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Leading theatre company launches Youth Academy after securing pivotal funding

Sheffield-based African theatre company, Utopia Theatre, has launched a transformative Youth Academy as part of plans to support the next generation of emerging artists and reach disengaged communities across the city.

More than 100 people attended the official launch of the Utopia Theatre Youth Academy on The Moor in Sheffield, where there were a variety of dance and theatre performances. The academy is the first of its kind in the city and will run performing arts classes and workshops for 9 to 19-year-olds alongside a programme of mentoring and training. Workshops will be held at St Mary’s Church on Bramall Lane.

The academy will provide opportunities for young people of African and Caribbean descent, as well as those from other minority groups. It will nurture the skills of young people with African oral storytelling and performance techniques, including talent development, career advice and opportunities; in particular targeting children with lower levels of engagement. Training takes place via interactive theatre, leading workshops, performing to peers, and undertaking work placements.

Mojisola Kareem-Elufowoju, CEO and artistic director of Utopia Theatre, said: “This is a pivotal moment for Utopia Theatre and I’m beyond proud and excited to announce the launch of our Youth Academy. We are absolutely committed to being part of the fabric of the Sheffield community and open our doors to as many people to participate in and enjoy watching our contemporary African productions nationally and internationally.

“Creating safe spaces where young black people and people of colour feel acknowledged, listened to, and celebrated is really important to Utopia Theatre. This is an opportunity for our youth academy members to build their life and creative skills, starting a cycle of learners who are positively impacting each other’s lives.”

“The launch of the academy responds to the inequalities and shortage of opportunities for black youths to pursue a career in the arts. Utopia Theatre provides a strong role model and has developed community partnerships over the last four years to address issues that affect the black community in Sheffield.

As a charitable organisation with a mission to empower and engage African communities, support emerging artists and inspire the next generation, Utopia Theatre utilised funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to set up the academy. The Utopia Theatre Youth Academy is expected to support around 100 young people and will open up access to disengaged youths to help them to be future leaders. The Utopia Theatre team will showcase all aspects of theatre production to members of the Youth Academy, from front-of house to backstage.

Utopia Theatre has also secured significant funding from Arts Council England (ACE) to continue to run and expand the Youth Academy over the next three years. The successful funding bid has national significance, putting the theatre company on the UK map for the work it produces as a National Portfolio Organisation. It is one of just 25 South Yorkshire organisations to be awarded a share of the combined £21.2m ACE funding for the region in recent months.

The ACE funding will also enable Utopia Theatre, which is based in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, to expand its existing services. The organisation plans to open a dedicated, permanent home in the steel city in the future and will hire new team members to support the expansion, including an executive producer and fundraising manager. Utopia Theatre has an experienced board of trustees, chaired by Maxine Greaves MBE, leading the organisation through its next stages of growth. As it moves towards its next chapter, it is also seeking partners and businesses to build on success and reach new audiences and participants.

Kareem-Elufowoju added: “Participation in art and culture is an integral part of raising aspirations and we’re here to provide fun, creative and high quality performance opportunities built on our years of experience in the industry. I’m delighted to have secured significant funding to extend our services, this marks the next stage of our exciting journey as a theatre company and was only possible because of the incredible work and effort by the whole team at Utopia Theatre. The ACE funding will continue to broaden what we offer for a diverse range of people and enable us to share narratives of African culture and heritage wider.”

Utopia Theatre produces and stages a wealth of theatre productions which tour nationally and internationally. It also uses African theatre as part of storytelling in schools and communities; hosts digital theatre; and supports new and developing artists to boost their careers. Founded by artistic director Kareem-Elufowoju in 2012, it welcomes and attracts a mix of first-time and established performers.

Its next performance is set to take to the stage at The Crucible this Saturday, 18 February. Titled All Our Goals, the production explores the role of Black women in football during the 19th century and is currently being co-created by Sheffield women. It explores the life of Emma Clarke, thought to be Britain’s first Black women’s footballer, and showcases the stories and skills of Sheffield women. The majority of the cast have never performed on a stage before.

It promises to be a fun, noisy, colourful celebration developed through creative workshops, conversations and rehearsals. Afterwards, there will be a panel discussion with influential figures Palorine Williams, Emily Feltham and Adele Ward.

Kareem-Elufowoju is a former human rights lawyer who pursued her first love of theatre and performance by returning to university in her 40s. She has also held senior creative roles including staff director at The National Theatre. Kareem-Elufowoju is also the recipient of a 2017 Opera Awards Foundation bursary, a founding member of Mosaic Opera Collective and is currently a visiting director at the British American Drama Academy and London South Bank University.

Kareem-Elufowoju added: “Utopia Theatre aims to be the lifeblood of the African community here in Sheffield and we have plenty of opportunities for people to get involved. I found my freedom and my joy – a new lease of life – in my second career as a producer and am proof that people can participate whenever it’s right for them.”