I feel deeply, passionately and bitterly sad to hear of the death of Team Educational Theatre Company, announced last month by email and on their Facebook page. After a courageous and painful struggle with strangulation by public neglect, and fatal haemorrhaging of its financial base from cuts from the funding bodies, it can no longer survive in this time of market forces, when the arts, like every other ‘business’, now knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Neither the Arts Council nor the Department of Education, which for years had kicked this company between them like an old football, was willing to champion it. In times of recession, funding for children, and especially theatre for young people, is an easy cut to make. Who cares what children think? Do they have a vote? Are they on any boards? Do they have any money to influence people?
Team Theatre had survived for 33 years, through times of great national poverty, all through the 1980s, a little sibling of the Abbey Theatre, who gave it a home and a rehearsal space in Marlborough Place; no doubt the Abbey also felt relieved that the unspoken national obligation to provide excellent theatre for young people was being minded, leaving them free of the responsibility. And Team embraced this wholeheartedly, perhaps to the detriment of their public face, because on their tight budget they had nothing left for spin, public profile raising, or marketing themselves. In the twenty plus years I have lived in Ireland I have only once seen a full interview with the director of Team in this newspaper. All their time, their best energy, love, and talents were dedicated to their audiences, not just the performances of two brand new plays a year, but the devising of interactive workshops to run with the play, showing kids a participatory way in to drama as education, and the actors listened to what children had to say on issues like suicide, death, poverty, even the excitement of being a hive-dwelling co-operative of bumble bees. How anyone can think this is not important enough to continue beggars belief.
I speak from personal experience; one performance of one play changed my life. I was sixteen when I saw Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop version of ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’, and it left me stunned, inspired and excited. Theatre could be about things that really happened, theatre could be about and for ordinary people, theatre could come down from its pedestal and talk directly to members of the audience, improvising responses! I knew then that this was the kind of theatre I wanted to spend my life with. I hope that out of all Team’s young audiences over the years, some have gone away with a similar feeling of excitement – not necessarily to be involved with theatre, but to feel they had a voice and something to say, in whatever field they might choose.
Many fine Irish playwrights have written for Team, many young actors cut their teeth on the fresh and challenging responses of their audiences. When I worked for them and Martin Murphy, their director, in the 1990s, any idea I brought to the table had to be road tested by workshops in classes of the target age, so that no ivory tower thinking would be loftily handed down for the kids to admire – these kids gave every idea and its originators an honest and realistic appraisal. Team’s funding from the Education Department in those days depended on a slice for the special inclusion of disadvantaged schools, and the workshops in these were of particular interest to me, coming as I did from a background of working with poor, marginalised, disturbed kids. One workshop I attended was to sound out their reactions to a play set in the Emergency – did they have any family stories about the bombing of the North Strand? They did – but even more exciting than that was the spirit of friendly anarchy that suddenly took over the class as they realised we were not teachers there to keep order – one boy swiftly executed a cock and balls on the blackboard, and even though we’d watched him do it, swore blind ‘it wasn’t me’. The same class responded to the play, ‘Burning Dreams’ avidly, and joined in the workshops after the play with that freshness and enthusiasm that all playwrights and actors long to provoke in their audience.
I write for children not because it’s easier – it isn’t – or because no one else wants to – I am sure there are other playwrights out there who would love to, if there was a decent living to be made out of it – but because I have a lifelong commitment to the arts for young people, and because my best ideas are inspired by children.
The Ark is still here, and Graffiti Theatre in Cork, and Barnstorm. Two dedicated theatre companies and one arts centre to cover the entire republic. This is shameful, and that we have allowed ourselves to elect a government who sees nothing wrong in ignoring the other needs of children, for decent medical care, housing, education and loving attention, reflects the attitudes we have subscribed to, albeit by being mislead by politicians who promised us to carry out a mandate we elected them for, later changing it to another mandate we specifically asked not to have, and explaining this on air as ‘the kind of thing you do when you want to get elected’. Yes, you tell lies.
Theatre for children that does not tell lies – that is the business I am in.
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