Saturday 20 April 2019

Taking centre stage - how theatre can reduce anxiety in teens

Theatre can be a great way to build confidence, reduce anxiety and find your voice during those difficult teenage years

Building confidence: Rehearsals with Youth Theatre Ireland
Building confidence: Rehearsals with Youth Theatre Ireland
Performances with Youth Theatre Ireland
Song and dance routine: Performing with Youth Theatre of Ireland

Tanya Sweeney

Few teenagers escape the slings and arrows of a typical adolescence, and Marie Lynch, now 17, was no exception. Aged 13, she was shy, quiet and happy, in her words, to "float in the background". In a bid to keep in touch with a friend from primary school, Marie joined the Backstage Youth Theatre in Longford; even she couldn't foretell how much it would change her young life.

"Not only have I gained so many friends who are like-minded and enjoy theatre like me, but I have also grown as a person," she says. "I'm not the same shy girl anymore. I'm now confident in my thoughts and opinions. I have learnt how to express myself and share my ideas.

"When I first went, I was a little intimidated and worried about not fitting in as everyone was really confident," she adds. "Now, we're the oldest and we make sure the newbies settle in as well as we did."

Similarly, when Dara Eaton, now 20, was a teenager in small-town Carlow, he struggled to make new friends. Sport, GAA in particular, were the community's great cornerstones, although the youngster had fanciful thoughts about acting and the arts.

Performances with Youth Theatre Ireland
Performances with Youth Theatre Ireland

"In Carlow, there wasn't that much going on, and I remember how the local sports teams would be heading off to this place and that, while the rest of us weren't provided with the same opportunities," he recalls.

At his mother's behest, he joined the Carlow Youth Theatre, and mainlined right into a welcoming group of likeminded people.

"Once we did theatre games and improv scenes, I realised the joy of making people laugh, which was really captivating for me," he says. "Everyone's there for the same reason, so you have to jump on in. It was made up of all walks of life, from shy and reserved types to those who have a big presence in a room and over time have to realise that they have to listen to what others have to say."

The positive effects of engaging with the arts for young people were highlighted in an Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) study last year. Among the findings of the research was evidence that nine-year-olds who frequently read and attend classes in music, dance or drama are more confident about coping with schoolwork by age 13.

They are also happier, have reduced anxiety, better academic skills and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.

"The importance of the arts for positive mental health is often disregarded and yet it is so important," says child psychotherapist and author Stella O'Malley. "When you are moved by a song or book or even a movie you know that you're not alone, that there are other kindred spirits out there. Young people often feel desperately alone with their thoughts and feelings and the arts can give them a feeling of connectedness that is essential for well-being."

Song and dance routine: Performing with Youth Theatre of Ireland
Song and dance routine: Performing with Youth Theatre of Ireland

Colman Noctor, adolescent psychologist at St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin, agrees that creativity, and theatre in particular, is a positive factor when it comes to the wellbeing of youngsters.

"It encourages outside-the-box thinking, allows us to see events from different perspectives," he explains.

"In a culture where everything is graded and black-and-white, it's nice to be reminded that your work is your work and there's no right way to do it. Theatre also offers real-life interaction when those opportunities in the digital age are few and far between. Kids who tend to be anxious move well with script work; it's a type of contained self-expression.

"You see kids struggle with expression - children with eating disorders communicate using food, for instance - and theatre can be an alternative way to express oneself and to overcome social anxiety. Writing also allows you to emotionalise, or to offer relief to a kid who has all this stuff tied up inside them and has no idea where to take it."

In time, Eaton used his experience in youth theatre to propel himself towards a course on the Lir theatre school in Dublin. With an acting career in his crosshairs, he now acts as a spokesperson for the new-look Youth Theatre Ireland.

Re-launched after being in operation for 40 years (previously as the National Association for Youth Drama), Youth Theatre Ireland reaches out to 2,700 young Irish people (aged 12-21) with over 4,000 hours of drama activities per year.

Previous alumni have already put their stamp on Irish theatre; among them are actor Aidan Gillen, actress Charlie Murphy and writer/director Stefanie Preissner. Of the 55 youth theatres in Ireland, over 70pc of them, according to Youth Theatre Ireland director Michelle Carew, operate outside of major cities, providing a much-needed outlet for youngsters.

"In many villages and towns, the youth theatre is the only cultural outlet that young people will have," she says. "I grew up in Thurles and it can be a very closed experience. Depending on the schools, there might be a huge focus on the GAA, and while there's nothing wrong with that, some young people might be looking for something a little different.

"Being involved in youth theatre sets people up with a sense of resilience, a sense of identity and engagement with a group," she adds. "People join for the art, but then they talk about making friends and finding their tribe. It's not an overstatement to talk about them undergoing a transformation."

Youth Theatre Ireland works outside the school system, yet, far from detracting its young participants from their studies, theatre engagement can enhance their curiosity about certain subjects.

"It's important that kids don't feel just like education units, and that their lives outside of school are acknowledged," notes Carew.

She adds: "It was really helpful to look at stories and plays from Ireland and England from a fresh vantage point.

"There was a lot of fun and games at youth theatre, but something else happened that was interesting. You'd develop a sense of having your own opinion about things and there being nothing wrong with that."

Youth Theatre Ireland is running an Open Week until February 25 at various venues. Details for local events are available online from and through individual youth theatres across the country.

Irish Independent

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