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Get to know... Toonspeak

Four people holding up a Toonspeak banner as one person directs for a photo

What's the best way to describe Toonspeak?

"The organisation is a big tent, under which people flourish and bloom," says General Manager Alan Govan. "Working with some of Scotland’s best artists, Toonspeak puts potential, talent and authenticity at the heart of everything we do."

Since being founded in 1987, Toonspeak has provided free, high quality drama and theatre activities for young people living in Glasgow. It is participant-led at every level, and as Govan says, their aim is "to empower people to develop themselves at the same time as creating art."

It's an important goal, and one which recognises the value of creativity.

"We believe in the power of the arts and performance to help people reach their potential, and we believe that the more that the arts are for everyone, the better the arts are for all," he says.

Countless opportunities

The organisation allows participants to take in the arts at every level, with programmes such as Toonspeak Tuesday Wee Ones (a free drama workshop every Tuesday in Barmulloch, for ages 10-12); three different regular 'Theatre Makers' groups (Barmulloch, North East in Roystonhill and North West in RCS Wallace Studios, all for ages 12+); Toonheid Speaks at Townhead Village Hall for ages 8-12; Theatre Critics - a weekly workshop that brings together young people with a professional theatre critic to see shows and discuss them; and Young Writers: a weekly workshop that brings together young people to work with a professional writer every Monday at Barmulloch Residents Centre.

And that's just a flavour of what's on offer (all events can be found on the Toonspeak website).

Building confidence and aspirations

In addition to its regular workshops and courses, the organisation has previously organised a series of confidence building courses named SHINE.  This course used "drama as a tool to build self confidence, emotional resilience, boost self esteem and raise aspirations within young people". SHINE has recently come to an end, but the work that Toonspeak does with building young people's confidence is forever built into the organisation.

The team also support a programme of professional, large-scale productions, for their show-stopping Summer Show (more on that later).

"This may sound clichéd," Govan says, "but we are proud of every project we do.

We believe in the power of the arts and performance to help people reach their potential, and we believe that the more that the arts are for everyone, the better the arts are for all- Alan Govan, Toonspeak

"A sense of pride comes from seeing how much our participants achieve, and that is the same whether it is through a weekly drama workshop, a large-scale theatre production, a creative creche, or one of our SHINE confidence building courses which mix performance with principals of life-coaching."

From Ma Bit to TELT: The show-stopping Summer Show

One of the biggest dates in the Toonspeak calendar is the Summer Show, which takes place in a professional theatre.

This year's production will be an original musical set in the 80s, and will be John Kielty's directorial debut. It's written by David Cosgrove, in association with participating young people, and Steven Leach is Associate Director. It has no title yet (only adding to the anticipation), but will be performed at Platform on Fri 26 and Sat 27 July 2019.

"Over the last two years we have been so, so proud of the shows our young people have put on," Govan says.

Two notable past productions include Ma Bit (2017): a contemporary musical directed by Libby McArthur, and TELT!” (2018): a movement-based time-travelling political adventure directed by Mark Murphy.

In addition to creating invaluable performance opportunities, these productions also incorporate an inclusive arts training programme. This enables young people to take on behind the scenes roles in stage management, lighting, sound, set, costume, production and marketing.

"Shows are developed and rehearsed intensively, and we never cease to be amazed by the talents our young people display as performers, writers, devisers and technicians," Govan adds.

Operating on a 'zero cost model'

On a practical level, Toonspeak operates a zero cost model. As Govan explains, this means that "where needed, participants have transport provided to get them to and from activities.

"It can’t be overstated how for many the provision of transport is the difference between them being able to take part or not.

"We are totally committed to this, but of course that means finding money for transport on top of what we already raise for excellent artists and facilities," he explains.

"It’s also a challenge to continually put our money where our mouth is," he adds, "and ensure that we genuinely are a participant led organisation. It’s not just a line in our strategic plan, it’s a constant process."

As it stands, the majority of the Board of Directors are young people aged 18-23. The organisation also holds an annual youth-led peer consultation event Toon In Speak Out, which is run by young people for young people in order to ensure the greatest possible degrees of honesty, and to provide space and time for the most inspired ideas to come to the surface.

"Feedback gathered at this event is the single most important source which informs the ongoing development of our strategic plan," says Govan.

Becoming an RFO

Toonspeak recently joined Creative Scotland's network of Regularly Funded Organisations, as a new RFO for 2018-21.

"RFO funding means that we know with absolute certainty that we can deliver our summer show - the keystone of our annual programme - each year until 2021," says Govan.

"This means at least twice more we get to support a large group of young people to devise, write, perform in and produce a show which is staged in a professional theatre. We are also finally able to make our ambition of a Young Company come to fruition. This has been a pipe dream for a many years - a smaller ensemble creating and performing material at an even higher level, and a stepping stone towards creative careers for some of our most driven participants."

Rewarding work

For Govan, the rewards are huge.

"Simply seeing the look on the young people's faces when they are enjoying themselves in a workshop; hearing how they feel about their experiences and progress towards their goals throughout Shine; watching them perform in professional theatres and knowing how proud their families are of their achievements; the change that can happen in a few short weeks in terms of their confidence; and welcoming wee ones into our new projects (now starting at five years old), knowing that they will have the chance to grow up with Toonspeak as a part of their lives, all the way until they establish themselves in the career of their choosing.

"Toonspeak is a really rewarding organisation to be part of."

Find out more about Toonspeak at toonspeak.co.uk/ and follow them on Facebook (@Toonspeak) and Twitter (@Toonspeak).

Toonspeak is one of Creative Scotland's Regularly Funded Organisations for 2018-21.

Images: Toonspeak banner; Ma Bit; Telt (C/O Toonspeak)

This article was published on 18 Feb 2019