Icon Theatre joined industry leaders for the 2022 Music and Drama Education Awards, where they won the Drama & Theatre Magazine Editor’s Award for its youth-led performance partnership programme, Theatre31.

Icon Theatre’s Theatre31 programme is one of the UK’s five youth performance partnership projects taking place in England, a national programme funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and delivered by Arts Council England (ACE). Icon Theatre won a tender from Medway Council to deliver the programme in 2019.

Theatre31 is a youth-led programme co-created with Icon Theatre’s youth panel and aims to create more equal access to creative opportunities in areas of disadvantage, high deprivation and low arts engagement in Medway and Sheppey. To date it has engaged over 6,400 young people exceeding its 2,000 target.

Inspired by the belief that everyone should have access to the transformative power of the arts, the three-and-a-half-year programme, has empowered young people to design their own theatre programme and develop performance, backstage and technical skills and has transformed the way schools and arts organisations work together in the region.

Programme highlights include:

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic Theatre31 adapted: led by a digital facilitator and in classroom teacher, Tropical Tours was a drama experience that could be completed from students’ desks whilst social distancing; an outdoor touring production with Circo Rum Ba Ba of The Snow Queen’s Magnificent Message was delivered to over 1,000 young people in their playgrounds; and Playground Theatre workshops, engaged 1,900 young people across Medway in summer 2020.

In Autumn 2021, Theatre31 launched a spoken word project at Cookham Wood Young Offender’s Institution led by artist Lady Unchained (Brenda Birungi), whose mission is to prove there’s life after prison. The project is a safe space for self-expression, with the aim to build lasting relationships with participants as they move to the next chapters in their lives.

In February 2022, Theatre31 commissioned Big Dreams, a digital theatre project by Kent based deaf theatre company D-Live! Kent has one of the largest deaf communities in the UK, the community remains underserved by accessible arts provision. Through a series of workshops, Big Dreams is giving a unique opportunity for deaf young people in Medway to learn from professional artists, who empower them with the skills to tell their stories in their own way.

The chance to perform in live productions is a highlight of the Theatre31 programme. If Not Now saw four Medway schools and Theatre31 youth theatres join a 175-strong cast of community and professional performers at Rochester Castle. This spectacular dance and light show by Icon Theatre – with choreography by Jon Beney and projection mapping by Novak – was seen by over 20,000 people at Medway Light Nights festival in February 2022.

The programme has also created a network of schools in the region, supported the delivery of Arts Awards and Artsmark journeys, significantly developed Medway’s Cultural Education Partnership and delivered Continued Professional Development for teachers and practitioners.

Our latest Theatre31 projects include an audio drama project led by Fin Kennedy (Applied Stories) with a listening party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee and The Sea and Me, an outdoor mural-making project, both on the Isle of Sheppey. A youth arts festival showcasing the work from the project with performances from the programme’s four youth theatres. An accessible drama group for 14-25s with learning disabilities and autism will be established with Square Pegs Arts. The Theatre31 programme will culminate in autumn 2022 with a digital symposium to share sector learning and a finale production (further details to be announced).

Organised by Music Teacher and Drama & Theatre magazines, the Music & Drama Education Awards were hosted by Mylene Klass in London.

On presenting the award Editor Sarah Lambie, commented: This project shows arts funding being used well to put youth voices at the heart of all its creative decision-making. It is easy to see how this work could be replicated across the UK, as well as how it has benefitted a diverse range of young people already, in Medway and Sheppey. This youth-led programme is exemplary: completely free and supporting young people to make decisions and call the shots on everything that happens – as they put it, from deciding which artists to work with to designing the logo.

Icon Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Nancy Hirst comments: Theatre31 is built on the belief that access to arts and culture is a child’s right, not a privilege. When Icon was awarded the funding from Medway Council to create a youth performance partnership, it was important to us that our activities were not only free but youth-led. Cost is no barrier to taking part in Theatre31 and the programme empowers young people to see the arts as something for them, in this area of Kent where cultural activities have been few and far between. We’re proud to change that. It’s an honour to be recognised at the Music and Drama Education Awards, and we’d like to thank our collaborators, supporters and funders who have made it possible. Theatre31 has reached thousands of young people who at every opportunity show we have as much to learn from them as they from us. It’s to them we dedicate this award.

Cllr Howard Doe, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder for Community Services, said: We are incredibly proud that Theatre31 won the Drama and Theatre Editor’s Award at the Music and Drama Education awards. This exciting youth-led programme supports Medway’s cultural strategy, which is being delivered by Creative Medway, and ambition for Medway to be internationally recognised for its creativity and culture by 2030. Theatre31 also supports our aspiration to become a Child-Friendly City.

Last year Medway Council was awarded £14.4million from the government’s Levelling Up Fund which will be invested in three projects to support the establishment of Chatham as Medway’s city centre and the area’s flourishing creative sector. Some of the funding will be used to refurbish the Grade II listed Brook Theatre which will help further transform the creative hub as a place where young people can continue to thrive at performing arts.

'It helps you learn, it helps you grow and become more of what you want to become.'
— Ruby, Theatre31 youth theatre
‘It has been lifechanging. Lady Unchained has helped get my life changed, I’ve started to look for opportunities on the outside, and see that there is life after prison.’
— Young Artist, Cookham Wood Young People’s Theatre Programme
'It was the first time I got to see drama as something for myself and something I could actively participate in and enjoy.'
— Tef, Theatre31 youth theatre
'Theatre31 did a great job of making the children feel comfortable and you could see their confidence grow within the session! It was engaging and interactive and the team did a great job of making the children feel really involved.'
— Year 5 teacher, Queenborough School and Nursery, Sheppey

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