Who's backstage kissing the leading lady?

1st August 1997 at 01:00
There are two things that have always impressed me about youth theatre: the wonderful dedication and the splendid mishaps. The dedication I'm talking about isn't that of the paid professionals (undoubted) who run such organisations, but that of the young people themselves.

I've been involved now as a writer with some five youth theatre productions, three of them summer projects with West Lothian Youth Theatre. Summer projects mean the kids giving up their holidays for all-day rehearsals and performances.

My admiration for their efforts was reinforced last week while watching the same company produce a difficult piece called Inheritance. Written by John Harvey, the play was a demanding drama that professional actors would have had to work hard at. The young actors more than deserved the acclamation they received.

Drawing its members from across the semi-industrial county, the group is decidedly not of the sequin and leotard brigade of Fame, but is renowned for highly disciplined productions that can be as hard-hitting and thought-provoking as they are colourful and comic.

The importance of punctuality and regular attendance is stressed at the outset of any summer project, with the director reinforcing the message that anyone unable to make rehearsals must phone. No unauthorised absences here.

So convincing is his performance that during one project a young girl phoned to apologise for not turning up that morning. She'd actually been knocked down by a bus and was phoning from the ambulance. She was in one piece, as it happened. But what dedication.

Of course, it's when the concentration slips that the most memorable things often happen. During a pivotal scene in one play of mine, where a young lady of the night unmasks a misogynist meenister with whom she's had a previous dalliance, the actress playing said young lady failed to materialise on stage. She was in fact backstage busily snogging her boyfriend.

Silent groans from writer and director at the back. But the young meenister carries on like a true professional and the assistant director (female) saves the day by feeding him the girl's lines, seemingly spontaneously, from the third row of the darkened auditorium.

Disaster? Well, not exactly. After the show several members of the audience came over to congratulate us on what they thought was a very clever coup de theatre - the meenister's conscience speaking from the stalls! Of course, we told them the truth . . .

Taking a writing workshop during one of the group's many holiday activities, I couldn't help but be struck by the enthusiasm of the participants. And it's true that it's the non-academic kids who often respond best. Running it as a democratic forum, allowing their ideas to lead the way and letting them present their work regularly, develops impressive self-discipline. The great compliment is "It's no' like the school."

Touring with a young company also has its moments. In Londonderry, a broken lock on the stair door leading to our digs meant the student stage manager had to force the door with the help of a local joiner - this on a busy street at 10pm on a Friday night. Unfortunately for our brave young techie, the joiner had no sooner gone off than two RUC police officers arrived to investigate a reported break-in. Even more unfortunate, because he had been rigging lights all day at the theatre, he had not actually been to the flat before and didn't know which room was his. He didn't know the joiner's name or address and he had no ID.

With a night in the cells looming, it took him 20 desperate minutes going from room to room to find his belongings and prove he was a genuine article. Sitting on the bed, a little more relaxed now that his story had checked out, he noticed the policemen's guns for the first time.

"Are they real?" he asked in all innocence.

"What do you think?" was the only reply he got.

Mind you, a real coming together happened on another company visit to Londonderry when the Scots and Irish youngsters had an bonfire party down in the Bogside. One of the young West Lothian cadres dressed specially for the occasion - in his Rangers top! Now that's dedication - not to say chutzpah.

* West Lothian Youth Theatre will perform The Importance of Being Hamish at Howden Park Centre, Livingston, on August 7.

* The Bowhouse project, an unemployed youth theatre group run under the auspices of WLYT, will perform Sleeping Dogs Wake on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at The Famous Grouse House, Chambers Street, August 21-30.

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