Feature: A TakeOver at York Theatre Royal

When I enter York Theatre Royal for the press launch of TakeOver Festival, I’m hit with how buzzing and alive the foyer is. Music fills the room, courtesy of a ukulele band (the brilliantly named Grand Ol’ Uke of York); there are people all around, and the pillars and structures of the building are adorned with multi-coloured material twisting up to the ceiling. I’m later informed that the foyer’s new look – which includes marvellous mis-matched fabric hanging from the ceiling and some fake trees asking us to “‘Leave’ us some feedback” on its synthetic leaves – was designed by a local sixth-former. At the entrance, some girls around the ages of thirteen and fifteen dance around as they welcome in visitors. When I talk to them, they tell me about the new friends they’ve made and experience gained while organising all of this.

The theatre has, quite literally, been transformed.

TakeOver Festival is run by volunteers under the age of 26, split into various groups of interest and shadowing professionals working in the theatre. Over the week, companies including Kill the Beast, Antler Theatre, the Actors of Dionysus, and Phoenix Dance Theatre will take to the Theatre Royal’s three stages to perform.

Amos Jacob, this year’s TakeOver chair, tells me that the festival “emerged organically out of the York Theatre Royal’s ongoing passion for enabling, supporting and including the voices of young people in Theatre.” TakeOver is in its fifth year now, and Jacob tells me that for volunteers the experience has “been both the start of an interest and of a career for many.”

One of the companies performing is Fragility, who have been making work that has been exploring delicate issues in brutal ways since its founders James Grice and Andrew Silverwood graduated from Rose Bruford in 2012. Silverwood says that regional theatre is:

“Both safe and a risk all at the same time. We have in house technicians, something we normally only have at the larger European Festivals; it means we have to let go a little bit and trust in strangers, but this does mean we’ve had more time to focus on other things, as well as make sure that this is the best show we’re capable of.”

Little Cauliflower’s collaboration with Smoking Apples, Cell, is also part of Takeover. When I spoke to Little Cauliflower member Will Aubrey-Jones about his experience performing in a regional theatre in contrast to London, he notes that “it depends on the town. Cell typically has had quite a contemporary theatre audience, so a town like York which has quite a vibrant population, we weren’t particularly worried about.” He also notes how “we were pleased with the demographic of the audience; there was a really good mix of people from all age groups.” Jacob’s ideas on TakeOver’s engagement with young people emphasise this positive experience with regional theatre: “Industry lead programs, innovative community engagement and new work all bring theatre into the present cultural consciousness and give regional theatre its identity.”

On the night of the press launch, I meet Chair Executive of the theatre, Liz Wilson, who talks to me about potential apprehension around doing a project like this – and yet, through the theatres youth theatre and engagement schemes, she tells me about how the theatre has become “like a second home” for several young people here.

Jacob corroborates the importance of this festival: “Projects like TakeOver are key to the future of Theatre!” he says. “We live in a dynamic culture and some theatre does have the stigma of being a bit old fashioned, particularly for young people, but it shouldn’t. Programs like TakeOver help to re-educate young people, putting creativity and innovation beside discipline and professionalism.”

“These festivals are priceless to young people,” Silverwood tells me when I question him on the subject. “It’s important for us too, to be approached by the panel and asked to perform, as they are our prime target audience, and being approached by them means we must be doing something right. For the venues, festivals like this show that there is a demand for more risqué work – shows that are less conventional and are socially relevant to young adults and other audiences.”

Aubrey-Jones notes how different TakeOver feels in contrast to other festivals involving young people that perhaps don’t let them get so hands-on. “It really felt like young people were running it, and it was being run very efficiently and very professionally,” he says of his experience at the theatre. He also notes the benefits of this experience for young people in terms of awareness about theatre. “It gets people to realise how much work goes into producing these types of shows. I do a lot of work with people coming straight out of university who think that making the show is the hardest part. Taking it and touring it and booking it and marketing it – that is all far more work, and that’s the thing you don’t get taught at drama school.”

At the press launch, all the volunteers stand on the steps in the foyer to take a group photo – but before they do, Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower bring out Ted, the main puppet from Cell. The half-size human puppet stands in front of the volunteers, manoeuvred by the actors, and interacts with them. It’s a lovely thing to see –young people invaluably captured, through the experience given to them by a regional theatre, by the magic and vibrancy of theatre.

TakeOver Festival runs from 10 – 15 November 2014 at York Theatre Royal