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Young, free and on stage;Arts;Festival;Scottish Youth Theatre

Scottish Youth Theatre is staging its biggest ever summer festival. Good news for buddingactors, writes Raymond Ross.

There are no half-measures for the artistic director of Scottish Youth Theatre, Mary McCluskey. "Drama is completely relevant to the entire curriculum," she says. "And that includes science and maths."

She gives the example of a science project at Lenzie Academy last year, where SYT tutors worked alongside class teachers to devise a drama piece based on theories such as Newton's law of gravity and Einstein's theory of relativity, which resulted in a production by the pupils at last year's Edinburgh International Science Festival.

"Drama develops social skills, self-confidence, self-awareness and awareness of other people," claims McCluskey. "It develops flexibility and decision making skills. It teaches young people how to compromise as well as how to lead. It is also about team building and developing all the soft skills that employers look for today."

If drama crosses curriculum boundaries, in the case of SYT, it also pursues educational ends outwith the school year. The biggest event in the SYT calendar begins as the school year ends with the summer festival.

At the moment, 300 secondary school pupils aged 12 and upwards from as far apart as Orkney and the Borders are embarking on a variety of courses and rehearsals. Some give up as much as five weeks of their summer holidays. With courses in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Glenrothes and Stirling (and a production touring community venues), this is the biggest summer festival staged by the company since it was formed in 1976. Pupils will act, direct, design and do stage management.

SYT's success over the years can be gauged by past members, well-known names like Kirsty Young, Blythe Duff and Douglas Henshall. But youth theatre isn't about stars, or even just productions. It's about the workshops and the classes where the hard work is done.

"It's the productions which gain us publicity, but our work is really process-based," says McCluskey. "We can have 500 people attending our weekend classes in Glasgow. Such is the demand that in September we're expanding these classes to Edinburgh, to attract anyone from the age of three to 25. There's a place for both process and production. Young people do like to aim for something and the process is what gets you there, building up the skills and the discipline."

Some 600 youngsters auditioned for the summer festival. About 70 to 80 per cent of the students come directly from school contacts that SYT has established over the years.

Every school in Scotland has been sent a questionnaire, which SYT is now using to refine and develop its range of services. "Demand for our specialist workshops has grown steadily. Any school can buy in our services either individually or in a cluster," says Mary McCluskey. "We have also established two teachers' working groups, one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow, involving over 50 teachers to act as a think tank, exchange ideas and flag up special projects we might be doing.

"We've also established an SYT roadshow which can be hosted by schools, where pupils take part in workshops and SYT members talk about the summer festival and other activities. We're setting up roadshows in Wick, Inverness, Lochgilphead, Selkirk and Stranraer and we hope for the first time to visit the Outer Isles too."

The company is spreading its wings geographically and culturally - or multi-culturally. Assistant director Sylan Baker is working with Glasgow City Council's Anti-Racism Task Force to set up a theatre project examining issues of racism. He will work with the Sikh Youth Forum on performances for Glasgow's Ethnicity Festival in September. Then he will move on to a similar project with a young Muslim group.

"In the past we've not had strong links with the ethnic communities and we see this as the beginning of our development into a genuine multi-ethnic, multi-cultural company," says Mary McCluskey.

Gender issues are also relevant, with two girls for every boy attending the summer festival. At weekend classes throughout the school year, SYT reckons the ratio is evenly split in the 5 to 10 year olds and 16-plus age groups. But between the ages of 11 and 15, girls predominate.

"I think when they're younger the parents decide," says McCluskey. "Then there's the adolescent period when it's not 'cool' for boys. But by 16, they maybe throw off macho peer pressure and decide for themselves. It's not unusual to get a call from a 16-year-old boy who begins by saying 'I've always wanted to...' It's about lack of self-confidence and negative peer pressure.

"For those who do come, one thing they find out is that they're with people of a like mind, and summer festival friendships tend to last. Some have now been friends for 20 years. Friends made at the summer festival are friends for life. They all say that!

"I think it's particularly true for a young person who maybe feels the odd one out in his or her own community or peer group. When they come here, they have the freedom to be what they want to be.

"I remember one boy from a private school who was dyslexic, in learning support, and absolutely lacking in confidence. He discovered he had a special talent for acting and he just blossomed. His parents couldn't believe the change. It helped with his school work and he's now in a professional job."

SYT is also entering the nurture versus nature debate with a series of workshops with playwright Sarah Argent over the next 18 months, which will explore the idea of what makes someone good or bad. The workshops will feed into the script for a production scheduled for October 2001.

SYT is also planning to announce the Glasgow city centre site where a new building is being planned to house the company along with three large workshoprehearsal spaces, due to open in 2001, SYT's 25th anniversary.

"We'll continue to hire outside for productions. Glasgow doesn't need another venue. We want to work with young people rather than programme a venue," says Mary McCluskey.

SYT, 90 Mitchell Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 221 5127. For general enquiries, contact marketing officer Ursula Scrimgeour. For SYT roadshow and schools' services, contact education officer Simon Ross


July 5 170 young people arrive at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, to begin summer festival 1999 July 12 Glenrothes foundation course begins July 17 100 12 to 15 year olds take to the Citizens' stage for the Glasgow foundation course finale July 19 Edinburgh foundation course begins July 24 50 12 to 15 year olds perform at the Rothes Halls in the Glenrothes foundation course finale July 30 "Charlotte's Web" opens at the MacRobert Centre, Stirling,followed by a short tour of community venues July 31 50 12 to 15 year olds perform at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, as the finale to the Edinburgh foundation course August 2 30 young people, 16 to 21 years old, start the two week advanced skills course in physical theatre and Shakespeare in Edinburgh. Four weeks from the start of rehearsals in Glasgow, "The Pirates of Penzance" opens at the Citizens' Theatre August 5 Community tour of "Charlotte's Web" opens at the Citizens' circle studio August 13 Final event with the advanced skills students performing extracts from Shakespeare at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh.

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