How a Hackney theatre group’s interactive play is teaching kids about issues from knife crime to body image

PUBLISHED: 13:43 17 April 2019

Alex performing in Beat It. Picture: Diverse Voices

Alex performing in Beat It. Picture: Diverse Voices


A performing arts group is enjoying success with its unique way of engaging with kids about issues from knife crime to body image – the medium of “forum theatre”.

Alex Williams.Alex Williams.

Diverse Voices, based off Well Street in south Hackney, was set up in 2006 by friends Alex Williams and Dwayne Gumbs.

The pair, then 24 and 23 and both working in the creative industry, wanted to give something back and felt they were in a unique position to do so because of their age.

As well as schools, they go into youth centres, young offenders' institutions and pupil referral units to perform different plays touching on specific issues facing young people today.

After performing, the group will host a workshop with the children and the actors, who are still in character, and identify what they may have done wrong. The play is then performed again but this time the young audience members can take part and point out problems with a character's behaviour.

Diverse Voices perform Beat It.Diverse Voices perform Beat It.

They work with more than 5,000 young people each year across London and have hosted regular sessions at Hackney Quest youth club on the Frampton Park Estate.

The performances are put on for children at Key Stage 2 right up to young adults, and are either commissioned by councils or grant funded.

Currently the group is touring its production Beat It across 24 schools in Camden and Islington, ahead of rolling out a similar project in Hackney next year thanks to funding from arts charity the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

The play focuses on identifying sexually harmful behaviour and forming healthy relationships and was devised by staff trained in the issues.

Dwayne Gumbs.Dwayne Gumbs.

Topics such as controlling behaviour, the role of the internet and technology in abuse, ideals of beauty, peer pressure and media influence are all covered.

“It's about art as a way to educate around specific issues,” says Alex, 35.

“We set it up because we felt like we had a unique voice.

“We are young ourselves, and we feel like we can connect with young people. We believe creating positive social change is a universal responsibility.”

For material, the pair make sure they keep a close eye on issues facing the youngsters of today, and keep on top of role models within popular culture are.

They now have a healthy list of productions they can draw from, each tackling different topics.

“We cover a few topics, yeah,” said Alex.

“Peer pressure, the dangers of carrying weapons, postcode and gang wars, bullying, African history, Black History Month.

“It's really hard for young people at the moment. It doesn't seem like the resources are available for them to really engage outside of school.

“They are left to their own devices. There's a lack of opportunity for school leavers who maybe haven't done that well in the academic sense.”

Alex and Dwayne are now figuring out how to change that, including developing projects to increase the employability of people who have been part of the criminal justice system.

Because of the interactive nature of their performances Diverse Voices also have ambitions to help people get jobs in the world of showbusiness.

It runs a host of workshops and accredited courses, and one of the drama teachers is Call the Midwife star Leonie Elliott, who also sits on the board.

“That's one of our long term goals,” said Alex.

“We want to provide opportunities for young people to progress in the arts, whether that's as actors, directors or writers.”

The tour is enjoying great success. St Aloysius College's assistant head Simon Brown said after the session at the Archway school: “The pitch of the issues and the way they were approached was highly skilled.

“I haven't known many organisations to understand the issues that young people face and be able to understand how they can best learn about them.

“The level of engagement from our Year 10 students is testament to the wonderful balance struck by the Diverse Voice facilitators between being in touch with young people today yet remaining the grown up in the conversation.”

Stoke Newington School, where the group held a six-week course, was also full of praise.

A spokesperson said: “The students and teachers were blown away.”

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