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.


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 Go on down – the Craic is mighty…

Craic cast

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…

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