Interview with Toby Ealden, Artistic Director of award-winning Zest Theatre and creator of Youthquake

Toby Ealden talks about his latest play Youthquake, which will be touring 12 venues across the country this October.

Interview with Toby Ealden, Artistic Director of award-winning Zest Theatre and creator of Youthquake

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

I’m Toby Ealden and I’m the Artistic Director of Zest Theatre. Zest is a national touring theatre company specialising in work for young people.

What is the premise of Youthquake?

Youthquake is about being young and changing the world. You enter the performance space and take a seat within a set. You are in the world of Youthquake – a performance lecture created by our adult character, Becky. Becky is 30 and wants to inspire young people to stand up, find their voice and change the world. 

However it quickly becomes clear that, whilst Becky is well-intentioned, she hasn’t done her research. It’s hard to explain what happens next without too many spoilers but essentially, this is where the show splits into two: the world of Becky’s lecture and the world inside the collective minds of the young people in the audience. Whilst Becky’s lecture continues, the audience delve into the realities of the teenage experience and hear thoughts, ideas, challenges and stories from young people around the country. 

The question is, will the two worlds ever re-join?

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What inspired Youthquake?

Back in 2017 we toured our last show: What Once Was Ours. The show was our response to Brexit and researched with 4 communities across the UK, two Leave and two Remain. We chatted to 200 young people in those communities about their thoughts and feelings on Brexit and ended up using these recordings throughout the show. 

This process also led us to start researching Generation Z and specifically how different they are from the other generations. The audience response to those voices was visceral, which led me to ask some big questions about future Zest work: is there a better way to represent young people on the stage? Youthquake was therefore researched extensively across 11 cities and will feature 20 young people from each community we tour to on the stage with our professional cast. They will be on stage, representing their generation for themselves.

You undertook extensive research for this play. How did you feel this benefited you artistically?

Everything you see on the stage has been influenced by that research. Without that research Youthquake wouldn’t be the show we are about to tour. It was inspirational! 

Our workshops unlocked young voices that never get heard in the mainstream adult narrative. Whilst us adults are arguing about Brexit, young people feel like they’re on the brink and no one is listening. The structure of the experience and narrative emulates the whole idea that there is this undercurrent of emotion and challenge that the rest of society isn’t even aware of. 

Amongst young people’s anger and emotion there’s also sparks of hope and inspiration for the future. So the show examines the darkness of here and now, but also brings resolution and empowerment for what the world could look like when Generation Z begin to take the reigns. 

What impact do you hope Youthquake will have?

We want to change the world. It’s just a piece of theatre, but we hope that our young audiences will realise that they aren’t alone. We want them to feel a sense of solidarity that there are others having the same experiences and facing the same pressures. We want them to feel represented and empowered. 

We want them to leave the venue feeling like their voice is important, that they can make a difference and things don’t have to stay the way they are. 

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What was your biggest challenge during this project?

Personally, I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally draining the research period would be. We met 800 young people between February and June this year. That’s 53 workshops in total. The level of honesty and vulnerability shared by our young participants was incredible. The stories they shared were hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. 

Listening to that amount of personal challenge, frustration, hurt and anger did take its toll emotionally. We now have to make a show that serves all those voices and honours their stories – which is a real responsibility.

Summarise the current attitude towards environmentalism in 5 words.

Urgent, change, people-powered, controversial, fundamental. 

Youthquake looks at an incredible range of topics, so these words could be equally be applied to all of the issues that are important to Generation Z – of which there are many!

Did you ever expect to be a director and creative involved in theatre-making? Have you always worked in the arts?

I trained as an actor, so always thought I’d be on the stage. In fact, I had to do directing modules whilst in training and hated them! So being a Director was never really an aim, I kind of fell into it. I started directing Youth Theatre shows not long after graduating and have never looked back. I have been very fortunate in working consistently in the arts since graduating in 2003. I started Zest in 2007 and have managed to keep myself employed continually since then. But with no core funding, this hasn’t been an easy feat. 

If a young person wants to get more involved in activism, where do you suggest they go?

If you look at the movement that Greta Thunberg is currently inspiring, it’s all come from social media. The passionate young people we’ve met have all got involved or raised their awareness through consuming social media content – so that’s the ideal place to start. 

But whilst young people are rightfully angry and passionate about so many issues, I’d also recommend that they practise some self-care. There are so many things to get passionate about, you can quite easily feel the need to protest everything and make yourself feel unwell. I’d advise focusing on one or two things, rather than feeling like you need to take on the entire world in one go. 

Also, think about mini acts of ‘activism’ each day. In our current divisive world lacking in empathy and compassion for others, small acts of kindness make a huge difference that cause ripples and waves. 

How can people keep up to date with Youthquake and your work?

You can search @zesttheatre up on all social media or visit www.zesttheatre.com

Author

Sienna James

Sienna James Assistant Editor

Sienna is the Voice Assistant Editor and author of the Creative Education series. A de-caf coconut-milk latte gal who spends most of her time in Cambridge cafes, Sienna is currently on a gap year before studying History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

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