The atmosphere is animated and elated as I walk into a room full of a bunch of overwhelmingly loud teenagers. They are bouncing and ready, eager to start the day and get on stage. It is the fourth day of the Intensive. It definitely lives up to its name, but knowing these young people as well as I do, I am not in the least bit surprised that they are not burnt out yet. That’s not to say there have been no drama and diva tantrums yet … but ultimately, they’re ready to go.

Toonspeak was born in a tiny flat not far from where the offices are based now, back in 1987. A group of people with a big idea to bring creative experiences to an area that doesn’t see much of it. Over thirty years later and Toonspeak isn’t just theatre: it’s music workshops, it’s writing sessions, it’s drama therapy, it’s drama trips, it’s ESOL. But most of all, it is a second home to the young people who cross the threshold weekly; a place of safety and solace for teenagers who don’t have that in the same way at home or at school. They can be with their friends, be with adults who they trust, create art they love and nurture skills they are just so passionate about. And it’s all well and good making the classes free, but Toonspeak go further than that- transport is provided in the form of pre-booked taxis and food is provided if they’re in a session over a meal-time. This really makes it accessible in a unique way. I’ve heard the young people use the word ‘family’ to describe Toonspeak, which is really special.

The idea of Toonspeak is kind of revolutionary, in a lot of ways. We all know youth arts exists. We see theatres all the time recruiting for their youth groups, offering a mix of singing, dance and drama, revving up the next generation of budding performers. Toonspeak do that, of course, but it could be said that the set-up is unique to the sector. Toonspeak is held up by young people- not just because they are participants, but because they are so much more than that. Young people at Toonspeak are on the board, they’re in the office doing logistics, they’re ex-participants who have done more than clung to the edges; they’re in the thick of it, working with the young people who mirror themselves ten years ago, building them up. This year, young people are even involved in the Production Team: our Assistant Production Manager, a long time Toonie, is just 22 and paid to be a part of the team. As well as this we have five young artists specialising in what they love and working alongside some of the best. When you walk into the room, most of the people working are under 25, which is something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Toonspeak is supported by some amazing funders, but I firmly believe that Toonspeak would not be where it is if it weren’t for the young people who just kept going. 

It’s halfway through the fourth day now and you can tell they’re starting to flag. They’re not the only ones; the staff are exhausted too, but they keep pushing. Luckily for everyone, this summer Toonspeak have employed two Listeners, two qualified people who are both known and loved by the young people, there specifically to listen to the young people when it all gets too much. How many youth theatres have literal trained therapists there daily for their young people, on hand to listen to any problem? And the best part is, this was voted by the young people, their voices at the heart of what Toonspeak have funded for the Summer Intensive. You want listened to? Alright then, we’re here and we care. 

The team is a lot bigger than just a Core Team and two Listeners though. It’s not just how Toonspeak work with young people that’s unique, it’s the whole setup. There’s a core team managing logistics, funding, programming and outreach. Five people, at the moment, working solidly to make sure everything that needs to get done, gets done. But outside of that, Toonspeak work with freelancers, a whole host of interesting, experienced and well known actors, singers, performers, directors, producers, costume designers and more. Some people may wonder why renowned people would want to work for a little youth arts charity in the North East of Glasgow. It’s simple- because we care, because we show we care, but mostly because the young people are absolutely incredible. I’ve lost count of the amount of amazing, creative people I’ve worked with over the last four days, and I’m not just talking about the adults with 25 years experience in their field. I’m talking about the young people. Their talent is off the charts. 

It’s not just the young people that are supported at Toonspeak though, and I say that whilst thinking about myself, Logistics and Media Coordinator for the summer. I am many marginalisations that would throw me at the bottom of the job market: I have a physical disability, autism, I am a lesbian and I am non binary, which means I am not male or female. I use they/them pronouns and my access needs include often needing lift access and needing longer breaks. The UK has workplace laws of course but often workplaces get away with discriminating. Toonspeak wouldn’t even try. I have been encouraged to put my pronouns in my email signature and be vocal when people use the wrong ones and my coworkers are supportive of my capabilities, and believe me when I say I can and cannot do things. My access needs are not a problem and on the days I want to ignore my own access needs, my coworkers keep me in check and make sure I’m not overworking myself. I have been encouraged to be open about my gender and sexuality with young people too, which in the long run has actually helped the young LGBTQ people we work with because they see a disabled LGBTQ adult thriving. 

We are lucky to have a charity like Toonspeak. Its uniqueness is something that many charities have missed the mark with and it couldn’t be more special. Everyone who has worked with Toonspeak walks away with a million stories and a space filled in their heart. So thank you, Toonspeak. 

Wondering what I’m talking about when I mention the Intensive? It’s three week, 5 days a week, 7 hours a day rehearsals, with the creative and production and core teams on board, as well as every single member of our young cast. We’re working towards a musical, written by the young people, called Time Oot. Fancy coming to see it? Click here, and get your ticket now.