Theatrical Conversations on the streets

“Each conversation is like a small piece of theatre, and within it we acquire a role” (Wardhaugh 1985)

“Theatre happens when someone offers something- word or deed-to another” (Vanhoozer, 2010:43)

I have a small confession to make; over the last 3-4 years i have developed a routine when I train detached youthworkers, volunteers or students even, when it comes to thinking about detached youthwork, especially the aspect of Cold Contact – or the conversation between the detached worker and the group of young people.  In developing the training since starting thinking about detached with the Sidewalk project in Perth in 2007 and the first training session, right through to training a group of volunteers in Byker the other week, I have tended to think slightly scientifically or deconstructively about those conversational moments, and thus I have encouraged discussion on;

The feelings, surroundings and first impressions

The first sentence – what do you say?

All the broken down aspects of a conversation, which we often take for granted, both verbal and non-verbal cues

Different ways of responding to questions, and what those questions may be

Tone, Humour, asking questions

Listening, Empathising and Values

As I’ve thought about the above quotation from Wardheugh, I’ve been challenged to think about whether I have had a tendency to de construct or scientificise natural conversations – and in so doing inhibit the pure theatre of improvised conversations.

Within each conversation – Smith goes on to describe we do embody an acting role. Its often the perceived leaders who make the first moves. Yet roles we can fulfil on the stage of the conversation can be to WD40 the conversation by maintaining the flow, or keep the scene going. We could be someone to illuminate the scene by drawing out the character of the young adult to perform, we could be the scene director who moves the scene to somewhere different – changing the subject, asking a question. Yet what role do the young people play in the scene? – are they merely actors in our performance?  What roles might they play?

In detached – they have the choice to be present in our stages, and choice to act authentically (without hypocracy – a term meaning false acting – cf Vanhoozer) , choice to leave, or perform as the context allows. They provide the context of the play, the focus is determined by them- as the detached youthworkers seek to utilise the context to draw out the improvised script.

Not unlike Jazz, or like interactive theatre, the performance of the conversations is improvised. But unlike either of these, there is skill required to maintain the play of the conversation in such a free space, where both parties can enter or more-so exit at any time.  The skill of the detached youthworker is to encourage the young adult to want to perform in this small space of theatre, to trust the others in the performance, whether each other as friends, or the youthworkers themselves.

Does the metaphor of conversation as theatre help a further artistic creation of detached youthwork performance? – it might do – as in thinking about roles of the scene, the drama that the young adults are encouraged to perform can take centre stage – after all- youthwork is about the young person as primary client in their social context (Sercombe) – maybe it is more like the young persons (s) as primary actors in their co-created stage with adults enabling them to perform.

Not unlike the world of Drama – there are cues, behaviours, actions and skills to rehearse – and thats where the training might still be very much valid, the Jazz musician still needs to know how to play the instrument, just that in the band there is collective improvisation.

After all theatre is a present activity, performance is affected by the audience and actors alike no two performances are ever the same.




Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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