At the 2017 National Rural Touring Forum conference, Phil gave a keynote speech entitled The White Rabbit In The Room (dressed in a big bunny outfit, of course). In the speech, he encouraged delegates to be more open about recognising the value of failure when it comes to learning from those projects for children and young people which just don’t work out the way their makers had hoped. The full transcript of the speech can be found below.
Hello everyone. My name is Phil. I’m one of the co-Directors of a theatre company called Little Earthquake. I’m also a member of the NRTF Board. And I hate the term “family-friendly”.
I hate it in the same way I hate terms like “weekday vegetarian”. If you’re going to do something, make a commitment to doing it properly. If you really want to help the little animals, start eating them on no days per week, rather than just the two.
And when you say you’re family-friendly, it’s probably children and young people whose engagement with your work you want to build most. So instead of just being friendly towards them — start showing them that they are absolutely essential to what you do now and what you want to do next — with their families and without their families — all the time.
Because while you may not be able to exist in the future without them, young people are perfectly capable of seeing a future for themselves without you in it.
Making something good happen with young people is a bit like Katrina and the Waves winning Eurovision. The triumph is intense but also brief. It feels like the world is watching! But their attention wanders, because someone else is always doing the next amazing thing that outshines yours. You comfort yourself with knowing you once did something amazing, too, but soon, the memory of it shrinks into the past until only a dedicated search on your website or maybe on Arts Professional proves it ever happened at all.
Little Earthquake’s Katrina and the Waves moment was our Young Producers project which started in 2014 and ended in 2015. Teaming up with Black Country Touring, Arts Connect (the West Midlands bridge organisation) and the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, and with hefty investment from Arts Council England, we spent a year with 100 primary schoolchildren who essentially commissioned and co-produced a mid-scale family musical based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. We’ve talked about it at NRTF Conferences before. There’s a detailed case study on the project by Kate Organ – and we have little cards with the web link on them, if you’d like to find out more.
But what felt so important and urgent at the time has now largely faded into the background. Instead of clinging onto that past glory, we need to keep doing more work with young people which is important and urgent. But the trouble is… Like many people here, I’ll bet… We get it wrong as often or maybe more than we get it right. I’m fairly sure what got me onto the NRTF Board was my supposed status as a “CYP expert” but some of our failures have been catastrophic.
In preparing for today, I came to a serious realisation. It’s important to recognise and share success when it happens — but it’s just as important to be open and vocal about the times when we mean well, try hard and still fall flat on our faces. Really listening to other people’s noble and sometimes epic failures has to be one of our best ways to stop wasting public funds and most of all, to stop wasting people’s (particularly young people’s) time, money and goodwill.
In 2014, we staged Bunny Games at the Library of Birmingham, a screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with me and Gareth in these top-to-toe rabbit suits, village fete games with carrots as the prizes, and bingo with a pop-up ball machine. All the adults involved in the planning thought it was a MARVELLOUS idea. On the day, when one of the organiser’s children saw me like this and burst into tears, I feared we’d made a terrible tactical error.
Good weather and bad marketing meant we scraped 23 people into a 400 seat venue. The game of Bunny Bingo was an interminable nightmare I will never forget. It was such a sad experience that when Bob Hoskins passed away that weekend, it almost felt like we were somehow to blame. That same little girl saw me again recently, and three years on, I’m convinced she recognised me as the big white rabbit of evil.
The difference between Young Producers and Bunny Games seems clear to me. When there’s time and space for young people to be involved from an early practical stage, what we do together is a real collaboration with benefits for both sides. When young people are brought in after most or all of the decisions about them and their experience have been made, they simply become recipients of a thing which some adults have decided about on their behalf.
Speaking at the Family Arts Conference in March, Kate Organ talked about projects involving older people, which she has explored and written about in her former role as Arts Adviser to the Baring Foundation. “Participation is critical to making something that matters,” she said. “Without genuine consultation, it won’t work.”
I’m not saying it’s impossible for adults to come up with projects and schemes which will interest and excite and be a good experience for young people — but most of the time, they do just get what adults decide to give them.
It’s fine for us to be the ones who might come up with an initial idea — it’s part of our job as creative leaders — but I bet there’s always a moment when getting young people involved in shaping and developing those ideas with us, and keeping them involved, will help us to make something together that we could never hope to achieve on our own. They may not be experts in the process of making theatre — but they are experts in their own experience. And in our eyes, that should make them invaluable.
What has always encouraged and moved me about the rural network is the depth of the personal relationships, knowledge and discussion between audiences and promoters, between promoters and schemes, and, increasingly, between all of those people and artists as well.
It feels very realistic to me that a network which has already got thousands of adult-to-adult conversations at such a well-developed stage could easily turn more of its attention to having better conversations with young people, too.
HOWEVER… I often find myself overhearing or being reminded that if you ask any young person, the village hall is the last place they’d be seen dead in their free time.
People do have their own cultures and the arts don’t have a place in everyone’s lives. Young people are no different.
“We’ll never engage or attract all the young people but we must keep trying so that they can make that choice.” [TC Peppercorn, Education and Outreach Co-ordinator at Artrix, in Arts Professional, November 2013]
So if the conventional spaces are an issue, do things somewhere else. If the numbers of young people in a given place are an issue, do something with the young people you have got, or look for ways, times and places where you can do something with more of them. If the work you’re offering is an issue, offer something else.
I suspect a lot of us are scared of the Arts Council’s Goal 5 — scared that our young audience numbers aren’t high enough, or that we don’t have enough young audience members who are demonstrably engaging more, or that we don’t have enough young audience members who are living in the right postcodes.
At some recent fundraising training, Joanna Ridout gave a very profound piece of advice. Define your KPIs before your funders do. I’ve been really inspired by this idea: that we should use our expertise, experience and knowledge of the people we are working with to define what impact we’re looking to achieve, how we’ll measure it and what success will look like.
At the moment, we often let our fear get the better of our wisdom, and when it comes to Goal 5, in the rush to offer something which will help us hit the back of the net, many of us end up scoring an own goal.
Until we’re more prepared to say what isn’t working and why it isn’t working, and unless we’re prepared to ask for help in finding different approaches and solutions, we’ll all keep falling into the same old traps or, worse, for fear of failing, we’ll end up doing nothing at all.
Peter Brook once speculated on why young people will spend a fortune on trainers and not on theatre and he reached a simple conclusion. It’s “because the theatre has let a lot of people down over the years, and trainers haven’t.” Let’s make today the day when we start closing the gap in that race.
For the remainder of the session, you’ll split into two groups. You’ll spend half the time next door, being inspired by the wonderful work of The Bone Ensemble, with an extract from their brilliant show, Where’s My Igloo Gone?
And you’ll spend half the time in here inspiring yourselves and other delegates with the opportunity to hatch plans for brilliant work for children and young people which takes full advantage of what you know, what you have and what you can give.
I’d like to say a big thankyou to you all for listening — and I hope you enjoy the rest of the day!