Interview with Michelle Smith | Artistic Director of Auditions Access Fund Partner Theatre for Life

We talk to Michelle Smith, Artistic Director of Theatre for Life Youth Theatre in Southampton, about the importance of local arts projects 

I first set up our free Theatre for Life Youth Theatre as part of our community interest company for 14-25 year olds in Southampton in June 2017, in response to limited opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’d taught in formal education for over seventeen years previously, and had worked on lots of youth theatre productions, and time and time again when I’d encourage young people to get more involved in theatre or apply for drama school their response would be ‘I can’t afford it’. They had so much potential, and so much room for growth as artists but there just wasn’t the opportunity for them to flourish due to financial difficulties and deprivation in the area.  

"There just wasn’t the opportunity for them to flourish"

The whole concept of Theatre for Life Youth Theatre is about raising aspirations, empowering the young people who take part, and building their confidence, as well as giving them the chance to develop a whole load of transferable skills including communication which they can use regardless of what they go on to do. Working collaboratively and devising work is also hugely important to us – we run sessions with devising theatre practitioners, professional scriptwriters, music and drama therapists and others to enable our young people to really become theatre makers, and give them a sense of ownership with the work created. 

Every year we do one major production with the young people we work with, and currently we’re preparing for ‘Silent Mind’ a new devised piece of interactive theatre which we’re touring around the local area in 2019. ‘Silent Mind’ explores the issue of mental health which is hugely relevant to the young people we work with, not least because of the high hospitalisation figures in the local area in relation to young people and mental health. In the piece we’ll be embedding coping strategies such as meditation and breathing work to create a real connection between the performers and their audience. 

"For me it’s all about creating life changing theatre, theatre for change"

What’s exciting about this project in particular is that we’ll be touring it around the area from Itchen Sixth Form College, where we’re based, in our local leading producing theatre, Nuffield Theatre City and then finally at the All in the Mind festival. It’ll give our young people a fantastic chance to get experience in touring theatre in a variation of professional settings. 

For me it’s all about creating life changing theatre, theatre for change. Over the years, through my teaching I’ve witnessed how much theatre can improve lives – it’s so rewarding to see young people follow their goals within the arts and not be held back by their circumstances. It’s why we’re also thrilled to be benefiting from the National Youth Theatre’s Auditions Access Fund in 2019, which is bringing free NYT participation workshops and auditions to Southampton in the new  year and opening up an incredibly important opportunity to our young people and others locally. 

Being able to take part in local opportunities and projects is so important for our young people because of the cultural and financial barriers that might discourage someone from travelling to London to see a show for example. Having a youth theatre community locally is encouraging and empowering our young people to believe in themselves, and to apply to things like NYT and drama school.

"Being able to take part in local opportunities and projects is so important"

If you’re a young person in Southampton wanting to get into theatre, I’d say take all the opportunities you can, especially the free ones! Keep an eye on what the local theatres and youth theatres offer, think about joining our free youth theatre or attending our subsidised industry programmes, and engage in conversations with industry professionals and other young people. As well as that, see as much theatre as possible – take advantage of under 26 discount schemes, and things like National Theatre Live – and head down to the library and read plays, lots of plays, all sorts of plays. Lastly, there are lots of festivals and theatre festivals that take place in Southampton, check them out, you never know what you might find on your own doorstep. 

Theatre for Life Youth Theatre is one of our 2019 Auditions Access Fund partner organisations. In 2019 we'll be bringing free participation workshops and auditions to Southampton with Theatre for Life. 

Photos: Tanya Shrimpton, Karen Baker, Richard Budd

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