arts movement of the 70s and 80s. It still achieves change in the lives of those who cannot be reached and supported as well by other agencies, for a variety of reasons, and particularly harnessing the potential of children and young people through these approaches. But it cannot achieve the level of impacts that it is perfectly well positioned to achieve by working on its own in an increasingly swamped market place. Everyone at this event identified one or two clear ideas on how they would change their own practice in order to meet our families where they are at, and bring forward the reality of enabling them to make their own change happen in their own lives.

This is a group of people who get it. Who have experienced why it makes sense, and who are passionate about other people being able to get it too. It was an honour to be able to work with them and hear some of their thinking about how we move forward. Can't wait to see what happens next!

Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts