Improving the lives of London’s young people through theatre

Born and raised in Essex, Sarah Smit has been entertaining London’s communities and improving the lives of young people for 24 years through Chain Reaction, an ingenious organisation that uses theatre and media to communicate important messages about personal, social and health issues. Sarah has combined her passion for London, theatre and education and exemplifies how perseverance in living your passion and doing what you love is possible. We spoke with Sarah in celebration of LCF’s milestone of distributing £70 million worth of grants, to hear how she is using her skills to improve the lives of London’s young people through theatre.

“This is the best city in the world,” says Sarah. “I still feel excited about London. One of my first memories of London is taking the train in across the river into Charing Cross. I still get excited every time I take this journey and I have lived here for 20 years.”

Growing up, Sarah had always wanted to get involved in theatre. Attending Barking College to study Performing Arts, she was selected as one of seven female students to write and perform a piece of theatre called Chain Reaction. Taking the Wizard of Oz and creatively adapting it into piece on smoking education, the group performed in schools across Barking & Dagenham.

Sarah loved it. “I found my place,” she says. “I want to be educating through theatre, that’s my passion.” And her passion showed – originally meant to be just performed in the one borough, demand came from other boroughs, and they toured their show further afield. 

I want to be educating through theatre, that’s my passion.

Wanting to continue educating through theatre, Sarah established her own professional theatre company whilst taking a night job to sustain herself. And her persistence and dedication paid off - Chain Reaction was born, and they now have 12 shows in their repertoire, work with over 10,000 young people a year and do musical theatre for adults and corporate theatre for business. Sarah’s still in awe over how it has evolved and never thought it possible that she would still be doing it 24 years later.

Her commitment to making a positive change in people’s lives is evident in her favourite piece of advice, given by her Dad. “He told me to be honest and stay true to myself.”

Another piece of wisdom which guides her dedication to her work is the realisation that even if you change the lives of just a handful of the people you work with, you are still doing so much good and changing lives makes it worth it. It’s clear these are words she lives by as when discussing her proudest moments, she enthusiastically tells us about a young man named Danny from the Gascoigne estate.

First meeting him when he was 13, Danny’s behaviour was disruptive and very challenging. Deciding how to best manage the situation, Chain Reaction staff decided to give him more responsibility and he began to direct the younger people on a project. He thrived in this role and started to volunteer on a weekly basis. He then went on to be shortlisted for a Young Volunteer of the Year, where he got to meet the Mayor of London and is a now a fully-fledged board member of Chain Reaction. He has now graduated as a Drama teacher and has told Sarah, “I want to be like you guys. I want to do what you do.” Seeing him on the journey makes her feel so proud – especially as she thinks of alternative routes his life could have taken, as some of his peers became teenage parents or got involved in gang crime.

But not every young person has been given the opportunity that Danny has, something that Sarah dreams of changing. Discussing what she’d do if she could be Mayor for the day, she doesn’t hesitate in talking about how she’d immediately make more funding available for youth services – as most are running on a bare bones budget. She would also invest in knife crime prevention and good counselling services for London, as far too many young people are not getting the support they need. 

Despite the difficulties being faced, Sarah is positive when thinking about those who have benefited from Chain Reaction and what the future holds for the organisation. “It’s a very exciting time for us here at Chain Reaction,” says Sarah. “Over the coming year we’ll be delivering a whole host of creative projects which address the current challenges that young Londoners face.We are seeing some truly positive and transformative changes to the lives of these vulnerable young people. We are looking forward to producing and delivering more best practice projects in 2018/2019 that successfully identify and articulate London’s health and social needs.”

Chain Reaction are currently touring It's Your Body - their drugs and healthy living show and in the midst of delivering Make Your Mark, their creative employability programme. Funded by The London Community Foundation through the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, the project provides disengaged young people with new skills, hands on work experience in the creative industries and mentoring to enable them to reach their full potential.