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Spotlight On: Liverpool’s Young Everyman Playhouse

Posted on 20 July 2012 by Abigail Lewis

When the young people involved abbreviate the Young Everyman Playhouse to YEP and pronounce it “yep”, it sounds like an affirmation. Yep, I am young and ambitious and theatre is what I want to be involved in. Yep, I balance this with school/college/university and I am proud of everything I have achieved.

The Young Everyman Playhouse is the youth theatre programme at Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse theatres, open to anyone aged 11 to 25. At a time when many young people are clamouring for more involvement in theatre, YEP is pretty spectacular in its scope. Far from providing an opportunity for kids to act on weekends, the programme is organised into strands that encompass every aspect of running a theatre. Young Actors act, Young Writers write, Young Technicians work with lighting and sound and Young Communicators focus on the promotion, advertising and marketing of shows.

“A bit of everything is needed to involve more young people in theatre,” said YEP Director Matt Rutter. “We need to have cheap tickets and shows that are relevant to young people. Theatre that is made by young people has an appeal for young audiences, and that’s what we need because they are the future theatregoers, performers and directors. In the next ten to 15 years it will be them who take over from us. YEP is great because it gives them confidence, a skills base, and allows them to progress to where they want to go.” His aims are high, and he truly believes the programme can have an effect on theatres as a whole. “We’re hoping to embed these young people within theatres. At the moment, we’re still in the beginning phases so the programme is led by me artistically, but next year we will be transferring the artistic leadership over to them, with the new Young Programmers strand. We’re aiming for a holistic, all-encompassing feel. We want them to have a voice at every level of the theatres.”

17-year-old Hannah McGowan certainly feels her role as Young Communicator has given her a strong voice. The Young Communicators organised the launch of YEP, designing the logo and all the prints. The programme mirrors the way theatres advertise and promote their own shows, and after working with YEP their work feeds into the wider programme and they become involved in marketing for the main house shows.

“It was something I wouldn’t usually go for,” said McGowan. “I study drama at college, I act. But it was in a theatre and I figured you should know more about what goes on in the theatre than just what you want to do. Then when I started, I fell in love with it straight away. It was something different, I didn’t need any experience, and you learn so much from it.” She sees these lessons as valuable life skills that she can transfer into other areas. “There are things I didn’t know about theatre until I started, which I can now take into college coursework. It sets me apart, and it’s easy to balance YEP and college. It’s going to open loads of different doors for everybody who’s involved.” She also appreciates the cheaper tickets that are offered to her. “We’re really lucky to have the £5 ticket deals. I can afford that, compared to going somewhere else. Theatre is inaccessible to me outside of the Everyman and Playhouse, it’s too tricky with money. Here it’s plain and simple.”

Young Actor Nick Crosbie, 19, has found YEP a valuable step towards becoming an actor and the perfect way to spend his gap year. “I auditioned at drama schools last year and didn’t get a place because of lack of experience. So I took a gap year this year and came to YEP, where every week we do new stuff, we dedicate a whole week to shows, and I can gain that experience I need. I’m looking forward to auditioning for drama school again next year and seeing what improvements I’ve made.” He elaborated on his experience with YEP. “We have three seasons. In the first season we do workshops, which vary – we could be doing improvisation for one night, stage combat for another. The second term is show term. We did Intimate, which was an experimental piece of theatre about young people dealing with war. We’ve all been to the theatre and sat down and seen a show, but this play was different. The audience walked around and took part in it. We also did You Are Being Watched, which was like a comedy spoof on James Bond, similar to Austin Powers. We performed that in the middle of the shopping centre, in front of four hundred people! In the third season we come up with ideas and we perform whatever we want to do. It could be stage combat, monologues, comedy sketches, anything. I’m so much more confident with my acting now.”

Perhaps what characterises these young practitioners above all is how strongly they feel about the way in which YEP has enhanced their career prospects. 20-year-old Jamie Thompson is a Young Technician, working through an eight-month programme in which they run the technical side of all the YEP performances. They also work quite closely with the Playhouse technicians, getting hands on experience assisting with various performances that come into the Playhouse.

“I entered the programme with no experience; we all learnt from a basic level. It was a lighting course originally but as it went on, other people wanted to learn about sound, so it expanded through the students in the group. I sort of fell into it through people that I knew and other places that I’d volunteered at. I met people from Playhouse and they explained what it was. I was really interested in the opportunity, it sounded like a gateway to contacts and experience that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else. I was right – through this, I’ve gained some great contacts and I’ve started getting work through them. I’ve been working with different independent theatre companies, radio stations, and venues. It’s made a huge difference in terms of my future career prospects. I’d finished college and I had no sense of direction. This has put me into so many different things I can work on. It’s expanded my knowledge tenfold without a great deal of pressure, since the environment is very relaxed and supportive.”

Thompson’s clear pride in what he has achieved and the emotive way he discusses the Young Everyman Playhouse conveys just how much potential the programme has. “It gives you a great feeling when everything comes together and you can see the finished product, the shows and events that we’ve worked on. Being a part of that gives you a feeling that is indescribable. It makes you so proud. I’ve been able to work with some absolutely brilliant people. I feel such a high sense of achievement.” YEP truly is an affirmation of this achievement.

Find out more about Liverpool Young Everyman Playhouse scheme by visiting their website.

Image credit: Brian Roberts

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“New work not new writing” at the Almeida Festival

Posted on 07 July 2012 by Ellen Carr

Anyone in the early stages of a theatrical career will be familiar with how daunting and frankly terrifying it all seems. Taking your first steps into the industry one can be hit so hard by the ambition (and competitiveness that goes with it), the insular society and the seeming lack of support that you may consider giving up and going home. Associate Director Lucy Morrison, however, assures me that the Almeida Festival is on event offering young companies nothing short of a haven.

From 2 to 28 July the Almeida Theatre in Islington – a celebrity of Fringe theatres – is opening itself and its audiences up to an adventurous theatrical experience, a festival of work from emerging companies making and thinking about theatre a little bit differently. Morrison is the first to say that the work shown in this festival is “not what the Almeida would normally present”. Often known for presenting brilliant new writing, the festival’s focus on “new work not new writing” (that which is process-led) is an attempt to introduce “a different culture of theatre making to our audiences”.

This of course raises questions – and possibly eyebrows. Isn’t it a risk for an established theatre with a safely established audience to start introducing something new? Morrison stresses the importance of established institutions to be “thinking about work in different ways [having] conversations about the way theatre is made and to never be stuck in a default position”. This is where talk of the Almeida Festival must surely prick up the ears of any young theatre maker, as Morrison goes on to emphasise the importance of the festival as an exchange. It’s a dialogue between a “fairly established company with a brand and a profile” wanting to share its expertise and resources with young companies but also to “talk to young theatre makers” and really listen to what they have to say.

Morrison acknowledges that there are some brilliant platforms for new theatre out there such as BAC and the Barbican, but that the Almeida sits somewhere in between these. It’s the role of the Almeida Festival, then, to help develop the work of those companies who are on the way to performing on these stages in a future years. So what does the Almeida Festival offer the emerging companies taking part? One major benefit is the support provided both in financial terms, and the production assistance and expertise of such a venue. The aim is for the artists to feel challenged whilst in a very supported environment, enabling them “take risks where they might not otherwise and reach higher heights” in their work. Then of course there’s the benefit of the Almeida literally and figuratively being a bigger stage, introducing the artists’ work to more audiences, partners and funding opportunities.

So what can the companies involved in the festival offer the Almeida and its audiences? Morrison enthuses about the passion every company involved has for the work it makes, and comments on how the Almeida will first develop significant relationships with companies before commissioning them to be part of the festival. The companies they are interested in getting to know are those for whom it is their “raison d’etre to make the work”. She cites Ben Duke, Artistic Director of Lost Dog  – presenting It Needs Horses/Home For Broken Turns – as an example of this point. Duke formed Lost Dog after having trained as both actor and dancer and finding a gap between dance and the theatre world. The work made by Lost Dog is his specific calling; the Almeida Festival is not interested in those who have made a company “just as a stop gap for another job” but those who have “identified a gap that they need to make work in”.

Greyscale, which is presenting Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, “came into being because they were bored of theatre”. There is a revitalising spirit behind the Almeida Festival, one that keeps the venue young and stops our theatre brains from falling asleep. There’s an educational side to it that is shown in two productions presented by Young Friends of the Almeida, The Mini Dream and Parallax. The Young Friends is the education department of the Almeida and Morrison doesn’t think people know enough about “how deep it goes”. Essentially it is a theatre company for young people that mirrors the exact set up of the Almeida company, offering participants a vital chance to gain hands-on experience of the theatre industry – so perhaps they won’t have so daunting an experience when they first step into it.

Another piece of work that Morrison is very enthusiastic about is Mass Observation from Inspector Sands – a company with a “very egalitarian way of making work where the traditional hierarchy of theatre making is torn up”. Mass Observation tackles the huge subject of the Mass Observation Archive set up in 1937 to chronicle everyday life. Morrison describes the production as “utterly charming and disarming” and shows amazement at how they are “biting off the head of a big theme but are able to bring such a gorgeously light touch to it”.

It is an appreciation of different ways of making, approaching and thinking about theatre that marks the Almeida Festival. The importance placed on relationships with young theatre makers certainly gives hope to those struggling with their first steps. However, Morrison also acknowledges how hard the companies involved have had to work for every hand-out and bit of support they’ve received. If you continue work whilst struggling through every pitfall and hardship then it seems support eventually is out there. The overpowering message of those behind the Almeida Festival seems to be to make the work you want to make and “absolutely believe in it”.

The festival runs until 28 July, presenting “a kaleidoscope of theatre for the culturally curious”. For more information on the shows and to book tickets, visit

Image credit: It Needs Horses/Home for Broken Turns by Lost Dog

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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Spotlight On: Blue Apple Theatre

Posted on 10 May 2012 by Abigail Lewis

“When we were touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jane Jessop recalls fondly, “after one of the shows, a member of the audience approached me and said they’d never understood the play properly before seeing our actors perform it.” An extraordinary statement from an extraordinary company: Blue Apple Theatre challenges audience preconceptions by working with talented actors who have learning disabilities. Led by Jane, the company is this year touring a production of Hamlet with a company of six actors with learning disabilities.

“The reason for doing it,” Jane continues, “is because these particular actors are all young and they have great ambition. This is the most famous play in the world and hopefully we can bring recognition from the mainstream arts world for artists with learning disabilities, who want to take part on stage but don’t usually have a chance to do so. Shakespeare speaks to us all, and we should open those doors and allow everybody to taste what he has to say to us. We chose Hamlet because we thought it would be the ultimate challenge for our actors to take on. We want to challenge the preconceptions of the theatrical world at large, and hopefully our actors will become accepted as artists in their own right, as professionals. There is something new and differently thought-provoking about what our actors produce.”

Writer William Jessop, in turn, has observed “a lack of understanding in society about learning disabilities… theatre is a fantastic way in which we can show people more about the subject… The level of talent that our actors possess is what truly blows away public audiences. They come not really knowing what to expect. Will they have to make any concessions? Will the show hang together? In the end they see a real theatrical show and they forget they’ve been watching people with learning disabilities. If we can go some way towards showcasing the abilities and personalities of these actors, and honestly look at them as professional actors, then we can help our audience members to do the same.”

Both also believe that taking part in theatre increases the quality of their actors’ lives outside of the company. The most rewarding element of his work, William asserts, “is seeing the actors blossom as people and seeing the discipline of acting giving them real confidence to take out into their lives. They realise they can learn lines and perform, and, above all, when they stand on stage in front of members of society that they don’t know, they can make them laugh with them, and at the end they can be applauded and cheered for what they’ve done. It creates a feeling of acceptance and vindication of themselves as people.” Jane cites this as the reason for the company’s high demand. “When we first started we didn’t know what the demand would be, so we held workshops. We were completely swamped, and since then we have always been full with a long waiting list. Taking part on stage is life-changing for everybody, but especially for our members who were vulnerable and isolated, who didn’t have much to do in their lives, who found it difficult to get a job or have a meaningful occupation. Taking part in theatre gives them a challenge, something to work towards and share. It makes them much more sociable and allows them to build friendship networks.”

Four of Hamlet’s six actors have Down’s Syndrome, including William’s brother Tommy, who is taking on the challenging lead role. It has been particularly moving for William to see the effect of theatre on his brother’s life. “Sometimes people with Down’s Syndrome find it difficult to separate fiction from reality, so Hamlet has been blurring with his own real life. Every actor tries to do that, to bring themself to the part, but for him it’s a natural process. The other thing he finds difficult is coming to terms with his emotions, as do we all, of course. There is something about the process of acting that unleashes these emotions. It’s incredibly empowering for him.”

“For two or three of our actors, their conditions imply difficulties with speech, and we’re lucky enough to be working with a voice and language coach who just retired from the RSC,” Jane comments proudly. “They have no problem learning lines or understanding character, they’re fantastic. The actress playing Ophelia is a particularly beautiful dancer, and she has some very moving dance scenes. One of the actors has Asperger’s Syndrome, so you’d imagine it would be almost impossible for him to play or relate to a character. But this week we had such a wonderful breakthrough and we can see now how his character will be. Rehearsals are full of ups and downs like that, one on day you struggle, and the next day you’re blown away. We had a moment like that where Hamlet just clicked. He was giving this moving, emotional speech. He was so engaged and involved in it, and he sank to his knees, and he was bringing in language from other parts of the play, he was on the floor. We all just wanted to cry.”

Jane also attributes the company’s success to William’s writing and adaptive skill. “He’s known them for such a long time. When he first wrote, he studied their speech patterns very carefully so he could work within their language. He did that for each individual actor.” William elaborates on this technique, tracing it back to “the first time I worked closely with the actors, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We decided with that play that we would modernise the text, and I wrote very closely to the actors playing the roles. One of the actors always dreamed of being a pop star, so we wrote Hermia as a pop star, and we made the whole wedding of the king and queen a celebrity VIP wedding because everyone in the group was fascinated by celebrity and gossip. We made Demetrius a footballer because the actor playing him was obsessed with football! We kept it close to the actors and their wish fulfillment. When we started experimenting with giving them snatches of original speeches, the way they handled the original bits made us think that they could definitely handle a whole lot more. We were amazed by the potential they showed in that show and how well they dealt with the archaic language and more fanciful poetic forms. So when we came back to Shakespeare again we decided to use the original language. The actors responded so strongly to the original, unadulterated Hamlet. It was as if the sound and the rhythm of the language really unlocked something within them. When you work like this with Shakespeare, you realise that it’s the sounds within the language that give it such emotional depth. That is what the actors respond to when reading the lines, that is what allows them to perform without necessarily understanding the nuances of the lines’ meanings.”

Blue Apple, then, is changing lives. But not just for the actors. “I didn’t realise how much fun theatre is,” comments Jane, “and now having set it all up for everyone else I wish I could be on the stage too! I hadn’t realised what a miracle it is. The self-esteem that comes from it should be available to everyone. The actors on the tour are still very young and hopefully this could be a stepping-stone for them, and they might be spotted. Our show is going to be very beautiful, with lots of little touches of comedy. You can’t keep that out with our actors, they have an eye for the ironic!”

“I want every audience to be blown away,” William concludes. “I hope they will go home having been heartbroken and shattered, but incredibly moved, and given the release of tragedy. Above all, I hope that when they get home it suddenly occurs to them that they were watching people with learning disabilities, and how amazing that is in itself.”

Blue Apple’s Hamlet tours from 3 May to 7 July, visiting venues across the UK and premiering at the West End Arts Centre, Aldershot. For more information and tickets, visit the company’s website. 

Image credit: Hamlet in Love

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Training with the text: Fourth Monkey Theatre Company

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Abigail Lewis

Known for its challenging and provocative revivals of classic texts, Fourth Monkey’s spring season comprises new productions of Lord of the Flies, 4.48 Psychosis and The Bacchae. A key aspect of the company’s identity is its dedication to working with “new undiscovered talent”, and its reputation for engaging with young people has gone from strength to strength since introducing its Year of the Monkey training programme. Offering a course similar to a foundation year at drama school, the scheme boasts lower fees than institutions and the unique opportunity for young actors to perform in the company’s rep season.

22-year-old actress Georgia Kerr knows firsthand what a hugely positive experience this can be for a young performer. She started work with Fourth Monkey in September, and is appearing in Lord of the Flies and 4.48 Psychosis this year. She continues, “It has worked so well for me – I’ve already been to university, so the great thing about it is it has enabled me financially to do some form of theatrical training. It was every weekend at first so it’s a big commitment but it frees you up during the week to do stuff on the side, to work if you need to. I feel I have improved a performer, all my previous experience is very theoretical and it’s lovely to be able to draw on very physical techniques. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that.”

Hamish MacDougall, who is directing Lord of the Flies, describes Fourth Monkey as a “bold company” and is full of praise for the young actors. “It’s very much an ensemble-driven company. They’re a good group; they’ve got very good focus. They’re physically very aware, probably more so than a lot of the professional actors I’ve worked with. They work hard – they’re doing a rep system so they don’t get many breaks but that gives them a good discipline.” The programme the actors follow is a year long, with the group split in two. Last year, the other half did the shows and [this group] did their workshop training, and they’ve swapped it around now. On the first day they were quite nervous but they have progressed so much. They’ve picked up my process, now they’re completely with it, they’re very quick. I like working with young companies, they’re very eager and they pick things up more quickly.”

In MacDougall’s opinion, Fourth Monkey has revolutionised how a theatre company can work with young actors. “At drama school, you wouldn’t normally do plays until your last year and even then you’d do four performances – less than a week. It’s different here: the ethos is to learn on the job. I originally trained as an actor and I worked as one for two years. When you do your first long run it’s a huge surprise. With Lord of the Flies we’re doing a couple of months, not just four performances. It’s good training; it gives them that kind of experience of doing a long run, doing a professional process, doing a whole play instead of the scenes you’d do at drama school. It makes it more about what actually happens if you work in theatre rather than isolated classes.”

As for Lord of the Flies itself, MacDougall’s process involves ensuring the play chimes with today’s theatregoers. Nigel William’s adaptation of the novel into a script is “quite descriptive” and “cluttered” with props and sets that are more suited to the school play it was originally written as than Hamish’s vision. “There are scenes where four things are happening at the same time in different locations, and that won’t really work. So we’re stripping it completely back to almost a blank stage, forcing me to focus on the group of 14 actors. The important objects will become even more powerful. I didn’t want it to be like an episode of Lost or a desert island play, and hopefully with this stripped-back approach the audience can focus on the story: what actually happens and how. I want the audience to feel like they’ve made a journey with this small group.”

Setting isn’t the only thing that has changed and evolved. Golding’s original novel featured only boys, but Fourth Monkey’s production switches the original choir of boys to students from a girls’ school.“It’s contemporary, having a mix of genders,” MacDougall observes. He continues, “I’m sure that some people will come and go, ‘well this isn’t the story’, but hopefully some will find it quite interesting. I feel the balance has worked. There is a lot of violence between girls now.” Kerr takes one of the roles affected by this change, playing Jack, now the school’s Head Girl: “I was initially wary about how we were going to make it work as a girl, but she’s quite a young, nasty little girl, and it works well I think. We haven’t had much trouble with the gender issue. Lord of the Flies is a classically male-driven piece but having Jack as a girl works very well, especially in this day. There’s something intrinsically nasty about young girls at that age, who vie for power, and are terribly unforgiving if they don’t get the respect that they demand. She is very aggressive and she spins out slightly towards the end, it’s quite dark and sinister. The spiral makes sense. Girls are precious about power too, especially at that age.”

All of these changes work and hold true to the logic of the text itself because, as MacDougall notes, the story is “timeless… The original was written during the Cold War and there’s a whole thing about bombs and paranoia in the society the children left behind when they landed on this island. Today, we have terrorist threats almost every day and there is a similar sense of paranoia all around the world. There’s a class issue as well, which I think is still prevalent today. A group of public school kids taking control violently – we’re run by a group of public schoolboys at the moment aren’t we! That’s quite contemporary.” There is also an ethos of honouring the original material, despite these departures in setting and characterisation. Kerr describes MacDougall as “a very text based director, working through the play, seeing the arc of our characters and the turning points for each.” Ensuring actors understand how their characters change as the plot progresses is vital to MacDougall’s style. “Georgia’s character is very tricky,” he admits. “She could easily be played as a bullying maniac. But she’s got a very specific journey of her own, which we’ve looked at.”

Also appearing in 4.48 Psychosis, Kerr confesses she feels “so lucky to have been put in both these plays. The directors are so different; their processes are so different. Steve [Green, who is directing 4.48 Psychosis and is also Artistic Director of the company] is a much more physical director. He works from a character base rather than looking so much at the text.” Rehearsals were full of variety. “With Steve, we had to do boot camp, 14 hours of movement that stretched and bent and pulled everything. And then you go to Hamish who is the direct opposite, chilled to the max and a bit more analytical.” Green’s production of 4.48 Psychosis sees the cast take on characters that represent facets of the protagonist’s psyche, with Kerr adopting the role of Grace, evocative and representative of all texts relating to religion or with a religious connotation. Meanwhile, Natalie Katsou’s revival of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a new translation by Ranjit Bolt, sets the ancient text at a musical festival with Dionysus starring as a rock god.

Scrolling through Fourth Monkey’s website is to be presented with countless opportunities, whether you want to act, write, produce or work in any other aspect of theatre. As an alternative to drama school, Kerr is full of praise for the programme: “I believe as an actor you do need training. You want to get the right launch into the industry; you need to develop your technique, you need to know your body and have control of your voice. Drama school is everyone’s first point of call and it is highly competitive.” Her advice to aspiring thespians is to remember “there are other options. There is another route.” She continues, “Something like Fourth Monkey offers you something invaluable, the chance to be doing plays and be applying technique consistently. My advice is persistence. Keep going for it. This is a world of rejection and just because one route hasn’t worked, doesn’t mean another one won’t. Keep active, be doing it, be going to workshops. Drama school isn’t the only route.”

Georgia Kerr will be appearing in Hamish MacDougall’s production of Lord of the Flies and Steve Green’s version of 4.48 Pyschosis, performed in rep with The Bacchae at Theatro Technis from 1 – 18 March. For exact performance dates and to book tickets, visit the company’s website here.

Image credit: Paul Seaby

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