Preventing knife crime
Last week, ten youths attacked a member of our staff who was on his way home after delivering workshops for the National Youth Theatre’s social inclusion programme. It was a cruel twist of fate that after working with a young demographic that are at risk of offending, he became the innocent victim of youths carrying out a senseless act of violence, in what appeared to be a gang initiation ritual. He survived to tell the tale, and the ten youths were so well disguised they would escape any recourse and no doubt offend again.
No knives or guns were used in that attack, but it is a sharp reminder of the growing incidence of youth crime.
Across town however, the crime scene I was about to witness involved both those weapons.
On the same day that our member of staff was attacked, I went to visit some of our auditions in South East London. Close to the venue was a bus stop covered entirely in black plastic sheeting concealing the scene where a young man of 18 was stabbed to death the night before. Another youth was seriously injured from gun shot wounds.
The site rose up from the pavement like a temporary tomb, and it allowed for a collection of residents to stand and stare momentarily before moving on to their local supermarket opposite. Some did more than stare. Some – and all of them around the same age as the victim – stood and took pictures of the scene on their phones.
The reason for committing such an image to your phone’s memory is I believe two-fold. It’s about proving to your mates that you were there and in some way associated with the tragedy. The second reason is one that can be linked to just why there is an increase in youth violence over recent years. By taking a picture you instantly anaesthetize the impact it has on you. The shocking scene becomes just another piece of film that measures up to any image online or on TV.
The lines between reality and fantasy are becoming blurred in an attempt to escape the bleak prospects that face so many. Today’s youths may well be the most educated generation in history but it only highlights more the extremes between success and failure, rather than make the next working generation feel equal in opportunity and ambition. Youth violence may once have been ghettoized, but it now goes beyond the clichéd barriers of a locked in community on a forgotten estate.
As much as violent drama on screen acts as a numbing agent to many at risk of offending, live theatre can successfully prevent such violent instincts being realised.
Theatre is the reality that young people crave for. It communicates directly with the audience in ways no other medium can. Acting as a social barometer without preaching, theatre informs and entertains. I know this, because it’s what we do here at the National Youth Theatre, and I have seen the benefits it brings to thousands of young people.
Back in 2007, a young audience who had never been to the theatre before sat transfixed watching a play we commissioned about knife crime called White Boy. Their reaction was visceral proving the unfolding violent plot was more real to them than they bargained for, as blood was shed on stage, tears were shed by girls and boys in the audience.
Inspired by the success of White Boy, the National Youth Theatre has responded to the urgent need to address youth crime by launching a knife crime prevention programme in schools and pupil referral units (PRUs). The specially developed project involves a short play about a lad who becomes the victim of crime being performed for students and young people. Afterwards, the audience takes part in a workshop where they consider what choices the characters made and have a chance to change the outcome of the play: No preaching here, just instinctive trust and active debate.
The initiative was piloted in London over the last two years and is now being launched in the West Midlands.
I’ve seen miraculous and positive interaction from some of the most violent and at risk young people in society who choose to stand up and change the dramatic outcome for the better. They made a difference. They saved a life. For three hours they were valued. And for just three hours the NYT actor educators who are the same age and many who’ve been at risk themselves, were the nearest any of them had to positive role models.
I welcome Theresa May’s financial commitment to knife crime prevention, and to have such a positive role model and an articulate advocate, as Brooke Kinsella can only be a good thing. But I am frustrated by the piecemeal efforts of previous administrations that pay polite lip service to our industry but little else.
What our ‘big society’ needs is a bigger understanding of the value our work brings to those at risk because temporary measures will only result in yet more temporary tombs.
Paul Roseby is the Artistic Director of the National Youth Theatre. The NYT’s knife crime prevention project ‘Talking to Tallman’ will tour schools, PRUs and youth offending units in the West Midlands in March 2011. www.nyt.org.ukTagged in: crime, knife, National Youth Theatre, youth
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