"I feel simultaneously so heartbroken and inspired." - A Q&A with Toby Ealden
A Q&A with theatre maker Toby Ealden
Zest’s Artistic Director, Toby Ealden, has been making theatre for young audiences for over sixteen years, including youth theatres, school tours and national touring. His past work includes working as the youth theatre director for Nacro, the national crime reduction charity, before establishing Zest Theatre in 2007.
Q: Where did the seed of the idea come from for this play?
A: The impetus for this new production actually came up during the process of touring our previous show, What Once Was Ours. That show was about young people’s thoughts and opinions on Brexit. It used a handful of recorded voices from young people throughout the show and audiences reacted really strongly towards them. Those voices spoke with such clarity and honesty that it surprised our audiences. They weren’t expecting to be hearing such articulate responses from teenagers.
This made me think. Why are we only sharing recordings of voices of young people, or just casting professional young actors to play our teenage audience. Why can’t young people come on stage and actually speak for themselves? So that’s how Youthquake came to be.
This is a real experiment. Whilst I’ve created lots of youth theatre productions in my career, this is the first time I’ve tried it with an extensive touring production. It’s a logistical feat, with a brand new cast of young performers added into the show in each town we visit. But it’s a challenge that we are so excited about! Who knows what will happen, but I can’t wait to find out.
Q: What inspires you to make theatre with and for young people?
A: Because they are incredible! I’ve always worked with young people and have seen first-hand the struggles, passions and issues facing them every day. What’s more, access to the arts is increasingly becoming something that is for a privileged few. We want to change that. We want to use the Arts to help facilitate important conversations, to provoke action and to help young people realise that theatre can be exciting, innovative and relevant to them. This generation are left unheard in our society, so most of all we just want to give young people a voice!
Q: How much research was involved?
A: The process of making a Zest show is a really collaborative one. I usually have an idea or premise to explore and then we set out to find the right cast and creatives to support the process. All our shows are developed alongside young people, so that their voices and experiences are at the forefront of our work.
Research and Development usually takes 4 weeks, after which we will have a rough script in place, that will be honed and edited during rehearsals. Youthquake was a 14-week process, due to the sheer numbers of young people we met. Lots of things will influence which direction a show takes, including input from cast, set design, young people and what is relevant in the news/society at that time.
Q: What have you learnt about young people during the process of making the play?
A: The Youthquake R&D workshops have been a real rollercoaster of emotions because they have told us so much about how young people feel. It may be because I’m 37 and now a parent to my own children, but to be honest, after meeting 800 of them, I feel simultaneously so heartbroken and inspired. In 16 years of working with young people, I have never seen these levels of poor mental health, anger and frustration in teenagers. But I’ve also never seen this level of political awareness, activism and optimism. They also have the most macabre and hilarious sense of humour!
They feel like no one is listening, understands or cares, but they aren’t letting that stop them. If no one is going to help, then they will do it their own way. They want hope, but more importantly they want action. They don’t always realise it, but they are changing the world in tiny ways every day. My hope is that Youthquake tells that story and gives them the voice they so badly need.