Is Newry the youth drama capital of the North? Results from my drama group survey

After nine months of musings and ramblings, I am delighted to be able to present you with some actual research findings. Way back in May and June, I undertook a scoping exercise to try and get a sense of what the youth drama sector currently looks like in Northern Ireland. I use the term ‘scoping exercise’ advisedly: having initially called it a ‘mapping exercise’ with the grand aim of ‘gauging the extent and nature of youth drama activity in NI’, my supervisor reminded me that unless I was going to drive round every single town and village in the country, I was not going to be able to get a definitive picture of the state of the sector. Such streamlining of my overambitious plans is a regular (and welcome) occurrence in my PhD.  So here are the results of my scoping exercise:  it is not a conclusive survey by any means and I am still adding to it as I come across new groups. But I hope that the information gives a little flavour of what’s going on at the moment in Norn Irish youth drama.

Before I begin, a few words on methodology. This survey excluded Belfast and Derry, because my PhD focuses on rural areas. For a fuller explanation of this choice, see here . I only included groups working with young people aged 11 and over – this is how I define ‘youth drama’ – but many of the groups also offer activities for children under the age of 11 too.

So how did I gather my information? I began with the old Ulster Association of Youth Drama’s 2012 database of youth drama groups. I researched all the groups on this database and updated it accordingly (some groups had ceased to exist). I then contacted all the active groups and after they had completed my survey, I asked whether they knew of any other groups operating in their area. I contacted all the local council arts officers (apart from Belfast and Derry) to ask them if they knew of groups in their areas. And that was it: I didn’t drive round the country, much as I would have liked to! But I am still keeping my eyes and ears open, and every time I hear word of a new drama group I add it to the list.

There are now 41 drama groups on my database. I contacted them first via telephone if their number was available online. Some groups answered my questions over the phone; others asked me to e-mail or post the survey. For those who did not respond I contacted them again twice, then left it. You can read the questions which I asked here. 18 out of the 41 groups completed my survey, which represents a 44% response rate. I reckon this is fairly successful.

So here are the headline stats, the hottest-off-the-press information on youth drama in Northern Ireland. Drumroll please…

  • There are at least 41 youth drama organisations currently operating in Northern Ireland outside of Belfast and Derry. They offer at least 69 different classes in 42 different small cities, towns and villages.
  • Lisburn and Newry have the largest amount of youth drama groups, with 5 groups each, followed by Ballymena, Newtonabbey and Craigavon with 3 groups each.
  • This distribution is mostly in proportion with demographics, although Newry has a strikingly high number of youth drama groups in proportion to its size and to how the rest of provision is spread.
  • On the other end of the scale, small villages with youth drama groups include Castlederg, Carrickmore and Donaghmore (Co.Tyrone), Dromore, Donaghcloney, and Ballygowan, (Co. Down), Keady (Co. Armagh), Greenisland and Whitehead (Co. Antrim) and Kilrea (Co. Londonderry).
  • At least 33% of the 41 groups are not-for-profit: that is to say they invest any profits back into their activities. At least 49% of groups operate as private commercial businesses.
  • 30% of the 41 organisations are chains, operating several groups in different locations. The largest chain offers classes in eight locations outside of Belfast and Derry.
  • Out of the 18 survey respondents, the average group membership was 58 young people. However, there are groups with as many as 100 participants and groups with as few as eight.
  • 16 out of 18 groups do not audition for members; the remaining two do. However, most groups audition for roles in productions.
  • Prices range from £350 a year to being completely free. After the £350/year price, the next highest price is £98 per term. Out of the three council-run youth theatres, one is free, one charges £56 per term and the other charges £90 per term. The two drama groups which are provided through youth clubs charge £1 per night.
  • Out of the 13 groups who charge over £1 per class, five stated that they offer fee reductions or waives if a participant’s family is unable to pay. A further three groups offer at least two bursaries per year. The remaining five groups stated that they do not offer any fee waives or bursaries or did not answer this question.
  • 10/18 groups stated that young people have an input in making decisions about activities and/or productions.

My initial thoughts on these findings are:

  • Newry seems like a hub of youth drama activity! I wonder if this is due to the combination of a strong amateur drama tradition, the legacy of the Arts Council’s Youth Drama Scheme and the influence of dynamic youth drama leaders like Sean Holywood… Thoughts, anyone?
  • The ‘stage school’ commercial model seems more prevalent than the not-for-profit youth theatre model. Factors in the history of NI youth drama which might have influenced this include the demise of the Arts Council’s Youth Drama Scheme; the high rent rates for regional publicly-funded arts venues; and the general drive towards entrepreneurialism and income generation in the arts.
  • Prices vary vastly. Should it really be left up to an accident of geography to determine whether a young person pays £350 or nothing at all to participate in youth drama?
  • It is a little worrying that 44% of groups do not seem to involve young people in decision-making about their activities.

An interesting side-note: significantly more not-for-profit groups responded to me than commercial stage schools, even though the not-for-profit model is in a minority in NI. This feature was also noted in the ‘State of Play’, a 2011 study of youth drama in South-East Ireland, in which far more not-for-profit groups chose to participate than stage schools. I wonder why?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these findings. And, as always, please get in touch if you know of any youth drama groups in small towns and villages near you. I’m always ready to hop in the car and visit a new group. And by the end of my PhD, maybe I will have driven round every single small town and village in the country…

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7 thoughts on “Is Newry the youth drama capital of the North? Results from my drama group survey

  1. Michael Carlin says:

    For your next piece of research check out Drama for Seniors and you will find that Newry is again the Capital Of The North. Newry Acting Up Group, part of the Imagine Arts Centre, is now in its third year. The majority of the members are from Newry U3A.

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    • mollygoyergorman says:

      It didn’t in this piece of research Enid, but I hope to include them in my wider PhD work and to have a YFC drama group as one of my four case studies. I am keen to meet more folks involved in the YFC drama scene – do let me know if you know of anyone I should speak to x

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  2. mollygoyergorman says:

    I have made a small edit to my findings. I have just been informed that the council-run group which charges £28 per term has terms which are 6 weeks long. Therefore the cost for participation in this group from September-December is actually £56, making for a slightly less stark comparison with the other council-run youth theatre’s fees of £90 for the same period.

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