Whether you aspire to be an actor or work backstage, youth theatres can be more than just the stepping stone to a successful career in theatre. Samantha Marsden talks to regional youth theatre directors who are pumping new life into the industry
Youth theatre can promote a love of theatre in the next generation of performers, backstage artists, technicians and theatregoers – providing young people the opportunity to explore their full potential and get heard. But there are many other reasons why it matters, as we spell out in greater detail below.
Most regional youth theatres are open to every-one, with no entry audition required. Some are free to attend, but most charge between £3 and £7 per session and have free places available for those who can’t afford it.
Liam Gifford, director of Nuffield Southampton Youth Theatre, explains: “We work tirelessly to ensure any young person can access our work and feels welcome to do so. Through the development of our community youth theatres, bursary schemes, and partnerships with other regional cultural organisations, we are continuing to work hard to break down those barriers that prevent young people from being able to access our work.”
Improvisation, drama games, teacher in role, forum theatre, acting exercises and putting a show on are all ways to help young people be heard. Youth theatre is the perfect playground for these activities.
Jade Campbell, co-director of Doorstep Youth Theatre and Doorstep Arts in Paignton, says: “We believe that all children’s voices and stories matter and deserve to be listened to.” Recently, Doorstep Arts completed a project called In My Shoes for young carers, aged 11-19, in Torbay. Theatre was used to create work that amplified their voices.
Putting on a show can be an empowering experience, especially for young people who may not be heard, or seen, in other areas of their life. At the Sherman Youth Theatre in Cardiff, members take part in the annual National Theatre Connections Festival.
Timothy Howe, communities and engagement coordinator, says: “It was the friendships that were formed through this collaborative process that displayed the true professionalism of our children. They supported one another and covered roles in both rehearsal and performance, because they cared not only about the production, but about their fellow actors. These moments are immeasurable in their long-term impact on our young people, but we know it makes them not just better theatremakers, but better human beings. That is the true impact of youth theatre.”
Youth theatres can be found performing in historical buildings, parks, museums, shopping centres, school halls, sports halls, churches and theatres. Shows can be traditional, experimental, musical, or Shakespearean. They are creative hives, where members get to create and thrive.
Everyone is welcome when it comes to youth theatre. David Lloyd, co-artistic director at Next Generation Youth Theatre in Luton, says the group aims “to give young people a place to belong and feel safe enough to share their hearts and minds creatively”.
Burnley Youth Theatre, one of the largest youth theatres in the UK, engages approximately 7,500 children and young people. It recently ran a project called One Connect. This outreach project engaged 263 LDD (learning difficulties and disabilities) children and young people. The project concluded with a relaxed piece of theatre for a performance called Land of Nod.
Youth theatre is a safe place where students from private, state and special schools all get together to create. Finance and talent are no barrier at regional youth theatres, which is what sets them apart from national youth theatres, young companies and part-time theatre schools.
Some young people join for the social aspect of youth theatre and unexpectedly fall in love with theatre in the process. The love children and young people have for theatre often carries through into adult life.
Jason Lower, who runs Oast Youth Theatre in Tonbridge and Trinity Youth Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, says: “I am really proud of some of the work our former members do. I am a former member of the Oast Youth Theatre, and three of my colleagues at Trinity were members of that theatre when they were younger. Other former members often come and support our shows and act as freelances, such as professional costume designers, directors and actors.”
Most youth theatres offer opportunities beyond performing and members get involved with lighting, stage management, costume, set design and other technical aspects of putting on a show. Lee Farley, co-director of Perfect Circle Youth Theatre in Worcestershire, explains that “our philosophy is to create opportunities for young people to perform, write, direct, tech and be involved in the company at every level, including choice of production and aspects of how the company works”.
At the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, its youth theatre run several community projects, including #iwill. This social action project is where older youth theatre students (aged 16-19) create a piece of theatre for primary-aged children who are about to take SATs exams. The aim of the piece is for the older students to pass on what they have learned to help build resilience within the primary-aged students.
NT Connections is an event in many youth theatres’ diaries. Every year, the National Theatre commissions 10 new plays for young people aged 13-19 to perform. This year, 273 youth theatre companies and schools across the UK have taken part. Ten of these productions will be selected to be performed at the National Theatre between June 25-29.
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