Friday, 28 September 2012

I ♥ Youth Theatre - a poem

I work for the National Association of Youth Theatres. Their work across the country has affected so many young people and practitioners, and they constantly try to raise the standard of youth theatre. They're not alone, Youth Theatre leaders/directors/practitioners across the country are doing amazing work with young people. And, of course, the young people are incredible. To become a Subscriber, Member or Enhanced Member of NAYT please visit, find them on Facebook and Twitter, or to donate go to
It begins with...anticipation

No, actually, that’s not true, it begins with registration

Rehearsals:  First Day.  The time it takes to sush this lot and tick them off the list, you could have scripted a whole new play.  Behold…the full cast!  There can’t be a room big enough to contain this lot.  Not just in size, but in spirit, this is the biggest project they’ve ever done and this is pushing the youth theatre’s limits.

We’ve endangered the rainforest with the numbers of scripts printed off and handed out.  They need to learn to project, not shout.  Lines still need to be committed to memory urgently, scenes blocked and characters defined.  They clamour for their costumes before they’ve had measurements.  Admittedly, some aren’t entirely sure what the play means, some scenes are so hectic they’re bursting at the seams.  Still, what could possibly go wrong?  Well, a few need reminding what dates the performances are on. 

No, that’s not the beginning, let’s go to the start

So, I don’t get into University, and, have I what?  Have I considered a Gap Year?  Take a year out of education, gain some experience, see the world, read up and plan ahead before making that step.

I never worked with kids before, but they’re looking for volunteers so, well, I’m stopping here for a year so sign me up.  They’re 11-13s so nothing can prepare you for the unholy combination of under-10s dynamic energy and teenage ferocity.  A mutant hybrid of excitable sugar-fuelled mania … and we-know-the-rules-and-we-know-how-to-test-them army of James Dean rebellious jesters.  For 90 minutes.

Try the hand in the air wait for silence tactic, and like a Muggle trying magic, it doesn’t work…

But they love to break free in sessions.  And they come up with stuff which makes The Goon Show seem like the Politics Show.  If they hired this gang for the BBC writing team, Downtown Abby would be like your weirdest dream.  Pop culture, playground logic and half-learned facts all pooled together and let loose in a free space of furious thinking, devising and role-playing games.

There’s no correct answer, no test, not even a Well Done, You tried Your Best patronised pat on the head.  Just, what do you think, just get up and do it, there’s no rules or barriers, or if they are, how can you devise a scene around them.

Everything I script for them is based on their improvisations.  Every direction comes from their instincts.  I learn what I am capable of in terms of leadership and assisting.  Whether they listen to instructions or try resisting, each week is a crash course in the power of young people and how they make the theatre they both want and deserve.

But if you can handle the most manic of groups then they could throw you in a shark tank and you could come out with only mild bruising.

No, sorry, that’s not the beginning…

We’re known at schools as kids into drama and theatre and there’s a youth club youthy drama youth thing.  So, with the, we rock up (well, pour parents ring up)

As if we’re in a school, people still call the Leader ‘Miss’, no, drop the formalities just pay attention to this…

From then onwards it becomes a weekly treat beyond the classroom where marks and targets rule.  Workshops on clowning through to ensemble devising, scripting scenes and whole plays.  Play In A Week and Play In A Day.  Warm-up games, feel comfortable with repeating the same SPLAT or ZIP like a catch-phrase.  Learning lines, discovering texts, site-specific fun, camping at a festival in woods.  At the same time, we don’t need a uniform to know where to belong, year-follows-year and we leap from group to group.  Our teeth aren’t bright white, we’re not photoshopped.  We’re dragging theatre through the mud.  We started off as wide-eyed little ‘uns with a taste for dressing up, then we became older teens who thought we knew everything about rebellion, life and love.

Some of us had real drama in our lives outside the sessions.  Come here only with what you want to share.  Bring you fears, bring your problems, or drop the baggage.  We don’t ask exacting questions.  The answers we seek come from the standing up and the doing.

It’s the Idea and The Experience.  We feel we belong and know what it means, we write a manifesto in the words we say and the movements we make on stage.  Our identity is carved in the programmes, beaten into the playing of drums.  Those that came before us trod the same rehearsal rooms and played the same games, but we don’t repeat their route like school’s exams and essays. 

And most of all, we are loyal.  We are loyal to the idea born from the experience because all the current and old members of my youth theatre can hear this.  They went onto work in theatre or work elsewhere but they could still remember how to play a million warm-up games using only a handful of chairs.  Whenever they hear the word BLOCKING some little part of their memory flashes, whenever they hear SPLAT their reflexes send them diving.

I’ve seen youth theatre members pitching tents in the name of democracy, standing up to save the NHS and thinking politically.  I saw them make Harry Potter-themed placards to protest the rise in tuition fees.  I’ve also seen them dress like giant sea cucumbers.  It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.

Do you know what the reward is for being in Youth Theatre?  We are something larger than a rehearsal room and shoe-strong budget, more than kids gearing up to become ‘proper’ actors.  We are more than a handful of teens with scripts.  The audiences we deserve are more than parents and other ‘kids’.  The reward for being in Youth Theatre is you are part of an artform exclusive to your age, redefining and shaping how we create.   Our 8-10s shows rival the National.  We’ve got Laurence Oliver’s not waiting in the wings, but already strutting across stages.  The next Harold Pinter wrote his first play for a cast if 25, most of them girls.  If the whole world’s a stage, then we’re on a mission to conquer the world.

We…sorry.  They.  They are not the inheritors.  They run the globe.  We think we run youth theatre sessions.  We’ve simply servants to the rule of 11-13 year-olds.

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