Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Toby Ealden: Youthquake

By | Published on Friday 11 October 2019

Headed to Stratford Circus Arts Centre this week is Lincolnshire-based youth-focused producing company Zest Theatre, as they bring their latest show ‘YouthQuake’ for a London outing as part of a wider tour.

It’s an intriguing piece, which sounds like it’s been developed with its finger absolutely on the pulse of youth culture and concerns. To find out more, I spoke to director Toby Ealden.

CM: ‘Youthquake’ doesn’t sound like it’s a traditionally theatrical piece: can you tell us what sort of format and/or genre to expect from the show?
TE: We’ll be taking all the seats out of Stratford Circus Arts Centre and building a three-sided arena for the show – this is both the set for the show and where the audience sit. The action happens all around this space and is anchored in a TED Talk created by our adult character, Becky. It’s an exciting 360° experience that allows you to really step inside the minds of teenagers. It’s a frenetic, heady mix of song, music, verbatim and humour.

CM: Does it tell a story? Who and what is it about? 
TE: Yes, but in an unusual way! Becky is our adult character. Initially the audience are watching a performance lecture she has created, designed to empower young people to stand up and change the world. She is well meaning, however, it’s clear that things aren’t resonating with her young audience in the way she’d hoped.

As the descent rises, in the audience, it’s as if we switch frequencies. We tune out of Becky’s world, and into the minds of the young people sitting in the audience. We begin to experience the world through their eyes, seeing the reality of the lives behind Becky’s stats. We watch as these two frequencies collide – but will they find a resolve?

CM: What themes and topics are addressed in the show? 
TE: We are tackling all the big stuff that is affecting Generation Z. It highlights a whole range of topics for young people, all of which add to this feeling that they are on the brink inside an adult world who don’t listen to them. We look at what it means to change the world and what young people see in their future.

CM: Can you tell us about the R&D phase of this project? What did you do, and how have you used the information collected to inform the project?
TE: The R&D for this one was extensive. Over eight weeks we visited eleven cities, delivered 53 workshops and met over 800 young people. The purpose of this process was to have a genuine conversation with as many young people as possible across the country.

These sessions were so informative; in fact we purposefully hadn’t created any of the show before starting that process. We wanted this to be genuinely informed by our audience. The words that wrote and spoke have now made their way into the show. Around 90% of the words spoken by young people in the production are real words from real young people.

CM: Can you tell us about the lead performers, and about the inclusion of local ensembles?
TE: The show features a mixed cast of professional actors and local young people from each tour location. Our professionals are incredible.

Claire is a theatre maker in her own right, specialising in solo work. Her practise as an artist has been integral in creating Becky’s presentation. She is joined by recent East15 graduate Harris Cain. Harris is the same generation as our young characters and join the Youth Casts on stage, facilitating the action and driving the Gen-Z storyline through. Harris is a naturally engaging performer who is so engaging to watch and inspiriting for our young performers.

But the real magic of this show comes from our Youth Casts. Up to 20 young people from each community will join us on stage in every tour location – representing their own generation and speaking up for young people across the country.

CM: How did this piece come about? What inspired it? 
TE: As a company we work with 20,000 young people a year. Two years ago we were touring a show about Brexit around the country. At that time we could sense the rumbling of something new coming from teenagers across the country. A generation who saw the world differently, who were realistic, yet optimistic for the future. A group of people who were breaking free of the boxes that defined their parents and living beyond the binary choices of previous generations. We were inspired to make it by our audiences and the responsibility we felt to create a platform for them to speak for themselves about all the important stuff.

CM: Would you consider it to be political? Does it have a particular agenda? 
TE: Yeah, it’s definitely political, but with a small ‘p’. It unpacks the direct consequences of the political choices made in the lifetime of Gen-Z to create the current situation facing young people.

CM: Can you tell us about Zest Theatre? Why and when was it set up, and what are its aims? 
TE: Zest exists to inspire and captivate a new generation of theatre audience. From our base in Lincoln, we tour the country with work for a whole range of settings.

Our work visits theatres, schools, high streets, market squares, festivals – anywhere where young people might come into contact with us. All our work has accessibility at its heart, with the aim of removing barriers that stop people from attending the arts.

I started the company twelve years ago, initially just within our home county of Lincolnshire. The cultural scene in Lincolnshire is still developing, and back in 2007 there was a gap for an arts organisation in the area that specialised in making work for young people. The previous Theatre Company I was working for had closed, so I bit the bullet and began Zest to fill the gap left behind.

CM: What have been the highlights of running it, thus far? 
TE: There are so many highlights! I’m proud of the shows we’ve made, the stories we’ve told and the fact we’ve been able to keep going and sustain the company for so long, despite the financial climate. But it’ll always be the individual stories of the young people we impact that stay with me the longest. It’s tough being young in this country, and I’m pleased that we get to be a tiny part of making that easier.

CM: What plans and ambitions do you have for it in the long term? 
TE: I’d like to see Youthquake have a further life beyond this initial tour. We’re also keen to move up a scale with our work and explore even more ambitious levels or new work. But we don’t really ever plan too far in advance. We’re small and mighty and fleet of foot. Our small size allows us to be flexible and responsive. With young people you never know what’s coming next…watch this space!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
TE: We have a schools tour coming up in the spring that deals with the topic of youth homelessness. We also have our show for non-theatre spaces, First Person, out on the road all year round. In addition to that we also artistic direct all the theatre and performance content at Lost Village Festival each year. Lost Village is an award winning, boutique festival that takes place in the Lincolnshire countryside each August. We get the incredible opportunity to create a whole range of weird and wonderful experiences for the capacity crowd of 14,000 people.

Youthquake’ is on at Stratford Circus Arts Centre from 16-17 Oct. See the venue website here for information and to book your tickets.

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