Scottish Youth Theatre does not just perform Shakespeare, it puts plays on a level that teenagers can more fully comprehend, writes Brian Hayward
The Scottish Youth Theatre has settled into a lively yearly programme of teaching, training and performance, generally doing all three at the same time. Performance at this time of the year has come to mean Shakespeare, and director Mary McCluskey is upfront about her "great passion" for his plays and ambition to pass that on.
This year the company is adding to its tradition with Romeo and Juliet, which Ms McCluskey describes as "the perfect production for a group of teenagers" with its youthful passion, rebellion against parents, violence, revenge and misfortune.
She trades, in part, on the fascination young people have in seeing young actors on stage, but youth theatre is not merely well-drilled young people doing what they are told. "In youth theatre, all our work, everything we do, is education," is the director's mantra and it has governed every activity from the time the Romeo project began last October break, when the company of 17 actors and two assistant directors, all aged 15-22 and chosen from across Scotland, met for the first time at a workshop on her first draft of the acting text.
Ms McCluskey brings a very creative energy to the canon; she knows she is developing work for young people and she edits the texts accordingly. In the first place, this meant stripping away the unnecessary, the opaque and the excessive of the Bard's exuberant young Venetians. Neither was she afraid to refresh the plot (go see the production to find out how) to reinforce the themes of adolescent love and teenage rebellion.
All this was explained to the company, who then investigated the text and the characters in small groups, each with their lovers, their Montagues and their Capulets. For the actors, it was a time to tune in to the iambic pentameter and to discover kinship with the characters. "They learn about Shakespeare's characters and about their own personalities. They learn about life," explains Ms McCluskey.
At the same time, she could monitor whether her production ideas were working. For this swift-moving play she has experimented with a cinematic style, using split-screen techniques and over-lapping scenes, particularly for the finale.
This phase of rehearsal is the link with the school-based education that Scottish Youth Theatre offers, when the director or one of her associates (Julie Austin and David Carter) goes into schools to help pupils make the most of their upcoming theatre experience. The 20 schools that asked for these pre-theatre visits this time are in the central belt, in striking distance of the Citizens or the Festival theatres, but calls also come from schools farther afield, such as Blairgowrie High in Perth and Kinross and Harris Academy in Dundee.
There Ms McCluskey took a two-hour session with 30 Higher students. English teacher Lynn Williamson says the session was the initiative of a pupil who has ambitions in drama and had heard of the SYT's education programme.
Higher students can share the benefits of the October week session because Ms McCluskey knows no better way to tune students in to Shakespeare's wavelength than to work with them as she would with her actors, though with modifications, because there are activities the keen SYT company will try on a residential course that a school class might demur about. Another adjustment to the students' needs is the way Ms McCluskey explains how their insights could be applied to questions in their summer examination.
Her premise is that the lines do not come alive until they are spoken and so the class reads round in a circle, to feel the pulse and energy of the lines. Then they read changing reader at every punctuation point, to point up the disruption and disjointedness of the emotion. In pairs, they tap their partner on the shoulder for every pronoun, and drum into one another how the text subtly insists on Romeo's obsession with Juliet. As the session goes on, the students begin to make the crucial step from page to stage, and Ms McCluskey goes another yard in her ambition.
Scottish Youth Theatre, tel 0141 221 5127 www.scottishyouththeatre.org