For a group of vulnerable students in Southampton, the opportunity to try playwriting had a transformative effect. “This process taught me that what I feel counts,” one student told me. “Seeing it up on the stage, and the mentor believing in me – what I write means something.”
Recent research has found that playwriting can be used to increase academic skills and a sense of agency.
As a writer, I wanted to understand why there was such a disconnect between alienated young people and their potential. This led me to explore how writing a play can change a negative story, and the process of creating a piece of art is so empowering that it can change the way young people see themselves.
My PhD research, underway at the University of Winchester, linked up a group of young people with a professional playwright as a mentor in order to write a short play. A key part of the process is that the young people must be pushed not just to complete the task, but to write well.
The young people in my study were not in education or training and were struggling with confidence. The writing course lasted for three months, meeting weekly. The plays were then performed in front of an audience by actors on the stage of the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. The young people will be asked at intervals of a year if they feel their confidence has improved.
Narrative education, with an emphasis on story, is often overlooked by schools in favour of education based on logic. Asking vulnerable young people to focus on their story, and giving them a chance to rewrite it through artistic performance, can lead to a positive change in agency: the young person feels in control of their story.
A professional writer as mentor is key to this process. They can relate to the young person, writer to writer. This removes the often inhibiting teacher-student relationship.
Task completion is an important part of the journey. Many of the young people I have worked with have never finished anything, passed exams or received prizes. Following a journey from idea to product is empowering and can help the young person to understand the significance of their own life.
A large proportion of the cohort wrote autobiographically about issues falling under the spectrum of mental health. One writer wrote of teenage depression, another on autism, another a struggle with crippling lack of confidence as well as friendship struggles and alcohol abuse.
Playwriting gives a young person the opportunity to step outside themselves to look at their own story. It is a unique medium for empowering those who are vulnerable. The live performance element allows the writer to see how their art affects an audience.
Research has found that neural pathways in the brains of young people can be affected by long-term neglect.
However, positive experiences can allow the brain to re-wire. It is not just pharmaceutical drugs that can correct these changes in the brain, but environmental factors can as well, such as empathy and support.
Previous negative experiences can be re-framed by “mirror neurons” which allow new neural matrices in the brain to form. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from adults by mirroring their behaviour. These neurons then form complex systems – neural matrices – which link actions with emotions and ability. This is how we develop our responses and creativity. In cases of long term neglect, these matrices are damaged or not made.
My research focuses on this mirroring relationship, where the student unconsciously copies the positive actions of the mentor-writer.
Four out of six of the writers said they want to continue to write, and five said they wanted to stay in touch with the mentor. When asked about their subject choice for their play, one writer told me that:
I wanted my experience to be out there, for others, so they can take it or take bits of it if they want and add it to their own experiences… Without writing, I don’t know what would have happened to me.
Her play was a personal account of a struggle with a relationship and the damage it has wrought.
Another, student, writing about autism, commented that “I wanted to share or imagine, what it might be like to be locked in, so people can understand more about it.” Another participant wrote about a student who had always lacked confidence struggling to overcome this with the help of their peer group.
All six students stated that their self-confidence, both as a writer and a person, had increased as a result of the playwriting course.