For many youths on the cusp of adulthood, building the confidence to take the necessary steps towards independence can be challenging and intimidating. The Old Vic is changing that through a special programme aimed at nurturing the core skills young people need to navigate the working world.

The theatre's Take the Lead programme has helped thousands of students improve their self-confidence as well as their communication, self-management, teamwork and problem-solving abilities – foundational skills transferable across any industry.

Despite the pandemic challenges of the past two years, the free programme was offered again in 2021, with support from RBC, providing inspiration and hope to participants during an especially difficult period in their lives.

students holding completion certificates Old Vic

“Their belief in themselves skyrockets," says Jessica Alade, a trained actor with extensive experience working with young people across numerous theatres and organisations, including The Old Vic and Take the Lead.

“The biggest thing is that confidence by the end of the project is just incredible."

The programme consists of a launch event that brings together students from different schools to learn from guest speakers about a broad range of industries; following that, there are three creative skill-building workshops, led by trained facilitators.

Take the Lead managed to wrap up in 2020 just before the global pandemic hit, but it faced new challenges in 2021. With in-person access to schools limited, the programme pivoted to an online platform, live streaming into the students' homes and classrooms for the first two workshops. An in-person option became available for the third session, when protective public health measures eased.

Despite the challenges of online learning, strong positive feedback from students and teachers alike demonstrated the programme's enduring impact.

"The facilitators did an excellent job of making the virtual seem real, and it felt like they were in the room with us," one participant said. Another student wrote: "The programme helped me; it has pushed boundaries and made the real world not so scary." Other students shared how the programme inspired them to take on leadership roles, helped them realise their strengths, weaknesses and other possible paths in their future, and made them feel comfortable about speaking up and expressing themselves.

Among teachers, 84 percent said they would take part in the programme again and felt it was impactful and had a positive effect on their students' well-being.

Ashmole Academy, one of the schools that returned in 2021, considers the programme “essential" and believes it offers students an enriching opportunity to engage creatively, while at the same time helps to nurture more well-rounded individuals.

What makes Take the Lead so special, according to Alade, is that it is not just geared towards those interested in a creative or theatrical career. Whether students want to go into acting, finance or the armed forces, the skills they develop can be widely applied to interviews, future employment or the next chapter in their education, she says.

students-holding programme from Old Vic

“It's so broad, but the participants can make it really specific to themselves, to take from it what they want and need," Alade says.

The first workshop focuses on techniques (typically used by actors) that help students identify their strengths and improve their communication skills; it also teaches them exercises that can be applied in real-life situations. The second session builds on those skills by having students go through the process of creating a theatre company, during which they learn about self-management, team work and problem-solving. More than two dozen RBC employees provided live online feedback and advice to students in 2021. The final workshop pulls together these techniques and skills through individual and group activities, from interviews and “elevator pitches" to breathing exercises to help calm their nerves.

In 2021, the programme saw a 20 percent increase in applications from schools (compared to 20192020), with more than 100 groups from 69 schools vying for a spot. Ultimately, 990 students enrolled from 24 schools across 17 London boroughs.

The students – the majority of whom had never been to The Old Vic and were not studying drama or performing arts – came from diverse backgrounds. A third of participants identified as Black or Black British, and more than a quarter identified as Asian or Asian British; almost 10 percent also identified as having a disability.

“This programme is incredibly unique … in that it's an employability programme that draws on theatre makers," says Alade.

“All of this stuff is going to help you. I think it's really wonderful to have that shared language and know that, regardless of what direction you want to go in – whether or not you know what you want to do, whether it's higher education or you want to leave school and go straight into work – these are valuable tools."