I am watching Niall McNamee (Romeo) and Sope Dirisu (Friar Lawrence) rehearsing the scene from Romeo and Juliet in which the former learns of his banishment from Verona – or Camden Town in this case. The acting is strong and the scene is developing nicely with plenty of petulant adolescent anger from McNamee and earnest counselling from Dirisu. This interpretation of the play is set in 1983 around bonfire night and includes a lot of 1980s music played live on stage by actors and a set which includes clothes rails in a tribal street market.
This is the National Youth Theatre’s first fully developed (it was piloted on a smaller scale last year) rep company. It offers 15 young people aged 18-25 the opportunity to spend nine months full-time working on productions. The season which includes Pope Joan, Tory Boyz and the Prince of Denmark as well as Romeo and Juliet, pared down to 90 minutes for consumption by secondary schools, runs from September to the end of November.
“It is effectively an alternative to the third year in drama school” explains Dirisu, 22, who has been an NYT member for five years and now has a University of Birmingham economics degree under his belt. “I did drama at school originally as a way of making friends when I was new and I had some wonderful teachers. When I saw NYT advertised in the back of the programme for the Schools Shakespeare Festival my teachers encouraged me warmly to apply.” Five years on he is part of the full-time rep company.
Having eventually decided that, safe income notwithstanding, he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life writing reports about world food distribution, but unable to pay for even a one year drama school course, the NYT rep company seemed a tailor made opportunity. Dirisu was one of the 200 NYT members who auditioned and one of just 15 to be successful. “We get bursaries and some support from organisations such as the Kevin Spacey Foundation and we don’t have to pay to be here so it’s manageable financially” he says.
McNamee, 19, worried his anxious, very untheatrical parents, by applying for drama school and starting a course at Arts Ed. “I learned such a lot there and the course was excellent and taught me a lot, but after six months I began to feel that I wanted to be learning on the job by doing shows rather than spend any longer tucked away in drama school” he says. “So when I got this opportunity earlier this year, I took a gamble and here I am which alarmed my parents even more although they’re very excited now it’s all coming together”
The fifteen company members do some voice and movement classes but nothing like as many as they would in drama school. Each one has a personal mentor from the top reaches of professional theatre. People of the calibre of Nick Hytner and Michael Grandage come in to work with the company and there are masses of networking opportunities.
Romeo and Juliet is directed by NYT’s artistic director, Paul Roseby. Others are directing the other plays in the season. All will be staged at Ambassadors Theatre in the heart of the West End so there’s no excuse for agents and casting directors not to go – in fact they’ll be missing out if they don’t. “We’re working in between other shows at Ambassadors so we’ve been able to get a really good deal there” says Roseby.
My appetite is now well and truly whetted and I’m planning to see most of these productions between now and the end of the year. You can read more about the NYT’s work in my colleague Nick Smurthwaite’s interview with Roseby in next week’s edition of The Stage, published on August 22.
And I hope others are watching this development closely because it is just possible that, with drama school now so expensive and relatively inflexible because of the shackles of higher education, we shall see a burgeoning of training companies as a viable alternative.
Keep an eye on Bridge Training Company and Fourth Monkey for example. They are not working in quite the same way as the highly, and deservedly, respected NYT but they are definitely training performers and they’re certainly not drama schools. Do I detect a trend?