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Ophelia brilliantly played by teenager Astrid Bishop Picture by Ellen Day

Years of research show that involvement with the creative arts is closely linked to almost everything that parents say they want for their children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, life skills and equality of opportunity among other things. As creative arts subjects in schools are squeezed further by the demands of the National Curriculum and the current regime of being in thrall to league tables and continuous testing, one of the few places where valuable life skills can be fostered in teenagers is by involvement in a local drama group. You know the skills I mean? All together now.

  • Communication
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-evaluation
  • Teamwork
  • Creative thinking
  • Marketing
  • Working to a budget
  • Meeting deadlines

 These are the skills everybody needs beyond school. Testing does not prepare a student for the real world. Life skills are what students need and what employers want.

Last week my local drama group put on a production of Hamlet in a fourteenth century Tithe Barn in the heart of town. It played to an audience of 900, over four nights and involved a team of over 60 diverse members of the local community, some of whom were under 18. The team has been working on the project for three months. Some of the youngsters appeared on stage, but there were more in the backstage crew and I am so proud of them all and what we achieved.

So exactly which skills did we foster in the last three months. Let’s explore my observations from last week.

Project Management.  A stage production is basically a business project involving multiple teams of people working together to bring in a project on time and on budget. If you do it well, you’ll make a profit and entertain a lot of people. Choosing people with the right mix of skills to get the job done, empowering them to make things happen and supporting them whilst they do it is part and parcel of the production manager’s job. Then there’s monitoring progress, filling in any gaps, trouble shooting and ensuring deadlines are met. It’s all in a day’s work for a production manager. Having youngsters assist or shadow a production manager is one of the most valuable opportunities you can offer young people.

Learning to improvise. The great thing about being on stage is that almost anything can happen when you’re in front of an audience. Forgotten lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. You learn to focus, think quickly and find solutions. The same is true off stage if a prop goes missing, an actor is not where they ought to be or the lighting fails.

Working hard Entire weekends can disappear in the building of a stage set. Members of a production team can be set painting at midnight and sewing into the wee small hours. They may have banged more nails into their fingers accidentally than they care to remember and have to turn up early after a production to clear away the set and tidy up the performance space rather than basking in the glory of a job well done.  In life there will be periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. Sometimes the critics and the audience don’t like what you’ve presented, irrespective of how hard you’ve worked. This will happen in life too.

Working with limited budgets.This is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Most amateur shows are produced on a shoestring budget, which forces you to be creative, imaginative and thrifty. Sounds to me like a sound recipe for life.

Dealing with people/customer service and getting along with colleagues. Working with people of all types is essential in life and in am dram. Everyone has a part to play. Some people may be difficult but it’s important to try to understand, appreciate and effectively communicate with them all. The fact that sometimes the pressure is on and people feel stressed adds extra sizzle to the melting pot.

Doing whatever needs to be done. Any amateur theatrical company cannot afford the luxury of too much specialism. Therefore, even if you act, the chances are you’ll also be called upon to do any number of other jobs. You have to learn to do it all. Lighting, engineering sound, directing, production management, PR, marketing, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, Front of House duties, make-up, costume. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable it is for youngsters to be involved in developing skills in real contexts, be that woodworking, using their IT skills to work on sound, lighting or graphic design, baking, buying supplies, sewing, selling…. This fosters a  can-do attitude in young people and that is a valuable skill to take forward into the world of work.

Making difficult choices and dealing with disappointment In the world of work difficult decisions must sometimes be made. Putting yourself up for audition and not being cast is the start of learning that sometimes things don’t go your way,however much you feel you deserve it or however hard you’ve worked. Being on a casting panel and letting people down gently is a valuable skill to learn too.

Presentation Skills. Whether you’re acting, serving interval coffee and cake or selling programmes the ability to connect with people is essential. Practice makes perfect and youngsters who belong to theatre groups get plenty of that. Taking things a stage further, the abillity to stand up confidently in front of a group of people and effectively communicate a message while  being motivating and a little entertaining is rare. To develop this, try acting for a local group.

Doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Am dram teaches you that you can sometimes create magic with no need for the latest technology or gimmicks. A passion for what you do and a sincere commitment to making it work is enough. One of the most memorable moments from Hamlet involved two men totally believing in the moment, a wooden box and a prop dagger.

The power of thankyou Everyone likes to be appreciated. Make everyone with whom you’ve worked feel appreciated and they’ll work twice as hard for you next time. Fact. The actors get the plaudits but the backstage crew are working just as hard. Recognise this and learn to be appreciative of everyone’s contribution in drama and in life.