The Sheffield Youth Theatre is much more than a group that knocks out three plays a year. Under the direction of Meg Jepson, its 50-odd members come twice a week, as well as all day Sundays, to enter a different world in which high expectations and respect for themselves and each other set the tone for their work. They rehearse three months for each production, going through processes of learning that would not be out of place in professional rehearsal rooms. The work is hard, serious and, for many of the young members, the most rewarding activity in their lives.
Jepson is committed, in her words, to "giving children only the very best literature we can lay our hands on, the very best language, universal understandings." To this end, the group has always concentrated on classical texts, ranging from The Odyssey to The Ramayana, Arthurian legends and Chaucer (half of which they deliver in Middle English). But it's Shakespeare that is returned to again and again, both in the work of the youth theatre members and in the annual Shakespeare School open to members and non-members that Jepson runs every spring half term. Last February, 170 children attended, more than ever before because of what Jepson calls "curricular factors." The national curriculum is something she knows a lot about. Meg first started the youth theatre as part of her brief as Sheffield Education Department's drama adviser. Over that time, she forged strong links with schools and teachers, sometimes choosing plays for the group that were being studied at school. Today that relationship continues, despite the fact that 18 months ago her post was cut.
Despite no longer being salaried, she has no intention of quitting the youth theatre. "I've made a major commitment to this," she says. "It's the most important thing I've ever done. It's so important that children learn how to do Shakespeare naturally and easily, especially since there are still English teachers treating it as text on a page. Shakespeare's not for that. He's alive and kicking and you have to speak it, walk it, talk it, breathe it. And then you understand it."
Exploration seemed to be the key theme of the rehearsal process in the fourth week of rehearsals for Richard lll. Everyone was encouraged to play every part, meaning five or six children sharing a single part, dividing the lines up between themselves to learn from each other. "You have complete freedom, " Jepson told them. "There are no restrictions except those you put on yourselves." For a bunch of teenagers on a Saturday afternoon, they were almost precociously responsive to these words. Some of the courtiers milled around, looking pensive, muttering to themselves as the old King stumbled through the door, coughing and spluttering. The air of concentration was as serious as you would expect among any professional company, as was the response to Jepson's questions, getting them to think about their breathing, about stillness, about the meaning of their lines.
For the young people themselves, the benefits of working on drama in this intense, intensive way go far beyond rehearsals and performances.
One 15-year-old girl said, "It helps make you more confident to speak out in class and stand up and say what's on your mind. You know that you'll never be criticised here." Another said, "It's completely different from anything we do at school. I get so much out of it that I wouldn't get from other things I'm involved in." The boys, too, get a lot out of being in the group. Jepson recalls "one working class lad who had a real conflict between the youth theatre and football. He said 'I like it here because people talk to you proper.' Even so, football won out for a while and he didn't come for months on end. But now he's come back."
As well as touring their production of Richard III in church halls, Sheffield Youth Theatre has been invited to perform the play for the Swaledale Festival in Yorkshire in Middleham Church, which was Richard's own church. They will also be performing in the studio theatre at the Sheffield Crucible on July 14 and 15.