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Youth in the limelight;Arts in Scotland;Theatre

Raymond Ross finds that Scottish youth companies are on the Fringe and deserve more than the sidelines.

The Scottish National Association of Youth Theatres (SNAYT) made its debut on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, confirming the healthy state of youth theatre culture in Scotland and helping to showcase nine productions at the city's Theatre Workshop.

Like the Scottish Youth Theatre Summer Festival, the SNAYT festival brought young people from all over the country to work together in a positive environment, but where the SYT brings individuals into single performances, the wider platform of SNAYT gave different youth theatres a chance to share ideas and learn from each other. Among them were groups from Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Lochaber, North Ayrshire and West Lothian, as well as Edinburgh. The week long festival included drama and music workshops, and each group performed in public.

A production of Stone Moon marked the first public performance by the Lyceum Youth Theatre, which was founded in April by the Royal Lyceum's education department in response to growing demand for youth theatre activities. A mere babe compared to some of the other companies, in terms of years and numbers, the Lyceum already has more than 60 performers from Edinburgh and beyond regularly attending workshops, giving rise to its claim to be "Edinburgh's newest and fastest growing dedicated youth theatre".

West Lothian Youth Theatre, which was founded more than 10 years ago and involves about 500 people in workshop activities every week, was at the Fringe as part of a tour. Earlier this year West Lothian took part in the BT National Connections theatre project for the first time and its production of Friendly Fire, by Peter Gill, was chosen as one of 12 to be showcased at the National Theatre in London in July. The SNAYT festival was an important stopover before taking the production to the MacRobert Theatre in Stirling and the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in October.

Both Friendly Fire and Stone Moon (originally commissioned for the BT National Connections festival for young actors in 1995) concern relationships, which are often a focus for youth theatre productions. Friendly Fire is up-front and close to home in its contemporary concerns with sexuality. The action centres on a love triangle involving a girl and two boys, including the narrator figure who is beginning to come to terms with being gay. It is a challenging and thought-provoking piece - as perhaps should always be the aim of any serious youth theatre - and the production, directed by Mari Binnie, has picked up accolades in both Scotland and London.

Stone Moon also has a stimulating script (by Judith Johnson). In a mountain quarry community in China, a girl must choose between an arranged marriage or elopement with her seemingly true love. If this sounds overly romantic, there is a great deal of black humour with some grim imagery to undercut the notion. Men, in this play, are unremittingly painted as thoughtless animals or untrustworthy. Wise brides deny them sex for at least the first five years of marriage and, if they fall pregnant, abortion is presented as preferable to starting a family young. Moreover, if the pregnancy comes out of wedlock, it is generally agreed that suicide is the best option, otherwise disgrace and social exclusion are the prices to be paid. Heavy stuff indeed. But the production - directed by Colin Bradie - was colourful, well balanced and nicely humorous in its staging.

An interesting point was that the dramatis personae demanded nine female parts to one male, which may sound warning bells in terms of gender balance for youth theatres. Like the Scottish Catholics in James MacMillan's much-publicised Festival lecture, women may be discriminated against in many walks of life, but in terms of participation in arts activities, it is often the boys who need encouragement and support.

Palace Youth Theatre from Kilmarnock tackled a large-scale rough-and-tumble musical called Fire! Set in a young girl's mind, it is a tale of revenge for thwarted first love. As a physical and dance piece, Fire! stretched abilities with sinews, as good youth theatre really should, and was an ensemble piece that brought credit to all.

This production was enabled by Patchwork Theatre, which is responsible for running both the Palace Youth Theatre and Hamilton District Youth Theatre. Patchwork won a Barclay's Award for original youth theatre in 1992 and 1994 with Hamilton District Youth Theatre and a Music for Youth Award in 1995 with the Palace Youth Theatre.

SNAYT, which was founded in 1986 as an information and support organisation for youth theatres, plans to hold youth theatre festivals every two years, moving the location around Scotland to enable more local youth theatres to participate. I look forward to the next one.

Scottish National Association of Youth Theatres, co (3F2) 63 Dalmeny Street, Edinburgh EH6 8PW, tel 0131 554 3094

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