“We know what we are, but not what we may be”

This February at Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation, we have been reflecting upon LGBT+ History Month and Children's Mental Health Awareness Week. In many ways, it is fitting for both of these events to fall within the same month. LGBTQIA+ young people are highly likely to experience poor mental health (see Stonewall School Report, 2017). We know that schools work tirelessly to safeguard the wellbeing of their students; it is undeniable that teachers take on a huge responsibility as caregivers as well as educators. But as robust as in-school support provisions may be, external services are often over capacity, and lengthy waiting lists put many referrals at a standstill. This is particularly the case for young people questioning their gender. A dangerous cycle persists which is putting LGBTQIA+ youth at further risk.

There might not be a quick fix for these systemic issues, but there is great value in recognising the power of the arts to boost mental wellbeing, confidence, and communication skills for all young people, especially those who identify as LGBTQIA+. We are proud to have developed programmes which provide safe spaces for participants to realise the potential of their artistic voice. Shakespeare is of course at the heart of this; indeed, identity and gender diversity are prominent themes in many of his plays. We have also found that diverse casting comes quite naturally to schools taking part in our Theatre Festival, something which the professional realm is still catching up on.

Romeo & Juliet perform on a theatre stage. In 2023 we embarked on a Season of Reimagining, spearheaded by our belief in reading Shakespeare bravely. In championing play within every rehearsal room. In encouraging diverse interpretations of these 400-year-old works which feel authentic to the young people involved. We want participants to take ownership of these plays and reimagine them through their chosen lens. When they do, the quality of their work and the self-assurance, conviction, and community spirit displayed on their performance night is remarkable. We witness young people become their own heroes during the Theatre Festival, and it is magical.

Children in multi-coloured costumes perform on a theatre stage. For LGBTQIA+ youth, this extends to allowing them to use Shakespeare to explore ideas of identity freely. Of course, this all begins before they arrive at the theatre. Central to our inclusive practice is encouraging teachers to collaborate with their students to unlock, challenge, and reclaim the characters and themes within Shakespeare’s plays. We want teachers to feel empowered to support the fluidity of self-expression within their rehearsal rooms, because we know that this can be incredibly affirming for LGBTQIA+ students. The visible self-growth and attainment that can derive from this has great potential to provide on-stage representation for the next generation, further demonstrating that the arts, and more specifically Shakespeare, are for everyone.

Empathy and inclusion are at the core of how we champion LGBTQIA+ and mental health awareness at Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation. We know that we must continue to take consistent, meaningful action in support of the diverse communities we engage with. Because ultimately, this liberation benefits us all.

Updated 26/02/2024

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Coram SSF is a cultural education charity that exists to instil curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork - giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage.

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