Being led by local young people’s ideas and experiences is foundational to how Odd Arts uses theatre to transform lives in Moss Side, Manchester, and beyond.
Odd Arts is an award-winning theatre production and training organisation in Moss Side, Manchester, which uses restorative and therapeutic theatre-based programmes to transform lives, challenge inequalities and increase opportunities for people facing disadvantage and discrimination. Odd Arts works with young people, schools and teachers, people in the criminal justice system, and health services to create theatre and social action projects from people’s own experiences on topics that range from radicalisation and criminal exploitation to healthy relationships and mental health. They also train teachers and professionals in using theatre-based approaches.
Creating spaces to listen to young people’s experiences when planning projects, and being genuinely led by young staff and participants, helps Odd Arts to be responsive to the communities it serves. This is important in an area like Moss Side, a stigmatised part of Manchester with higher levels of deprivation. The team engages local young people in early-stage development of new performance concepts and creations, and in many cases young people are trained to be paid actors. Often this work covers sensitive issues such as sexual assault, consent, hateful extremism, and self-harm.
A team of local youth ambassadors and young people are integral to Odd Art’s antiracism practices, holding the organisation to account and providing constructive challenge based on what matters to them. The ambassadors are encouraged to apply to join committees and become trustees. Odd Arts also has an important open-door policy to always accept people who ask for work experience – a principle that comes from CEO Rebecca Friel’s own experiences of being welcomed to work with Theatre of the Oppressed in Brazil. For Rebecca (age 37), the key factor to success is embracing risk, particularly when it comes to empowering young people. “There are risks when we say to a young person, ‘Train us and challenge us’, or ‘You can take the lead on social media’. But the risk of not doing that is far greater because you become irrelevant, you become inauthentic, and people lose interest.”
Odd Arts now works with over 150 schools, colleges and higher education settings every year reaching over 35,000 young people, while the core staff team – the majority of whom are under 35 – has grown to 17. Despite this broad reach, Odd Arts reinvests in its central Manchester roots, offering free projects and performances, holiday clubs, weekly drop-in sessions, and one to one support to young Moss Side community members, often in partnership with youth clubs.
Rebecca founded Odd Arts when she was 19, teaming up with friends while she was studying drama and theatre at the University of Manchester. As part of a Theatre in Prisons and Probation unit within their degree, the group led a drama project in a local prison, and started volunteering with community groups to gain experience of running theatre-based programmes while juggling part-time work. These methods continue to guide the work of Odd Arts today. “The early experience was really exciting for me. I was very passionate and interested in criminal justice, but there was no job in that area that was creative enough for that side of me. It definitely started as a passion project, something we really cared about and loved doing. But to even do some of the work voluntarily we needed a name and a bank account. We never set out with a business plan at all. We just wanted to do the work, and in order to do the work we had to do some of the business bits. Then the rest is history.”
Jess Duerden (age 33) is the education and project manager. She studied acting at UCLAN and facilitated drama in community settings and schools, before joining Odd Arts and moving into project and leadership roles. She now manages the organisation’s partnerships with local schools, and values the authentic conversations she has with teachers and school leads about what is needed. “Our productions are bespoke and tailor made, there’s not a one-size-fits-all model. We ask the schools how we can help rather than just going in, doing our job and walking away. That’s what I love most about Odd Arts. It’s so authentic
and you can be your true self.”
Jess is also grateful for support with her career development. For instance, her manager supported her to use her working hours for a leadership development course for arts education professionals. This has helped her prepare for her new management role within the organisation. Leila Herandi (age 28) is the lead
practitioner and volunteer coordinator. She studied and trained as an actor in London before moving to Manchester where she joined Odd Arts as a freelance
actor. She now looks after the organisation’s team of volunteer coordinators and is particularly proud of the organisation’s work in prisons and seeing people develop their confidence. “I fell in love with the organisation. Facilitating at Odd Arts has completely shaped my whole career. I wouldn’t have thought about getting into facilitation before this.”
Both Leila and Jess value Odd Arts’ open, collaborative culture where team members can discuss ideas or simply share issues and topics that have caught their interest and imagination. For example, a recent play about racism in sport was developed following a conversation young worker Curtis Cole started about the racism that occurred during the Euros 2020. All the team members had a shared anger about what was happening, and together they developed a play in response.
The team’s plans for the future include involving young people at Board level with support and mentorship; engaging with young people about what a free, accessible and sustainable community space might look like; and continuing to offer theatre projects to empower disadvantaged and marginalised groups.