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Why regional youth theatres provide ‘a lifeline to young people’

Burnley Youth Theatre production. Photo: Michelle Darwin Burnley Youth Theatre production. Photo: Michelle Darwin
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They are the first step to many a career in theatre, whether acting or backstage, but youth theatres around the UK offer so much more, says Sam Marsden. They are places for young people to explore their full potential

Regional youth theatres are often the first point of training for performers, theatremakers and backstage crew. They foster a love of theatre in thousands of young people every year, offering a place where everyone, no matter their background, is accepted and welcomed. They break down social barriers and show young people from all walks of life that their voice matters.

These companies tend to attract a wide variety of members as they keep fees low, normally between £40-£70 for a 10 to 12-week term, and places are available on a non-audition basis. The majority accept everyone regardless of talent, special needs or finances. It’s this inclusive attitude that makes the tapestry of the professional theatre world more diverse. Many people working in the industry from non-affluent backgrounds attribute their success to youth theatre.

Benjamin Purkiss, currently playing Captain Macheath in Theatre des Bouffes du Nord’s overseas tour of The Beggar’s Opera, believes the work he did at Ashford Youth Theatre in Kent changed him as a young actor. “I started at age 15 working on Shakespeare and classics and moved on to Pinter and more modern texts,” he explains. “It was an exceptional education for working-class actors who otherwise wouldn’t touch that kind of text until drama school, if they could afford it.”

Ruth O’Brien, director of the National Youth Arts Trust, adds: “Youth theatre provides a lifeline to young people looking for somewhere to express themselves. It is a non-academic environment for young people to explore their creative potential in drama. It can be a springboard into higher education and a career in the arts, and can build a new generation of theatremakers and engaged community members.” The NYAT offers a nationwide bursary scheme.

Burnley Youth Theatre caters for young people from a wide variety of backgrounds. It runs 30 workshops per week for students up to the age of 18, and up to 25 for those with learning disabilities. It also runs a range of workshops that specialise in empowering under-represented groups including LGBT+, those with mental health problems, people with disabilities and parents/carers. BYT produces at least six in-house productions per year and performs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Artistic director Karen Metcalfe explains: “BYT opens up opportunities for local people to engage in the arts no matter what their background or experience. We promote an inclusive and welcoming environment in which everyone can be themselves, build confidence, develop new skills and express themselves through the arts.”

Newbury Youth Theatre. Photo: David Hatfull

BYT is not the only youth theatre to take members to the Edinburgh Fringe. Newbury Youth Theatre has been performing at the festival for 21 consecutive years. Many of its alumni have gone on to work in the industry: James Bye can be seen in EastEnders, Matt Tait was in the London production of War Horse and others are involved in the film industry and pursuing teaching careers at universities and drama colleges.

There are many youth theatres across the country doing outstanding work. Ben Humphrey, associate director of the Swan Youth Theatre in Worcester, says: “We don’t look to create child actors, but to provide an inclusive, safe and creative environment in which young people can explore their abilities through a shared love of theatre. There are many professionals who have started their career with the Swan Youth Theatre and gone on to make their professional debuts with the Worcester Repertory Company or into further training. One of the most notable of our alumni is Rufus Norris, currently director of the National Theatre.”

Youth theatres train young people for a career in theatre, but they also go further. Dale Rooks, director of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, explains: “Our young people often describe CFYT as a family and a place where they can be themselves, develop confidence and self-esteem. In addition to acquiring knowledge and theatre skills, many of them value youth theatre as a place where they feel they develop vital transferrable life skills.”

CFTY welcomes 800 young people each week in workshops for acting, dance, technical and musical theatre. It also offers weekly sessions for young people with additional needs. Notable alumni include Felix Mosse (touring Europe in The Rocky Horror Show), Bathsheba Piepe, who recently performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Alex Jordan (whose TV credits include Unforgotten and Clean Break) and Matthew Hoy, who is now assistant stage manager on Hamilton.

Daniel Kitt and Emily McAlpine in Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s 2017 production of Grimm Tales. Photo: Johan Persson
Daniel Kitt and Emily McAlpine in Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s 2017 production of Grimm Tales. Photo: Johan Persson

Not only do they welcome students from all backgrounds, youth theatres also offer opportunities to students from rural areas. Holly Barradell, who attended the Courtyard Youth Theatre in Hereford, says it was a “rural gem for students”. She says: “It gave me the opportunity to perform and to work backstage, which was ultimately what made me discover stage management.” Holly went on to study for a BA in stage management at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

The Courtyard Youth Theatre welcomes 450 students a week. Associate director David Durant says: “The overall emphasis on the youth theatre is excellence and inclusion; this means whatever we do is to the highest standard and everyone is involved.”

Neither finances, talent nor location are a barrier. Alistair Wilkinson, artistic director of artist laboratory WoLab, explains that the group he attended, Langley Theatre Workshop, was vital to his development: “It was an opportunity for the community to come together and have a great time. And this is super important, especially in places like where I’m from. Middleton is really deprived in terms of finance, and a lot of people grow up not expecting much of themselves. LTW changes that perception, giving kids the chance to learn new things, develop important skills and discover they can do something with their lives. I have no doubt that without their nurturing while I was growing up, I would never have go to where I am today, working as a creative in London.”

Running and teaching at a youth theatre is hard work, but the satisfaction that comes from it can outweigh this. The co-founder and co-director of Next Generation Youth Theatre in Luton, David Lloyd, explains: “It has given us many sleepless nights and tiring days, working crazy hours for little or no financial gain and yet we are constantly reminded of the fundamental need for youth theatre when our young people say things like, “NGYT saved me at a really low point in my life” or “I couldn’t do X, Y or Z if it wasn’t for NGYT”. These feelings remind us of the impact and power of youth theatre.”

Selected regional youth theatres

Burnley Youth Theatre

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Courtyard Youth Theatre, Hereford

Next Generation Youth Theatre, Luton

Newbury Youth Theatre

Swan Youth Theatre, Worcester

Watermill Youth Theatre, Newbury

Royal and Derngate’s Youth Theatre and Young Company, Northampton

Croydon Youth Theatre

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