Some Notes on Youth Theatre

I finished up teaching at the youth theatre I co-founded in Greenock this week. I've been doing classes there since 1998... every Saturday for almost twenty years.

My work with young people has taken me some interesting places and I've learned a massive amount from the scores of shows I've directed and written. I've made so many mistakes over the years as I tried to work out what on earth makes a youth theatre tick, but bit by bit I chiselled away, alongside my partner in crime Marianne Yeomans, and I think we've come up with a way of running youth theatres that works.

Before I forget it all, I thought I would be useful to write down what I think that is. I absolutely would not say that this is a system that those running youth theatres would all agree with, but they worked for me and for the hundreds of young folk that I have worked with over the years and I'm sure there are many people who would vehemently disagree with me, but here they are anyway.

YT Is Not A Stage School and It's Not A Therapy Session

This is the core idea that we pursued in creating our youth theatres. I think any sort of creative work should be just that, creative. So re-enacting the same old musicals - doing them like they are always done - for a big audience and a cheap bow doesn't appeal to me and, in my experience, only appeals to a small number of young people (once they are shown what else they are capable of achieving, more on that later)! Sure, I've done my fair share of out-of-the-box shows, but it's always felt a little unsatisfying. Two or three members have a great time, they get the big parts, whilst the rest sort of languish in their shadow. It's a blast, everybody goes home, and that's it. Fine, but not exactly inspiring.

Hector Moray - Beacon Young Company
As my career progressed, I started to realise that if a young person can't sing, can't dance or is uncomfortable in their body, then shoving them on stage and telling them to sing and dance and prance around, isn't doing anybody any good. And in most musicals there is little else for somebody who won't be having a main part to do. It's also something that most schools and local amateur companies offer, so why do the same in a youth theatre? I really think approaching it like am-dram for young people does little to ignite imaginations or open people's eyes to what their creativity can achieve.

On the flip side, the amount of youth theatre I have seen that more closely resembles therapy than drama is quite frightening. Young people going on stage and talking about themselves. A lot of the time making their darkest fears and experiences apparently the most interesting thing about them. I admit that it makes me uncomfortable. I feel it's exploitative and I'm not convinced that theatre directors always know what can of worms they are opening when working like this - most are not trained therapists...

It also leads to shows, and performances, that are all about "me me me me me" - whereas the best actors are those who are alive and aware of the other people on stage. Those who are trying to affect others, instead of becoming so into themselves that they almost don't see the outside world.

I have always tried to find the line between these worlds - the stage school and the therapist. To open up young people's imaginations, to see themselves as part of a wider world or even as part of another world entirely. Discussions about character development, narrative, pacing are all vital in our rehearsals. We will vary the work we do as well, so at times we do mad, crazy shows about alien planets and the next show we are focusing on the influence of social media on young people's relationships.

Jason and the Argonauts - Largs Youth Theatre
I will normally use music, so those that enjoy singing can sing, but will also create parts that suit everybody. Of course this can go horrible wrong, and it frequently has, plays have ended up too mad to follow, or I have misread a young person and given them something they can't relate to... But when it goes right, and young people experience creating and performing something that is inherently them, but another viewpoint of themselves, then it is extremely rewarding to everybody.

A lot of YT, at the moment, seems to want to shy away from the concept of character, even from the concept of acting itself. I find this limiting and frustrating. Young people can explore themselves through characters, through imaginary situations and knowing how their character exists within the whole of the play gives them a viewpoint that is outward looking, not naval gazing and moaning about how crap you did in your exams, or whatever.

It's The Teachers Job To Encourage New Experiences

Something else that I have learned over the year is that asking the young people what they want to do is a waste of time. It always ends up with "Grease" or "Les Mis" or "Wicked" - and of course it will. Because most young people, especially the ones I teach, very rarely go to the theatre, so their circle of knowledge and experience is small, they don't know what else is out there. And that's why teachers are teachers. Imagine if an English teacher only taught the books children wanted to read - they would never progress past Harry Potter.

I found that I became a much better YT leader the more shows I went to see, the more music I listened to, books I read and films and tv I watched. I could listen to young people's ideas and direct them in new directions, or I could set up new templates (inspired from the experiences I had) for the groups to fill in.

Rehearsals for Staging Stories with Beacon Youth Theatre
Not knowing what you are doing, and what direction you are heading is THE BEST FEELING EVER! I can't recommend it enough. I found that the moments of confusion and uncertainty that the group feels when they start a new challenge makes the final result - when you have something that you are very proud of creating - even more gratifying.

Repeating an old idea you know works might result in something that's good, but it's rarely going to be great. I found it exhausting, but coming up with new approaches, both in content and form for every project is vital. It helps your group grow, it keeps interest for those who have been attending for a long time and it keeps the teacher on their toes too..!

Small Town Icarus - Largs Youth Theatre

Process > Performance

This is the trickiest point to convince people who are not involved in the making of shows about. What you see at the end of a YT show is almost of no consequence - which may sound mad, but I firmly believe it to be true. It's the work, the love and the creativity that went into making it that matters. This shouldn't be read as the final product should not be of high quality, of course it should, but a rich and fulfilling process will lead to this.

The more time you can devote to the process the better. Of course you can have nice costumes, a lovely set and a huge orchestra...but you can also have nothing but some actors, an empty space and huge ideas. And that's where I think the joy really lies. We have never asked our groups to pay for costumes, I'd rather everyone wore a bin bag than do that. In fact, in some shows, that's exactly what we did!

Taking a break in rehearsals for Land of Lost Things with Beacon Youth Theatre
Have top notch production values if you can, but I'd rather it was budgeted for three more weeks rehearsal than an impressive set. Why? Because in the end, production values are for enhancing the experience of the audience. It doesn't matter to the performer if they are standing on a golden chariot or a wooden chair, their performance can convey anything they want. If the focus in rehearsals is put firmly on enhancing the experience of the participants then that's where you are heading down a road of interest and discovery.

As I said at the start, these are my very personal opinions. Of course Youth Theatres can be run in a whole host of ways. The groups I have ran in the past have appealed to a certain kind of young person, of course they were not for everyone, but we had very large groups attending for many many years.

I think recognising that this is a hobby and a social experience for most young people and doing your best to draw out their inherent talents and imagination whilst keeping a fun and friendly atmosphere is what it's all about. Putting the ego of the director/writer to the side and focusing on making their experience as fulfilling as possible.

Having fun through creativity is our motto at BYT, and I think that sums it all up nicely.


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