The front wall of the newly rebuilt Liverpool Everyman Theatre feels like a statement of intent. It’s not often you can say that about a wall, but this one features portraits of 105 people from across Liverpool and its surrounding areas, including Cheshire and North Wales – putting the Everyman’s local community not only at its heart, but on its public face. After closing for redevelopment in July 2011, the Everyman reopened in March 2014 with a beautiful building, more accessible, more sustainable than before – and now featuring a dedicated space for the theatre’s work with young people.
“It’s a little 60-seater venue,” Matt Rutter, who runs the Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP) programme, tells me. “60 of the seats from the main space can swing through – and that’s our space, we have first call on it, and if anybody wants to borrow it they have to ask us.” Rutter is hugely passionate and enthusiastic about the YEP’s potential, and has the air of a man who is succeeding at keeping an awful lot of balls in the air at once. “My job role didn’t really exist three years ago,” he explains. “The theatre created it in time for the new building opening, making sure it had youth embedded in it. It’s been part of a real long-term plan for them.”
United under the Artistic/Executive Directorship of Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon, the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres have gone from strength-to-strength over the last few years, launching the careers of talented local actors and writers, and originating shows that continue to run in London’s West End. The Everyman & Playhouse’s commitment to being an arts institution that does not simply exist in a city, but actively works with and belongs to its community, is no empty gesture – as its dedication to the YEP programme proves.
Youth theatre schemes can be a wonderful agent for change, offering opportunities for learning and development to young people from all sections of a community – but if you don’t want to be an actor, your options can often feel limited. This is not so with Rutter’s YEP company, which is divided into several different strands of interest, encompassing not only acting, directing and writing, but production, technical work and even communications. It’s an innovative structure, and when I wonder how Rutter developed it, he says, with an infectious laugh, “Just… made it all up.”
“No,” he adds. “I know a bit about communications but I couldn’t lead a young communicators course, I know a bit about producing but I couldn’t lead a young producers course… It’s about just finding people to put into those groups, and the theatre taking a bit of ownership of that as well, so that hopefully, and we’re starting to get there, it’ll just be this young company bubbling along underneath the main theatres.”
Before meeting with young people from across the YEP programmes, I’m lucky enough to see its latest production, The Grid, a high-concept piece about technology’s grip on our lives, devised by the company and turned into a workable script by two young people from the writing strand. Wildly ambitious and visually stunning, with a huge cast (“They’re not all on the scale of that one,” Rutter is quick to point out. “Just to be clear, in case someone makes me do that all the time…”), The Grid feels like as much of a statement of intent as the portraits on the front of the building. Quite apart from its artistic daring, how, logistically, do you even go about putting something like this together?
“Yeah,” Rutter says, “because we double-cast it as well.” I’m lost. They did what? Rutter explains that for the latter half of the run, they will “flip the cast. So the people who were supporting yesterday, the ensemble, will be the mains and the mains will support… Yeah, we’ve double-rehearsed it.”
This, it would seem, is the YEP way: some companies would content themselves, quite reasonably, with not doing things by halves, but YEP aren’t content unless the work and the output and the experience of being in this company is twice as worthwhile, twice as good as you’d think possible. YEP’s sheer commitment to giving people a go leaves me stunned – and that’s exemplified by its work in each and every strand.
Christina Eddowes, one of the mentors on the technical programme, looks after “two different strands of YEP, which are the Base Techs and the YEP Techs. So the Base techs are young people between 18 and 22 who aren’t in education or employment – I think they’re called ‘NEET’ youngsters? ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training.’ And basically they’ve come from not having any technical knowledge at all, and we’ve tried to teach them some skills and get them involved with things… The YEP techs are already in uni and stuff, so they have a bit of technical knowledge and we give them an opportunity to run shows and get involved more professionally.”
This duality seems to run throughout YEP’s work: on the one hand giving opportunities to young people who already know what interests them, who are already committed to theatre, and on the other, showing young people who exist completely outside this world what theatre can do for them – and that it isn’t ‘for’ other people. One of the young actors I meet, Mark Powell, became involved “through a part of YEP called Community Outreach, that goes into communities and works with community groups; I was part of a community group called Fazakerley 506 where Matt would come and do sessions with us. I’d already been involved with acting since I was about five or six, but literally had nowhere to go and do it – so I got involved with 506 and then got offered a place to join the [YEP] Young Actors two years ago.”
“I’ve always wanted to be an actor,” Powell says, “but since being in YEP, yeah, it’s made me say it’s definitely what I want to do – and now I’m at Liverpool Community College doing acting.”
Of course it won’t always affect the participants’ futures in such obvious ways: for instance, Peter Greggs from the Young Communicators strand is still exploring his options, and not sure whether he’d like to go into communications or something else, but has found the experience similarly invaluable. Working with YEP helped Greggs “pin down what I liked to do – and sort of, through that, helped me decide what I wanted to go on to do at university.”
Greggs got involved with the Communicators “because it was a mix of being in a theatre and not having to act – by then I’d sort of realised I couldn’t act…” Being in this strand of YEP is sort of akin to working in the press and marketing division of a theatre, and involves coming up with a “marketing plan” for YEP shows, “whether that be social media or print media, or doing little extracts of it in town… That’s sort of what we decide. And then we work with the design company to design flyers and things like that.”
Hannah McGowan, who’s been on both the Communicators and Actors strands (“the communicators and the actors kind of go hand-in-hand; if we’re doing a show I can just go to the comms lot and jump messages across!”), adds, “the great thing was you didn’t need experience, you just sort of learned it as you went along.” And clearly what you can learn is quite a range – Greggs has even made trailers for YEP shows.
McGowan, like Powell and another of the young actors I meet, Matthew Woods, studied at the local community college, which YEP has strong links to; Woods and McGowan both had the programme suggested to them by a teacher, and Rutter sees these links to the community as absolutely invaluable. “I think it’s dead important, both the education stuff and the outreach stuff that we do as well… Links with schools are really important because it’s about going, this is something for those who are interested to be pushed a little bit further, if they want to be pushed. And then with some of the older strands, it’s a little bit more about the universities – certainly those writers, directors, producers, they’re a slightly older group.”
The programme works by taking well-established strands like the Young Writers, which has existed in one form or another for, according to Rutter, for about 12 years, and combining them with semi-established strands, like the Young Producers. This sees a group of six young people “curate a night every two months called Scene Change, where they select the acts,” which gives young people the transferable experience of producing and curating events; experience they’ll soon be extending to producing a 15-date tour. Added to these, then, are newer strands, like the Technicians and the Directors, both of which have “just started this year”. Although YEP has been growing for some time, there’s a definite sense that now, with the new building and a space of its own, the whole thing is really coming together.
“For me, after this year, once all the strands are up and running, it becomes more about how we can support people,” Rutter explains. “So what I’m hoping happens is a Young Director and a Young Producer go, ‘oh, I’ve got this idea for a piece – oh, those three young actors, why don’t we take them?’ So then we just start to get people who aren’t afraid to make theatre at a young age. That’s what we agreed here: we should try to do something wildly ambitious, and then if it goes wrong that’s totally cool, basically.”
For more information of the Everyman and Playhouse, visit its website.