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Utopia Theatres launches Youth Academy

“It's about the legacy – it's not about ticking boxes.” Utopia’s creative director Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju lays out her vision.

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Utopia Theatres

Utopia Theatres has been running in Sheffield for over a decade and have just been successfully accredited as an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. This means they’ll be funded for another three years, and artistic director Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju told me, “this means that we can have a much more stable space within the community, and we can plan better for the future.”

Mojisola spent her formative years in Nigeria and returned to the UK in her 20s, which has naturally influenced her approach to theatre design and praxis.

“My work is influenced by my experiences here, my training here, and the kind of theatre that I've engaged in whilst back home. Our theatre practice is a fusion of both the Western performing traditions and the African theatre performing traditions. Africa, obviously, is a huge continent, but in terms of what we call ‘African theatre’, it’s something that has the essence, and the cultural tradition, language, and the performing methods that African theatre practitioners use.”

Youth academy

Utopia Theatre’s latest undertaking is to establish an African Theatre Youth Academy for young people aged 9-19 of African and African Caribbean descent. The academy’s website says they want to empower young leaders:

The academy will welcome those who have been excluded from school… We know that children excluded from school are often the most vulnerable: twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need and 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems.

Mojisola told me that although, of course, training in theatre practice is an invaluable experience that the academy provides, it’s also about instilling confidence in young people. Mojisola described having seen white people who are involved in theatre, or performing arts more generally, as benefiting greatly across all areas of their lives.

“I can see the benefits that it brings to a young person. Just having that confidence to be able to walk into a room, to be able to mix with other people, to exchange ideas from a very young age outside of your own family circle. To feel that you have a voice to feel like you have something to offer, but also to just kind of expand your mind about what the world is about.”

Legacy & opportunity

Another important aspect of the academy is opportunity. "It's always been my dream to to have a space for people who wouldn't ordinarily get the opportunity handed to them, to have a space where people will feel that this is the space for me, this is somewhere where I'm welcome. This is somewhere where I can be myself, I can be open, and somewhere, especially, where I can be mentored and supported by people who look like me and sound like me.”

Sheffield is a very divided city. There are more affluent areas and there are areas where children are living in poverty. According to data from the Council, around 1 in 4 people in Sheffield live in poverty. Whilst it’s difficult to accurately construct a picture of race and poverty, we do know that Black and ethnic minority households in the UK are “over twice as likely to live in poverty as their white counterparts.”

Mojisola explained that Utopia Theatres have had to equip their marketing strategy to reach the right people:

We've been handing out flyers because we realised that actually, the normal type of marketing strategy isn't going to work for these because really, what you have is a group of people that haven't been offered much in a very long time, suddenly, everybody's trying to offer them something. How does your project stand out from the rest? How do you make them believe that this is a genuine offer, and this is not something that's going to run for six months, and then everybody ticks their boxes and walks off? This is something where it's about the legacy – it's not about ticking boxes.

Utopia Theatre’s vision for their youth academy is evidently looking to establish strong roots that provide a holistic approach to the needs of young people. Mojisola isclear that she wants the space to be, above all, a place of safety and community.

“We want to have our own space where people can come to and feel that this is a home, a safe space for them to control. They come back from school, they don't want to go home, they feel that this space is somewhere they can come to, to come and do their homework, to get support from somebody, anything. That's the dream, really.”

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