The Craic is mighty in Coalisland

Last Saturday night I went to a panto. ‘Oh no you didn’t’, I hear you cry, ‘pantos aren’t on in late January!’ Well, they are in Coalisland – and the show ‘Once Upon a Minion’ in Craic Theatre and Arts Centre just happened to be one of the best pantos I have ever seen. Let me tell you all about it…

Coalisland has a thriving youth drama scene based in Craic Theatre, a popular arts venue opened in 2002 following extensive fundraising and building by the local community. Every time I visit Craic I am struck by how vibrant and well-used it is. The foyer is always buzzing with locals and visitors alike. It is clearly a labour of love for the staff, many of whom have been involved in Craic Theatre since the beginning when it was a volunteer-run theatre company looking for its own venue. Nowadays Craic has an extremely popular youth drama programme which involves over 100 young people aged 4-18 who attend the weekly workshops. This programme is ably led by a ‘crack team’ of three facilitators who train the young people in theatre skills and direct them in performances throughout the year. The facilitators also write the annual panto. Not only is the panto one of the highlights in the Craic Youth Drama  calendar, but it is an event which the whole local community looks forward to each year. On the weekend when I attended, every performance was sold out.

12553079_958690767534226_1218850067953669868_n

So what made ‘Once Upon a Minion’ so special? First and foremost, its young performers. The panto had a cast of 90 young people – and each young person got his or her time to shine. The littlest performers were the Minions, who had us laughing through several brilliantly executed dance routines and a memorable song in their twittering ‘Minion speak’. When watching large casts of children or young people I often scan the faces of those children in the back rows onstage, to check whether they seem to be enjoying themselves. I can assure you that every one of those wee Minions looked like they were having a ball. The older performers – all 50-odd of them – were given distinctive roles as part of the Heroes’ team or the Villains’ team, or else as fairytale characters. Even within the Heroes and Villains there were many individual characters such as the girl called ‘Shhh’, who kept being told to be quiet by the other Heroes but eventually found her own voice through a barn-storming rendition of Katy Perry’s song ‘Roar’. Then there were the not-so-evil sidekicks of the dastardly villain, one of whom fell in love with a Hero (oops!), one of whom had me in stitches by randomly breaking into an Adele song at the most inappropriate moment, and another of whom had the tendency to catastrophise EVERYTHING.

The plot was nicely pitched between a being gentle send-up of fairytales and embracing the magic of a pantomime. For example, when Anna and Elsa from ‘Frozen’ (or was it ‘Foundered?’) made a cameo, the performance of Elsa’s infamous song ‘Let it go’ was delayed and delayed in a way which had parents of ‘Frozen’ fans wincing in anticipation. By contrast, when Aladdin and Jasmine sang ‘A Whole New World’, a wee space was made for stillness and wonder. The sight of this young couple’s expert rendition of the song left me, a seasoned theatre-goer, with a tear in my eye. The magic and wonder were greatly enhanced by the fabulous set and the cheerful colour-blocked costumes which displayed a lovely attention to detail.

Craic Minions

And then, of course, there was the craic. Oh boy did we laugh. From the moment we heard her broad Tyrone squaks from offstage, the pantomime dame Nanny O’ Business had the whole audience in stitches. Coalisland lad Seanan Cummings has played the dame in the Craic Theatre pantos since 2010 , when he was just 17 years old. His performance as Nanny was nothing short of roof-raising. Cummings is a master at improvised banter with the audience. During an ‘it’s behind you’ routine, one brave young audience member in the back row shouted out: ‘Nanny, your eyesight’s rubbish!’ With her trademark ‘are you talking to me?’ look, Nanny paused her routine and declared: ‘Get them house lights up so I can take a look at ye. Ach sure I can’t see you all the way up there – you know my eyesight’s rubbish. Do you want to come on down here onstage?’ This type of playful banter continued throughout the show, with the audience giving as good as they got and Nanny taking it all in (hilarious) good heart. My favourite moment came when Nanny and the two (beautifully played) royal twins arrived onstage after having apparently fought their way through a hedge. Nanny’s voluminous frock was studded all over with pieces of ivy. ‘Right’, she declared to the auditorium, ‘hands up if you want a piece of ivy!’ I was delighted to see the hand of almost every child in the audience shoot up, in eager anticipation of receiving…a piece of ivy! The wee girl sitting near me was almost beside herself with excitement. Nanny duly trotted up and down the aisle (no mean feat in those heels) to deliver branch after branch of ivy to the crowd. This vignette captures for me the magic of panto – especially of an excellent community-oriented panto such as this. The audience members were so captivated by the show that an ould piece of ivy became for them something very special…

Craic dame

‘Once Upon a Minion’ delivered on all fronts: it was a visual feast, it fully engaged the children in the audience but had plenty of irony (and a few dirty jokes) to keep the teenagers and adults entertained too. I enjoyed the thread of Coalisland humour which ran throughout. There were several jokes about Stewartstown (Coalisland’s neighbour and occasional sporting rival) but there were not so many local jokes as to make the show inaccessible to a visitor. Most of the humour was universal, silly and big-hearted.

Now, few shows are absolutely perfect. There were a couple (and just a couple) of times when I felt that the dame’s performance was slightly overshadowing the other cast members. However, overall, scrupulous attention was given to ensuring that each young person had their time in the spotlight. And believe me, it is not a guarantee that every youth drama performance does this.

I left ‘Once Upon a Minion’ with my heart soaring, in a way in which it just wasn’t after I came out of the Grand Opera House’s pantomime in December. Why? Because of the exciting, community feel which had been created in the Craic auditorium. Because of the belly-busting jokes (some of them a good deal more risqué than May McFetteridge’s offerings!). And because the show in the Craic reminded me that sometimes, the sheer exhilaration displayed onstage by talented children and young people beats the tired slickness of adult professionals hands-down. ‘Once Upon a Minion’ was an example of the uniquely vibrant contribution which high-quality youth drama can make to the theatre scene. Unfortunately, you can no longer see the Minions in Coalisland – the show ended on 31st January. But I would strongly urge you to get yourselves along to the Craic Youth Drama panto next year. And in the meantime, why not make a visit to Craic Theatre anyway? They have a year-round programme of shows advertised on http://craicartscentre.co.uk/. Go on down – the Craic is mighty…

Craic cast

Advertisements

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…

Grease Lightning! And my first conference paper

Last week I attended the Amateur Creativity Symposium at Warwick University, at which I gave my first ever academic presentation. It went grand! The symposium was organised by the team from the Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space project, so the majority of presenters there were from a theatre background.  For a full account of the conference, see this blog by another of the delegates.

Most relevant to my own research was a paper by Stacy Wolf of Princeton University, entitled: ‘The Bunk Show Meets Broadway: Musical Theatre at Girls’ Jewish Summer Camps in Maine, USA’. Stacy spoke of how the compulsory musical theatre projects at these summer camps constitute a strong enactment of group identity. It reminded me of performing in Grease (as Gaelige) as a fifteen-year-old in Rann na Feirste Irish language summer school. We had asked one of the teachers to translate the words of the Grease Lightning song, but she actually re-wrote much of it, sanitising all the sexy lines such as ‘You know it ain’t no shit when you get lotsa tit.’ In this case, our performance adapted a popular musical to fit the Catholic moral codes of the summer school!

Wolf’s paper, and another by Mae Finlayson,  got me thinking about the distinction between ‘canned’ and ‘crammed’ creativity. Finlayson uses these terms to distinguish practices of amateur crafting: ‘canned’ crafts are when you get a pre-packaged kit, with exactly the right amount of materials and a handy how-to booklet. ‘Crammed’ crafts, on the other hand, are when you improvise completely and let your imagination run wild. I wondered whether this distinction might usefully be applied in thinking about youth drama. Are those stage schools who produce versions of popular musicals, involving young people in a process of pre-packaged, ‘canned’ creativity, where there is  less scope for original thinking?  Or is this assessment culturally snobby, underestimating the joys of the well-known musical? Could we say that devised youth theatre projects (where the performance is crafted by young people themselves with some guidance from adults) are examples of ‘crammed’ creativity? What about the space in between these definitions – like when a drama group adapts a popular pantomime, filling it with local references? How can we critique youth drama performances artistically, whilst still employing an ethics of care to the young people involved? I certainly have some food for thought!

Inspired by Claire Cochrane’s presentation, I am also thinking about my own status as an insider/outsider researcher. I am an academic and as such my analysis should be objective. Yet my whole working life (and a lot of my personal life) has been devoted to youth drama. So I am kinda biased here…

I look forward to teasing out these and other questions in the months ahead. If you’d like to read the paper I gave, which was on the relationship between local authorities and youth drama, here it is here: MG Local councils & youth drama paper. Oh and here is the accompanying PowerPoint Prezi, featuring a lovely picture of the late, well-loved Sean Hollywood.

Right, I’m off now to practice my hand-jive…

PS: The photo is of young people from Steps Productions in Yorkshire (a lot more fabulous -looking than we were in Rann na Fast!)

Quadrangle Productions: providing ‘something different’ since 2010

Hallo again! I am sorry for the couple of month’s absence – I have, amongst other things, been holidaying in Berlin, doing a bit of freelance consultancy work and conducting a survey of the youth drama sector in Northern Ireland (findings to be discussed in my next post). I have also had the privilege of watching the summer show of a cracking rural youth theatre which is very close to my heart: Quadrangle Productions. As Quadrangle take a well-deserved break in 2015-16, I’d like to pay tribute to the vision, imagination and drive that has propelled them through the past five years.

concert poster      Caroline & Seniors

Quadrangle Productions is the brainchild of Drama Facilitator Caroline McAfee. Like me, Caroline grew up in rural North Antrim at a time when the only youth drama provision was the school play, elocution lessons or Speech and Drama classes. Again like me, Caroline was accepted onto the National Youth Theatre’s summer training course at age 16, an experience which blew her mind and decided her career path.  Upon graduating with a Drama degree from the University of Ulster, Caroline returned to Ballycastle with a determination to provide the kind of creative outlet for young people which hadn’t been there when she was growing up. There was a thriving Amateur Drama scene in Ballycastle at the time, but they tended only to bring young people in if needed for specific productions. Having been part of the Am Dram scene there myself, it’s fair to say that it was also a tad snobby and cliquish.

Quadrangle was established in early 2010 and five young people turned up at its inaugural meeting. At first they rehearsed in the Scout Den which has “a tiny stage, like two kitchen tables” and a problem with damp. Their first production, a variety show called The Big Bang, was a huge success in terms of inspiring other young people to join the group. By 2011 Quadrangle had nineteen members, and secured a local parish hall as its regular base for rehearsals and most performances. As well as productions staged in this hall, Quadrangle have also staged two shows in The Riverside Theatre, a site-specific play in Bonamargy Abbey and many creative ‘happenings’ at local community events.

Looking back over Quadrangle’s history, I am mightily impressed by the variety of styles and art forms which they have been involved in. There was the thoughtful, funny documentary about conducting Polish, Indian and Chinese dance workshops in rural North Antrim. There was the side-splitting Christmas panto of Cinderella (I still get the giggles when I think of the ugly sisters dancing to Beyoncé’s ‘All the Single Ladies’!). There was the series of devised plays by senior members which were performed in a ruined abbey…The list continues. At the last variety concert alone there was an agit-prop play about the cheap clothing industry, a Bollywood dance routine, a piece of abstract theatre about perceptions of young people in society, a contemporary dance routine choreographed by a senior member and a series of comic duologues. When they could have easily stuck to scripted plays or a songs-from-the shows format, Quadrangle decided instead to broaden young people’s frames of reference by introducing them to as many different styles and art forms as possible. Some of their work has been artistically brilliant; some a little weaker; but they have never shied away from jumping in and giving things a go.

Lads   Gals

I should emphasise that over its five years in operation, none of Quadrangle’s leaders have ever taken any payment for their work. The fees for members are £10 a month and all profits are invested back into the group’s activities. Caroline, her husband Dominic and the other facilitators all work day jobs and give up their Saturday afternoons to run the classes, plus a considerable amount of admin and prep time too.

My very favourite thing about Quadrangle is the extent to which they nurture individual members. Their Statement of Values includes the sentence: “The company celebrates the equal right of each individual to creative self-expression.” Every production of theirs which I have seen has included elements which have been written or devised by members, and these members’ contributions have been properly recognised. There are few lead roles and all young people tend to get equal time onstage. More than that, you can tell how the facilitators have spent time drawing out and nurturing individual talents which might not have otherwise seen the light. For example, in their last show a 15-year-old boy stilled the room with his beautiful rendition of It’s Time by Imagine Dragons. It transpired that fellow group members had heard him singing to himself during downtime, and Caroline had encouraged him to share his considerable talents in public. Young people’s ideas are listened to and respected: Caroline described how, with a few weeks to go before the show, Junior members decided that the short play which they had been preparing “wasn’t working for them.” Instead of pushing them to perform something they weren’t happy with, Caroline gave them creative space to prepare something different – which ended up being brilliant.

Tinderbox 1 Tinderbox 2

The phrase “something different” has a particular meaning in North Antrim. It’s often employed with a certain degree of reserve, to refer to any activity which is a bit out of the ordinary. For example, if a couple were relating their choice to spend an evening at the theatre rather than the pub, their friends might comment: “Aye. Something different.” The phrase doesn’t have negative connotations, but it recognises that Glens’ society has a certain level of shared experiences (sport, religion, pubs), and that some activities fall outside of this sphere. As the only youth drama group in the town, Quadrangle definitely provides ‘something different’ for Ballycastle. Its mission is to: “ensure that all young people in Moyle have access to quality drama training, and to provide a sustainable platform for these young people to showcase their talents.” Quadrangle has provided a home for young people who aren’t necessarily into sport – which is still the most favoured and valued youth activity in the town. These are young people who want to be a little bit different, to flex their imaginations, to develop identities which may not be what others expect them to be. Two Quadrangle alumni have moved on to study drama at university and another is studying Dance. Many other members have told me of how Quadrangle helped them grow in confidence, value their own creative abilities and broaden their horizons. These are benefits which will stay with them for life, whatever job they end up doing.

And of course, Quadrangle provides great productions for the local community to enjoy. Theatre Critic Lyn Gardner wrote recently that: “The show that is presented in a village hall is a manifestation of a much deeper network of relationships.” I have seen at first hand how Quadrangle productions have helped to build social capital in Ballycastle, giving local audiences a space to laugh and dream during the long winter months, and providing a real positive platform to change perceptions of young people.

Why on earth, I hear you ask, is Quadrangle ending then? My answer: it’s not ending – they are just taking a wee interval whilst Caroline completes a PGCE. After five years of voluntary activity, receiving no external funding and raising all resources through fundraising and in-kind donations, the facilitators are understandably in need of a little break. And although the weekly classes will stop for the year, they will still be doing a Christmas panto, which I for one am very excited about. I feel honoured to have seen Quadrangle grow and thrive over the years, bringing imagination, colour and ‘something different’ to my home town. Quadrangle members past and present, please ‘keep her lit’.

Dreams come true

Youth theatre connections at home and abroad

Like me, you may be feeling a bit uninspired after the General Election. However, I’ve been lucky enough to go on two research trips in the past few weeks to places and people with an incredible creative buzz. As I write up my notes from these visits, I feel myself becoming inspired again, not just for my PhD but for all my work in the arts.  I’ll share my thoughts on these trips with you, in the hope that I can pass on a bit of that buzz…

Eden Court Theatre and Cinema sits beside the river in Inverness, the capital city of the Scottish Highlands. When I visited in the last week of April, the city was experiencing a heatwave, with the result that we were sheltering from a 20° sun in town whilst snow still lay on the mountains above Loch Ness. It’s a beautiful place. I’d travelled there to meet with Eden Court’s CREATIVE team and take part in one of their team training weeks.

eden-court-theatre-main-bui_361x271

Eden Court CREATIVE have a unique system of Theatre Arts Workers who operate in communities across the Highlands. The Highlands area is roughly the same size as Belgium, and considerably more mountainous, with the result that many communities are quite remote and inaccessible. As lovely as Eden Court Theatre and Cinema is, it would be difficult for young people in, say, Thurso, to regularly make the two and a half hour trip down to attend a youth theatre there. So, Eden Court employ a team of artists to make theatre activities happen in people’s local areas. They currently have nine Theatre Arts Workers who cover the whole of the Highlands, as well as a Drama Artist, a Dance Artist, two Digital Artists and two Accessible Arts Workers who are based in Inverness. Between them, they run nine youth theatres, two Young Companies and a dance company. But youth theatre is only one part of their remit: they also provide drama in schools, including delivering formal qualifications in schools where there is no drama teacher. And they are involved in a host of other theatre projects with both adults and young people. This crack team meet up three times a year to plan their activities, undertake skills training and help each other with any problems they may be experiencing.

Unfortunately I had to miss the first day of the training, so I rocked up on the morning of the staff tidy-up of the costume stores. Within 15 minutes of arrival I found myself blowing up a giant inflatable space ship (to check if it had any holes). It was a great conversation-starter and I quickly got to know the team.

One of my lasting impressions of Eden Court was how much of a strong, dynamic team they are. I’d gotten an inkling of this last year when I met some of their Theatre Arts Workers at the Interchange Conference – all the Eden Court ‘bloc’ seemed to be having great craic together! But at the team training I realised the extent to which they support each other professionally too. For one of the sessions, all the team members were asked to report back on an aspect of their activities over the past term. Instead of giving a boring talk or PowerPoint, each person used a different creative, interactive way of reporting. One in particular stuck with me: the artist was reporting on her progress with a young company throughout the year. She had drawn a road map on a large roll of paper, featuring bridges, bumpy bits and forests. Whilst driving a little ‘Noddy’ toy car across the map, the artist talked about the highs, lows and challenges she had experienced whilst working towards a production with her group. After ‘performing’ this journey once, she then asked the rest of the team for any suggestions as to what might make that journey easier. She wrote down this list of suggestions and placed in underneath Noddy’s car seat: this was the toolkit or powerhouse which would make the journey smoother next time. This simple exercise encapsulated, for me, the value of the team training sessions: enabling the Theatre Arts Workers to return to their communities charged up with new inspiration.

I took part in two skills training workshops, one on digital media and the other on Theatre of the Oppressed. I was able to try out Living Newspaper Theatre and Forum Theatre techniques, both styles which I had never experienced before. Because of time constraints, the sessions moved swiftly from exercises to devising to performance, and indeed, this reflected the pace of the whole training week. I got the sense that the Eden Court CREATIVE team do not have much time to footer about: they quickly got down to the essentials in each session and there was little waffling. In the Living Newspaper workshop I struggled to keep up as my group moved from a 30-second chat into an improvisation to devise our scene. This sense of ‘just doing it’, coming up with ideas through creative play rather than discussion, and testing them out straight away, is something I’ll take into my academic work too. I intend to ‘just jump in’ and do more things, rather than intellectualising or reasoning myself out of them. I may not yet have experience of making films, giving conference papers or writing journal articles, but there sure is only one way to get it!

I put this ‘can-do’ philosophy into practice straight away by deciding to lead my first ever focus group with the Eden Court team. Although I’d planned to do a few individual interviews rather than a focus group, having the whole team there in one place seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up on. As the session was close to lunch, I began by sharing out a box of chocolates: a highly successful technique which I intend to use in all future fieldwork! After inviting each Theatre Arts Worker in turn to describe the youth theatres which they run, I opened the floor up to three questions:

  • Why do you think young people keep coming back to your youth theatres?
  • Who comes to see your youth theatre performances?
  • Why do you think it is important to have youth theatres in the communities you work in?

The team gave me some really thoughtful responses. I realised the value of a focus group, because people bounced off each other: one person’s idea would spark off another, and lead the discussion down a new avenue. However, I am conscious that this was a very solid team who are used to working together. A focus group might not immediately work so well with a group who do not know each other – for example, a group of parents, youth leaders and teachers from a small town in Northern Ireland. But sharing out chocolate (or buns or tea), and getting people relaxed will definitely help…

I came away from this discussion buzzing with ideas. I realised that some rural communities in the Highlands, where there is a strong Shinty or outdoor sports culture, may provide very useful comparisons with small communities in Norn Iron. So now I am thinking that one of my four case study communities could be in Scotland…watch this space!

I flew home from Inverness full of admiration for youth theatre in the Highlands. However, I soon had reason to feel extremely proud of the sector in Northern Ireland too. I stepped off the plane and headed straight to the Lyric for the NT Connections youth theatre festival.

Connections is a nationwide initiative run by the National Theatre. They ask well-known writers to develop scripts for young people, then offer youth theatres the chance to perform these new plays in professional theatre venues.  This year, 26 theatres held a Connections festival. The week before my visit to Eden Court, they had hosted the Highlands Connections Festival. The Lyric was the only venue in Northern Ireland to take part, but they had the biggest ever number of participating youth theatres from NI: seven out of the nine groups were from the North.

I saw some cracking performances at the Lyric’s Connections. I loved Patrician Youth Club’s version of the Crazy Sexy Cool Girls’ Fan Club, a satire of One-Direction-mania. Their characters were spot-on and there was just the right suggestion of darkness flickering through the comedy. The whole auditorium vibrated with tension during South Western College’s performance of The Accordion Shop. About 40 young performers crept down either side of the audience, pausing every now and then to flash out torches and makes us feel complicit as they journeyed towards an unspecified riot onstage. I’d now like to leave you with a little snapshot of what the atmosphere was like offstage.

Lyric Connections offstage

On the Saturday of Connections, there were no adult shows taking place: the Lyric had given the whole building over to young people. In the afternoon, between the second and third performances, the foyer was packed was teenagers (instead of the usual red-wine-swilling crowd). Young people from all over the island of Ireland were getting to know each other and having the craic. Conversations seemed to be a healthy mix of discussions of the plays they had just seen and joyful random chats. A fantastic young musician, Triona Carville, was belting out tunes in the corner and you could buy a hot dog at the bar for £2.50: happy days. As the sun sparkled on the Lagan outside, a sense of jubilation seemed to bubble out of people, surrounding the room and spilling out of the windows, until one youth theatre leader and four of her young people got up and began to dance. They were soon joined by young people from other groups. The Lyric’s bar staff looked on with pleased surprise: Saturday matinees were never like this! I will never forget the atmosphere of freedom and happiness that afternoon. Several of the group leaders I spoke to emphasised how important it is for their young people to meet like-minded peers, to realise that they are part of a whole youth drama community beyond their own town or village. Plans are afoot to have two Connections Festivals in NI next year, so hopefully twice as many young people will be able to experience this buzz.

My heart has lifted as I’ve been writing this. I do worry about the future of youth arts under a politics of on-going austerity. Eden Court have experienced year-on-year cuts in their funding from Highland Council. In Northern Ireland, the Arts Council recently implemented deep cuts which will affect companies’ education and outreach programmes. People are unsure of what will happen when DCAL is amalgamated into the new Department of Communities. It’s serious stuff. But there is no point in getting het up and there is every point in jumping in, asserting the value of our work, trying new things and fighting to make spaces where young people can continue to imagine, play and grow. Come and join me – the water’s lovely…

Youth theatre or youth drama? Some thoughts on defining values

What is YT

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a Postgrad Roundtable discussion at Queen’s. Joining in a conversation about the composition of creative works, I tried to make the point that the ensemble devising process in youth theatre could be said to involve an emergent design rather than the top-down ‘composition’ of a play by one director. Not being (quite) assertive enough, I was talked over by a music lecturer who ignored my mention of youth theatre and said that Grotowski’s Theatre Labs were the only example he knew of emergent design in theatre. Quietly fuming, I wrote down on my notepad: ‘Doesn’t know a thing about youth theatre’.

Reviewing these notes in the calm of my office, I am struck by how defensive I became about my conception of what youth theatre is. During this PhD I will need to arrive at a definition of youth theatre/youth drama in order to determine which types of group I engage with. The more I read stuff and speak to people, the more I realise that understandings of the term youth theatre vary greatly, from denoting any kind of dramatic activity with teenagers to meaning a specific art form in its own right which links artistic, personal social development. Here’s where I am currently at with thinking through these questions of definition…

I am focusing on groups working with people aged 12-25. I define individuals under 12 as ‘children’ and those over 12 as ‘young people’. 12-25 is the age bracket which the youth theatre umbrella bodies in NI, ROI and Scotland focus on. It’s an age bracket in which peoples’ main social circle tends to be their peer group rather than their families – so drama groups might be of special importance to them.

NAYD is the umbrella body for youth theatre in the Republic of Ireland. According to NAYD: ‘Youth drama is a unique form of theatre that is defined by the contribution of young people.’ It is also ‘a unique youth work practice that engages young people as active participants in theatre by using group or ensemble drama approaches.’ Whilst NAYD use the broad term ‘youth drama’ here, they go on to list 7 Key Characteristics of a youth theatre group. These include being not-for-profit, offering a year-round programme of activities, taking place outside of school and having ‘its own identity forged by its members and its interaction with the wider community’.

In NAYD’s research projects Centre Stage + 10 and State of Play, they distinguish between ‘youth theatres’ (which comply with the above criteria) and ‘youth drama groups’ (which encompasses commercial Stage Academies, Speech and Drama Classes etc.). Interestingly, the Republic of Ireland counts over 40 youth theatres which mention their local areas in their titles – e.g. County Roscommon Youth Theatre, Cabinteely Youth Theatre, Galway Youth Theatre… This contrasts with just 3 Northern Irish youth drama groups who have a geographic place in their title. NI groups tend to be named after arts venues e.g. The Crescent Arts Youth Theatre, the Grand Opera House Youth Theatre. Does this indicate that youth theatres are regarded more as a source of local pride in the Republic? They certainly seem to be better-supported by local councils.

Having worked in Scotland all last year, I know that a youth theatre over there also tends to mean a specific type of youth drama group. It usually denotes a year-round group which involves young people in decision-making, uses ensemble approaches, offers workshops and mounts productions. The umbrella body for the Scottish sector, YTAS, is supporting some innovative developments for youth theatre in Scotland. The organisation’s recent name change from ‘Promote YT’ to ‘Youth Theatre Arts Scotland’ signals their move towards advocating for youth theatre as an art form in its own right. They recently launched Chrysalis, a platform for high-quality, ‘ambitious and provocative’ youth theatre performances.

Lockdown pic

So much for the Republic and Scotland…what’s the story here in Norn Iron? Well, my 2 years as a UAYD Board member have led me to believe that an understanding of ‘youth theatre’ as a distinct art form is not so widespread here. Fewer than half of not-for-profit youth drama groups in NI call themselves ‘youth theatres’, and many of these are time-bound projects such as summer schemes rather than year-round groups. In NI, the boundaries are often blurred between commercial performing arts classes, not-for-profit youth theatres and Speech and Drama groups. This may be in part due to the demise of the network of regional youth theatres which used to be funded by the Arts Council, and a subsequent rise in private sector groups.

So how should I approach my own definition? I don’t want to be snobby and ignore any groups which don’t fall into my specific understanding of ‘youth theatre’, formed during my time in Scotland. I know that there are some commercial performing arts groups in Northern Ireland who produce high-quality work and offer a fulfilling, inclusive experience for young people. I also realise that by limiting my project to ‘youth theatres’, I will be missing out several elements of the sector which provide important social value in communities. The Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster, for example, don’t generally have year-round groups but have a strong network of drama festivals across NI.

However, in my PhD, as in my professional drama facilitation work and my Board membership of UAYD, I want to highlight some values of good youth theatre practice which I feel aren’t as widespread here as elsewhere. These include:
• The active involvement of young people in decision-making. The productions which a group does should be decided by young people, not by leaders.
• An inclusive ethos and ensemble approach. As a young person, I had a bad experience of having a ‘bit part’ in a youth musical. The (adult) director told me where to stand and how to say my lines. I spent a lot of time hanging around backstage with nothing to do. This is not fun or fulfilling.
• The use of drama workshops. Workshops offer young people a chance to take risks without the pressure of a public performance, to explore and develop their sense of identity. And most importantly, to play.

pyramid-480x353

I am also wary of including groups which operate as profit-making businesses. I’m not saying that youth drama leaders shouldn’t earn a decent wage – they definitely should. But if high course fees and no financial support schemes mean that a group is not accessible to all young people, then that runs counter to the inclusive ethos which I believe should be at the core of youth theatre. The current fees for the Stagecoach performing arts academy are £324 per term for 6-18 year-olds. I know my folks wouldn’t have been able to afford that.

So I am thinking that I’ll focus on groups which invest any profits back into their activities, and which are financially accessible to all young people. I will distinguish between ‘youth theatres’ (year-round groups) and ‘youth drama activities’, but I’ll look at both. I am currently mapping all youth drama activity outside of Belfast and Derry. Come December I will be engaging with four communities for my in-depth fieldwork. This will involve exploring how youth theatre/drama is perceived and valued in these four places, not just by participants but by the wider community (parents, sports leaders, teachers etc). If you think your area could be of interest, please do get in touch. And please also let me know if you have any thoughts on these questions of definition. I’d love to hear them, whether or not you agree with my ramblings.

Just don’t talk over me. If I’ve taken away one thing from my first Postgrad Roundtable, it’s to promote the values I learned in youth theatre. One person, one voice. And everyone’s input is equally important. At the next Roundtable, I’ll bring my talking stick…

A song and a dance – to break the silence around mental health

Sun_Behind_the_Clouds_by_4everN3rdy

If I told you that a youth theatre performance I recently saw, about mental health, ended with a group sing-along of Stand By Me, what would be your first reaction? Some people, I’d imagine, might think that sounds heartwarming. Others, perhaps, might feel it sounds a wee bit cheesy. Some people might think that singing a pop song, complete with guitars, arm-waving and clapping, could be something of a cop-out, or ‘artistically uninteresting’. As for me, well,  I have seen some youth drama performances where there is a serious cheese overload. However, The Sound of Silence, performed by 52 young people in Enniskillen recently, was definitely not one of them. This 40-minute piece of devised theatre was carefully crafted, varied in form and reflective. It also ‘got me’ deep in the heart and gut, and by the end, both performers and audience had certainly earned the right to a good sing-along.

The Sound of Silence was a collaborative production by young people from 4 different schools in Donegal, Fermanagh, Cavan and Derry. They were joined by members of Key Drama, an up-and-coming youth theatre group. The play formed part of a cross-border mental health project with the intriguing title of Salus (means ‘wellbeing’ in Latin, I am told). Run by Action Mental Health and the National Learning Network, the Salus project enabled over 6000 young people to participate in workshops exploring mental health, between 2013 and February 2015. The drama element of Salus began in November last year, and was offered to young people from schools who had hosted mental health workshops. I am guessing that the creation of a play was seen as a way of giving artistic expression to the issues explored in these workshops, and of providing a platform for young people’s thoughts to be heard.  The piece was devised by the 52 young people themselves. They were helped and guided in this challenge by drama facilitator Brenda Burns, who fondly christened her team: ‘The Salus 52’.

The great thing about The Sound of Silence was that it didn’t present mental health as all doom and gloom. It was highlighted early on – through the neat scenic device of a school lesson led by a stressed-out teacher – that the term ‘mental health’ itself is neither good nor bad. The first half of the play focussed on experiences of poor mental health, whilst the second half looked at how we can lift ourselves (and each other) up.

The opening sequence had performers circling in and out of the audience, chanting softly in rhythm: “What’s mental health? What’s mental health? Don’t know what mental health is? Shh…” The effect was disquieting – an embodiment of the social stigma which exists around talking about mental health, whether it be in the school playground or the office.  This chanting was eventually broken by soft guitar music from one of the two excellent young actor-musicians.

A powerful montage of interlocking scenes followed, depicting snapshots of interaction within families and friendship groups. Voice-over narrative was used to illustrate how a young person may seem completely fine to their friends or family, whilst inside they are struggling with feelings of anxiety or despair. A ‘domino effect’ was built up, with one character from each scene moving on to the next one, bringing with them the stresses they had experienced in the previous scene. There were also some short monologues from individuals, telling stories about struggles with mental health. These were incredibly moving, and have stayed with me since.

Like clouds shifting to reveal the sun, the second half brought humour and light. We watched as a youth drama group full of lively characters attempted to create a play about mental health. After sharing things that help their mental health – from going to football matches to hanging out with friends – the group fell to devising scenes. Suggestions such as “let’s have an eerie whisper moving into a haunting chant” were tried out and discarded, before one group member said: “how about ending with a big song and dance? Like they have in musicals… Where they just seem to break simultaneously into song…”. And so it was that The Sound of Silence ended with a fabulous dance routine involving all 52 performers, followed by a chorus of Stand By Me. By that stage, the audience were on their feet, clapping and singing along. We had followed these young performers on a journey from darkness into light. And, quite simply, they had put on a fantastic show.

And I haven’t told you the half of it. I didn’t even mention the scene of the debate in the Dáil, with T.D.s arguing for making mental health education compulsory in schools. Or all the funny bits with the youth drama workshop. But I will say this: as someone who has struggled with mental health at times throughout my life, The Sound of Silence made me feel less alone. Listening to the monologues, I thought: “I remember feeling like that when I was 16. I should have told somebody sooner.” And after the rousing finale, the whole audience left with a spring in their step, off to have lunch at Action Mental Health and get to know each other better. This is what good youth theatre can do. Salus 52, I salute you.