What is Youth Theatre?
Youth theatre is a place where young people can express themselves creatively and in doing so develop their interpersonal and communication skills. Its benefits have recently been shown to have a lot more impact on the lives of young people than previously thought. In a 2009 study undertaken by National Association for Youth Drama in Ireland, 111 youth theatre members were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Youth theatre has the potential to completely change your life ” and a staggering 85.59% agreed. The study goes on to illustrate the many ways in which youth theatre impacts upon the lives of its young participants including the development of social, creative, and communicative skills. One of the benefits the study investigates is its function in helping people ‘grow up’ by providing them with increased levels of responsibility and independence.
Growing Up With Responsibilities
Many young people describe themselves as “growing up” with youth theatre and this is almost certainly facilitated by the responsibilities they carry out within the group. Not only is there a responsibility to support your fellow actors and designers but there is also a responsibility on each and every member to maintain the integrity of the group. This kind of responsibility requires discipline and as both Helen Mirren and Michael York (former members of NYT in the UK) emphasise, it is
“not an imposed discipline, but one which is self-taught by necessity.”
This kind of self-taught discipline is integral to the personal development of young people and a former NYT stage director links it directly to growing up:
“NYT helped me to grow up, both by meeting people outside my particular social sphere, and by the imposition of the demanding self-discipline.”
The NAYD study also suggests that increased levels of independence and responsibility provide a “framework through which young people ‘grow-up’ and become adults.” Youth Theatre members particularly mentioned “festivals and exchanges that involve travel” as catalysts for personal growth. Travelling with a youth theatre group could well be the first time a young person travels without a parent or guardian and are responsible for themselves. Members of youth theatre groups can travel to conferences, debates and youth forums which provide a very educational backdrop to the work they do and teaches them to think critically about their work and their process.
These high levels of responsibility and involvement offered by youth theatres are extremely important for young people as they are often not offered anywhere else. In school you are told what to do, where to sit and how to work; Responsibilities vary from home to home but in many cases young people are not given many serious responsibilities by their parents; and many extra-curricular activities don’t offer such high levels of independence and co-operation as youth theatre. A team coach won’t necessarily ask him team’s opinion about what formation they should play and what jersey they should wear whereas in youth theatre, members are integral to decisions such as this. Jane Marrow suggests that participation in this manner “offers young folks the chance to...direct their energies and thoughts outwards rather than in- which denies unhealthy introversion”
Increased levels of responsibility and independence aren’t the only factors that help young people ‘grow up’. Finding your own personal identity is very important and is a monumental task that awaits all adolescents. Members of youth theatres around Ireland believe that they are places where you learn things about yourself and “find your, kind of, true person.” One group leader even reported one member saying that “youth theatre is the one place where I don’t have to act .” In a place where you are constantly taking on different roles and characters it is difficult not to reveal your true self. When you step out of the role of Cleopatra it is very difficult to step straight into the role you have constructed for yourself in society and so you simply step into yourself.One Youth Theatre member is quoted as saying:
“Before I came to youth theatre I was a totally different person, and when I came here I learned how to express myself more and to accept myself for who I am and not to have to act like someone else. ”
By revealing themselves and being accepted, young people gain the confidence and self-esteem that is fundamental to their development into a healthy and well-balanced adult.
In the NAYD study, 440 youth theatre members were asked to complete the sentence “taking part in youth theatre has helped me to...” and 80.45% selected the answer “to become more confident.” Confidence is extremely important for young people and enables them to communicate and establish relationships comfortably and effectively. It has been directly linked to maturation in a study in the Journal of Biosocial Science in 1987, which found that a higher level of self-confidence was found in early maturers.
Maurice Devlin hails youth theatre as a way of exploring and discovering an autonomous identity and draws from his own experiences of it. He says that:
If the process of identity development is essentially about exploring answers to the question, ‘Who am I?’...then what better method could there be for undertaking such exploration than engaging in collaborative, and imaginative activity than enables you to ‘be’ in a variety of ways 
Young people constantly role play throughout their adolescent years in a variety of what are often termed “phases”. A phase can include a change in mannerisms, tastes, fashion, friends, and even ways of speaking. These phases are often met with confusion and frustration by those surrounding the young person. Youth theatre offers its members the opportunity to go through a variety of phases in a short space of time. These phases are supported and encouraged and so the young person is free to develop, explore, and either accept or reject a particular mode of behavior.
Social communication and the relationships that develop as a result of youth theatre are very important for the well-being of young people. A young person’s peer group can often seem even more important than their family at times and they rely on them for validation, opinions and guidance. Young people who find it hard to make social connections often express feeling of isolation. Feeling like they 'fit in' often what makes young people comfortable enough to explore and reveal their true selves, leading them to become more mature and well-balanced as people.These kinds of realisations-that you are not alone, but that you are an individual in a crowd; that everyone is the same but different- increases confidence in self, which can lead adolescents to become more autonomous and independent. A relatively recent study has found that adolescents that are classified as autonomous, have more positive interactions, and are better-adjusted than those classified as non-autonomous. It is much easier to become independent when the fear of standing out is removed. This autonomy has many beneficial effects on young people and brings them a step closer to adulthood by allowing them to explore their personal desires, feelings and opinions, and developing their own identity.
Youth theatre provides young people with countless social benefits that go way beyond their artistic and creative development and is a very interesting area of applied theatre. Adolescence is a difficult time not only for those going through it but for their parents and those around them. An adolescent’s relationship with their family can deteriorate during this period of massive growth and development which can lead to tension, frustration and unhappiness. By providing a creative and emotional outlet for young people, youth theatre can go some way to relieving that tension, and so smooth the path to maturity. Adolescent’s visions of adulthood are often restricted by the fact that the adults in their lives are in positions of authority (e.g. parent, teacher, coach) and so they often strike out against them and reject them. In Youth Theatre, young people get the opportunity to work with adult professionals and older youths in a peer environment. These adults can sometimes serve as more positive teachers and role-models who work with and support the young person on their path to adulthood. Their relationship can often be less formal than that of a parent/child, or a teacher/pupil, and a young person may feel more comfortable in sharing experiences with them. Youth drama benefits young people by providing them with different types of adult role models and, by treating them as equals encourages them to accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
 NAYD, “Chapter 7: The benefits of participation”, in Centre Stage +10: The Report, accessed December 10th, 2010, p. 159
[2 ]ibid p. 70
 ibid p. 169
 ibid p. 73
 ibid p. 168
 Sligo Youth Theatre member, “Capture YT 2010”, accessed December 10th, 2010, http://www.nayd.ie/resources/show/CaptureYt
 NAYD, “Chapter 7: The benefits of participation”, in Centre Stage +10: The Report, accessed December 10th, 2010, P. 116
 Cheryl S. Goodson et al, “The relative rate of maturation and its psychological effect”, Journal of Biosocial Science, vol. 19, (1987) pp. 73-88
 Maurice Devlin, “Youth Drama: The Youth Work Act?” in Youth Drama Ireland, no. 12, (2009-2010) p. 13
 Katherine A. Black et. al, “Attachment models, peer interaction behaviour, and feelings about the self” in The Organisation of Attachment Relationships, ed.Patricia McKinsey Crittenden & Angelika Hartl Claussen, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp. 300-324
© 2012 Emer Kelly