Writers love to step into the youth limelight

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Word has got around that one of the more intense, humanising, socialising experiences for a teenager is to be found in good youth theatre.

What used to be dismissed as play acting is now recognised as a powerful educational package, demanding teamwork and discipline as it investigates adult motives, manners and morals. What is more, in a curious paradox, good youth theatre supports and protects young people in the vulnerable situation of public performance by giving them something that is rarely given to even the greatest actors - a play and a part written specially for them.

It is a remarkable truth that established playwrights are happy to work with young people. Indeed, if writers want to write for large casts, this is almost their only chance. Also, writers like the heat of the youth theatre kitchen, because young people bring a kind of football match enthusiasm and disco energy to their occasional performances that professionals find hard to replicate on a nightly basis. And so it was that two very contrasting youth theatres, in the east end of Glasgow and in St Andrews, both put on shows by established writers.

Nicola McCartney who, despite being under commission to the National Theatre, the Abbey in Dublin, the Tron in Glasgow and the Traverse in Edinburgh, and writing a novel, found Wendy Niblock's invitation to work with "the Egyts" irresistible. And so the East Glasgow Youth Theatre performed The Hero Show, which takes reality television into the moral high ground and hangs it out to dry, at the Tron and Stirling's MacRobert Theatre.

"I've seen a lot of their work, and I knew they were highly motivated, highly trained and enthusiastic," she says. "And I love working with teenagers. Their minds are clear and complex, without any bitterness or status seeking that we pick up when we're older.

"And my work was getting too cerebral, too conceptual. I needed to remind myself theatre is at heart entertainment and engagement."

The first weeks of preparation were spent improvising on the theme of a TV show that sets out to find the viewers' favourite hero, putting contestants through increasingly mysterious challenges. All the mind games and cultural references came from the players. "We're twice their age and right out of it," laughs McCartney.

The punchy, racy script takes a grater to the glossy face and tacky underbelly of television but the play, for all its raucous comedy and plot twists, is unashamedly moral in its conclusion.

"Young people today are more than ever confused by the heroes and popular icons set up for their admiration and emulation," says McCartney. "So the final message is: 'Be yourself'. It may not be original, but it needs repeating."

David Gray-Buchanan and Susan McClymont, co-writers of the brilliant but under-performed children's play Phoenix, accepted Heather Mitchell's invitation to write for her St Andrews Youth Theatre at the Byre Theatre.

They started by taking director Steve Mann's suggestion of basing the show on the rock group Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and giving a verse of the song to the "very articulate" young people they were working with to improvise, noting the plot lines and snatches of dialogue and taking these notes into their writing.

Their habit is to plot a play in some detail, write alternate scenes, rewrite each other's work and then argue. Their style is to peel back the film of reality and reveal the bizarre. They like dialogue to trip over dark puns and slip through the cracks of conversation into surreal observation.

It works well for Cirkus!, an ingenious play that inverts the real and surreal worlds of the Big Top and the White House, where the clown's sweetheart is taken up by a presidential sexual predator and the revenge murder is twisted by a Jackie Kennedy figure for her own ends.

Mann, with the help of a huge team (including three choreographers), creates a tremendous spectacle of circus costume and action, unfolding the story with precise and fascinating stagecraft.

Youth theatre is team work and all 40 of the young people involved in Cirkus! (the eldest aged 17) managed an unwavering focus throughout almost two hours of detailed action. There were no ascriptions in the programme (keeping a rein on the self-esteem), but the lusty lady ringmaster, the broken-hearted clown Garibaldi and the evil genius of his downfall, the sinister Scaramouche, are creations that linger in the memory.

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