Long-Term Impacts of Youth Theatre #6: Gemma

Gemma (23) is a Community Arts Producer, Coordinator, and Administrator. They have worked for a variety of theatre companies, arts festivals, charity initiatives, and arts access organisations, drawing on a skillset which they attribute to the opportunities they were offered by Toonspeak in Glasgow.

Having experienced homelessness, abuse, and mental health struggles as a teenager, they credit Toonspeak’s SHINE programme for LGBT youth with changing the course of their life.

“I went through some fairly dark times, and […] when I think about it in context, I think youth arts and youth theatre was definitely that light at the end of the tunnel for me – a light that I didn’t know existed until I started interacting with it, but it definitely was the thing that changed the course of my life.”

Describing the range of jobs which they have done across the arts sector and the variety of projects on which they have worked, Gemma attributes their skills and their confidence to the mentorship which they received from leaders and administrators at Toonspeak. Having attended the SHINE programme for LGBT youth, they were inspired to pursue a HNC in Working with Communities and to complete a placement with Toonspeak. This was soon turned into a paid position, and Gemma entirely credits the enthusiastic mentorship they received whilst in that role for their success in arts production, coordination, and administration since:

“They instilled the logistics in my brain, the ability to go this is the start of a project, this is the middle, this is the end, this is how to write a funding application, this is how to write a budget, this is how to organise a Google drive […] They taught me those skills incredibly well […] That’s all completely down to Toonspeak and to how they mentored me.”

For Gemma, youth theatre provided an opportunity to reconnect with the arts after an earlier traumatic experience in acting. In addition to their professional skillset, Toonspeak helped them to build their confidence and to embrace their preference for arts production and administration over creation and facilitation. They say Toonspeak gave them the confidence “to move down that road a bit more”, and they are now the founder of both an LGBT Youth Theatre themself, and of an organisation for sapphic writers.

Gemma came to the Toonspeak SHINE programme via LGBT Youth Scotland, which their keyworker had recommended to them. At the time, they were living in a homeless unit in which they faced homophobic and transphobic abuse, but Toonspeak provided a safe and stable environment away from the unit. Leaders took the time to meet them before sessions for wellbeing check-ins, and they were able to spend time with other young people who were facing similar struggles:

“[It] was specifically for young LGBT people who were going through mental distress and just the knowledge that I was around young people who were going through similar things […] I think that made a difference, just being around people who knew and understood.”

The SHINE programme enabled Gemma to enjoy acting again after having encountered access barriers to casting when they came out as non-binary at 15. They relished the opportunity to “be arty again”, and to feel a sense of belonging within the arts. They describe how “welcoming” and “authentic” the sessions were, as a result of being “very, very youth led”, and how they “very quickly felt part of the family”. Where sexuality, gender, and pronouns had previously been issues to be questioned or discussed, Gemma found that they were simply accepted as a part of who they are at youth theatre. This ultimately helped them to build their confidence and feel able to look to the future:

“It was that experience which made me go: oh my goodness, things could be so much better.”

It was then that Gemma began their HNC placement with Toonspeak, which soon became a job as Office & Workshop Assistant, that they felt things “really clicked”. They remember “falling in love with arts administration”, and enjoying the opportunity to lead some youth theatre activities too. They credit the mentorship they received during this placement with their professional development and fulfilment since, but they also credit this experience with their sense of personal development and fulfilment. For Gemma, youth theatre represents a “fallback”, and remains an enduringly positive reference point in their life:

“Youth theatre has always been the stable thing for me. It’s always been that thing that’s pulled me back into reality, and feeling comfortable and at home in myself and with other people again.”

Gemma’s experience with youth theatre has even given them the confidence to return to amateur acting as an adult and to form new, positive memories in relation to acting. They have also gained a third-year, direct-entry place on the BA (Hons) Drama & Production course at the University of the Highlands and Islands, which they again greatly attribute to the confidence they gained from their time at Toonspeak.

In addition to these impacts, Gemma also expresses gratitude to youth theatre for changing what they describe as “the very fabrics of my personal life”. They met their now fiancée at Toonspeak, and they are set to live a life they describe as their “teenage self’s dream”: in the countryside with their wife and two dogs.

Reflecting again on the difficulties of their teenage years, Gemma cannot emphasise enough the difference which youth theatre made to the direction of their life, both professional and personal:

“I would not be the person that I am today without youth theatre […] I think if it wasn’t for Toonspeak, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable even thinking about being involved in the arts at all.”