Theatre as a vehicle for social impact

Theatre as a vehicle for social impact

by Julia McNamara

In addressing our society’s most complex problems, there are no simple solutions. Which is why there is a pressing need to explore new ways of connecting, creating impact and supporting ongoing change.

Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP)’s current production, Follow Me Home by Lewis Treston, is a key example of this; utilising theatre to connect communities and build understanding around youth homelessness in Australia.

Unlike most theatre pieces, Follow Me Home began with a brief from the Advocate for Children and Young People (ACYP) to communicate the lived experience of young people who have experienced homelessness. Within Australia, youth homelessness is a critical issue. The 2019-2020 Australian Institute of Health ‘Specialist homelessness services annual report’ found that 40% of those accessing homelessness services were aged under 25, and while homelessness is difficult to measure it has been estimated around 32,000 people aged 12-24 are homeless in Australia. Moreover, homelessness in young people is linked to increased mental health and physical health concerns, with over 50% of homeless young people having a diagnosable mental illness. There is also a concern that youth homeless rates will rise further after COVID-19 if current policies continue.

There are a lot of statistics around youth homelessness. However, these numbers don’t demonstrate the reality of what being homeless means to the young people who experience it. This lack of authentic representation was a common theme across interviews Andrew Johnson conducted in his former role as NSW Advocate for Children and Young People, and was one of the key needs that Follow Me Home addresses.

“It began with young people saying we need to make the invisible visible,” Johnson says, because “no one knows what they go through”. There is also the belief from those who have experienced homelessness that if there was greater understanding, their situation could have been completely changed. “We brought 15 young people [with lived experience of homelessness] to the first 2019 showing at Riverside, and when we asked them what they thought afterwards, they said it was ‘f*cking awesome’. It was entertaining and it tells the truth.”

Theatre and the arts more broadly has been directly linked with increasing community connection and creating a shared sense of identity. This includes in The Grattan Institute’s ‘Social Cities’, and in the recently published ‘Social Impact of Australia’s Arts & Cultural Sector’ by the University of Technology Sydney and Nelson Meers Foundation where it was found that “arts and cultural organisations make a crucial contribution to creating shared experiences that build a sense of
common identity and, by extension, a more vibrant and connected society”.

The potential of Follow Me Home to create impact was the reason behind the James N. Kirby Foundation coming on board as a key production partner for the inaugural season in 2019. “We look for organisations that provide a ripple-pond effect,” Margaret Kirby explains when discussing projects the foundation looks to support.

“When this idea from ATYP came across my desk, it was an absolute no-brainer”.

The ability of ATYP to create an impact went beyond the process of creating the project, to also audience reach and subsequent community impact upon performance. The process of developing the work utilised a co-design framework, with playwright Lewis Treston and ATYP conducting a number of interviews, workshops and consultations with those who had lived experience to develop
authentic, nuanced and reflective vignettes. A co-design process and involvement in theatre, especially by those who have experienced homelessness, has been linked to a number of health and wellbeing benefits both in an Australian context and overseas.

Moreover, as Australia’s oldest youth theatre company, ATYP has strong networks across the country in schools, theatres, and online to ensure reach and impact. Janine Lau is just one example of this impact. Lau was first introduced to the script through her involvement with ATYP when she was 18, with the work allowing her to unpack and come to terms with her own experiences of homelessness. “I could see myself and part of my experience in almost every scene”, Lau notes. Because of her belief in the project, she joined the production as a Character Consultant for both the
2019 and 2021 productions to support the actors in delivering authentic and respectful portrayals.

“It directly changed my life,” Lau says. “That’s why this show is so special, because it’s the intersection of theatre and social impact.”

Impact measurement is multi-faceted, with a range of factors influencing outcomes. Especially when going beyond traditional economic outcomes to explore cultural and social outcomes, measurement best practice is still evolving. However, despite these ongoing conversations, there is clear evidence showing that integrating arts-based activities into health services creates beneficial outcomes for individuals and the wider community, as outlined in The PAtH Forward report. A recent article from Dr Jess Heerde, Professor George Patton, Associate Professor Rohan Borschmann, Professor Stuart Kinner and Dr Jesse Young on the need to prevent a rebound in youth homelessness after COVID-19 also emphasised the need for “inter-sectoral alliance”. Creating new partnerships helps develop holistic and creative ways to address entrenched issues. This same mandate was used to create Follow Me Home, where public sector priorities were rooted at the heart of the project; influencing and guiding impact outcomes.

As ATYP’s Artistic Director and the director of Follow Me Home, Fraser Corfield says, “Theatre is community; by its very nature it brings people together.” The ability of theatre to connect across sectors, priority areas and audiences to create a shared experience allows a unique opportunity for social impact. For Follow Me Home, this work will continue throughout the remainder of the current Sydney season, and into the national tour where workshops and options for creative participation will also be provided to the local communities; furthering opportunities for reach and reflection. As Margaret Kirby notes, the purpose of the show is twofold: “To entertain, but also show that we need to do better.”

Follow Me Home, written by Lewis Treston, was created by ATYP in association with the ACYP. It was due to show at Griffin Theatre Company until 3 July 2021 before unfortunately being cancelled due to the Greater Sydney lockdown. It will tour nationally from August – September 2021 with support from Arts On Tour. For more:

Julia McNamara is a member of ATYP’s Youth Advisory Committee, and has been involved with the company since completing her first ATYP workshop at 12-years-old. She currently works at Nous Group as a Consultant, and holds a Bachelor of Communication and Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (First Class Honours) from the University of Technology Sydney.