Every year, the York Theatre Royal allows a group of artsy folk under the age of 25 to run the building themselves, programming a month of theatre. Now in its fourth year, TakeOver Festival offers its young team a voice in the theatrical world. The aim is to connect with audiences of all ages in the York community, particularly the young community, by showcasing the diverse and exceptional talents of under 25s.

TakeOver 2012’s Artistic Director, Andra Catincescu, had a specific ethos in mind for this year’s festival: “I felt that it was very important to address the relationship between young people and their communities, and society at large. Considering what’s been happening this year with the riots, I really felt that young people are going through interesting times at the moment. I wanted to address that because it’s directly relevant to TakeOver. We’re really becoming part of the community here and introducing a new cultural input to a city.” Catincescu is keen to emphasise that although TakeOver is organised by young people, its target demographic is an audience of any age. “We want to build upon the relationship that the York Theatre Royal already has with its community and provide something for everyone. There is a lot of diversity in the programme. We wanted classics, entertainment and lots of good writing, and that’s resulted in an exciting mixture.”

The role of Artistic Director has been stimulating but challenging for Catincescu, who speaks cheerfully about her responsibilities. “It starts with setting out aims for the festival, and a vision as to what sort of work one would ideally like to programme. The next phase is spending anything between three weeks and a couple of months just doing research, to see what shows and companies will be touring at the time. Based on that, you come up with lists and try to see how things might fit together, deciding which shows Takeover might commission as resident productions and which productions will be directed by members of the team. We started in October and we finished programming by Christmas. After that, the Artistic Director stays involved with the festival and development of the whole project, while the rest of the team takes over the administration. I also chose to produce As You Like It in the main house and I’ve been working on that since January.” This has been the most challenging and stimulating aspect of her role, marking “a fantastic learning curve for everyone involved. I absolutely love my cast and I’ve been blessed with a wonderful team. It’s been exhilarating. I never expected an opportunity to direct in the main house of a theatre I admired.”

“Programming was a rollercoaster ride too,” she continues. “This year was different for us because we had Forward Theatre Project in residency. We had eight proposals from teams, each made up of one young professional playwright, one director, and one designer. Each team suggested projects that they could develop with young people in York and then produce for TakeOver. We chose Scarberia, which really stood out because it was the most ambitious and challenging proposal. In terms of the research and development process it sounded like the most exciting project for all the young people involved.”

Scarberia playwright Evan Placey once wanted to take another role on the stage. “I went to a performing arts school and I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then the teacher hated my acting! I always knew I loved theatre but actually acting wasn’t the right way. I did a Masters in Playwriting in London and that’s how it went.” For TakeOver, Placey has evoked his Canadian roots and penned a “thriller mystery” that links Scarborough, Yorkshire, to Scarborough, Ontario. When two teenaged boys in Scarborough, Yorkshire find the body of a dead woman on the beach, the story only gets more surreal when they discover she is from another Scarborough on the other side of the Atlantic. There, two boys with similar names are clearly involved with a woman who has gone missing. What happened to this woman, and what will happen to the two friendships? Who knows what, and what aren’t they saying?

“It’s a murder mystery but it’s equally a coming of age story,” says Placey. “It’s about the age of 16, and transitioning into adulthood, and whether you can keep your friends over that transition.” He tries not to write a concrete message into his plays, preferring to “focus on provoking questions, and let the audience draw a message from that. There are themes about gang youth culture, and big issues around loyalty, and what happens to concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when you start to question the code you’ve been living by. There’s something of a modern Romeo and Juliet in there too, some questions about who and how you are allowed to love.”

The Scarberia team, including Placey and Producer Charlotte Bennett, worked with groups of young people in both Scarborough towns to infuse the production with an authentic feeling. “I didn’t know the story when we started,” continues Placey. “I just knew I wanted to write a thriller and connect these two cities. So we worked with young people on both sides of the Atlantic to get their ideas about their cities, upbringing, friendships, love and so on. We set up some penpals between the Scarboroughs and kept track of how those dialogues progressed. It came up really early on that these young people wished something big and interesting would happen where they lived. That’s what inspired me; I wanted to write something intriguing and challenging that would bring young people to the theatre.”

Bennett’s overall vision and aim as producer is “to reach as many young people as possible. It’s been commissioned and inspired by young people at every level, and we want to reach a wide audience but particularly young people, in York and beyond. Next year we are doing a Canadian production of the play in Toronto. We felt we worked with them as much as we worked with young people here, so it’s important that they get to have that experience of seeing a play they inspired. We want to do a UK tour, to give the show a further light and to reach even more people. It might resonate in different ways with every audience.” Her praise of Placey’s writing is emphatic. “It really jumps off the page because it was created and inspired by work with young people. The language feels very accessible to the young actors.” The connection is particularly strong since Scarberia has a cast of only three, says Placey. “Two boys play the English and the Canadian boys, and then there’s a girl who is a character in her own right. That can be quite challenging because we switch constantly in quite an abstract way, so we have to find the characterisation ways to flicker between those two worlds, and still really believe it.”

Catincescu certainly believes in the impact the TakeOver Festival can have on the lives of those who participate: “It can absolutely make a difference. Our Associate Director, who’s in charge of community work and programming workshops for young people, he started out on the TakeOver board in the first year of the festival. In the second year, he had a show produced, which is now subsidised by one of the companies resident at York Theatre Royal. The show’s going on tour and is going to have a run in Edinburgh this summer. He’s definitely started a career here. Charlotte Bennett was Artistic Director in the first year, which led to her working in London and then starting Forward Theatre Project. TakeOver can be a network of young professionals giving people their first professional opportunities. Hopefully it will lead to a national network of young theatre professionals. The TakeOver alumni who have been involved in past years always drop in and mentor the current TakeOver team, which is an excellent networking opportunity.”

The York Theatre Royal has also started numerous youth theatre groups and a young actor’s company, which Catincescu believes has established a genuine link between the building and the community. Since many of the people involved in TakeOver came out of the youth programme, she sees youth theatre as the first step for theatrically minded young people. “I really think it makes a difference. Every year the festival grows and grows, and we must have about 30 or 40 young people on board this year. Some of them are hoping to go into the arts world professionally, and youth theatre gave them the opportunity to do Arts Awards and gain UCAS credits for university applications. Working with TakeOver is the equivalent of an internship, which is so important nowadays. Students worry a lot about their grades at university, but personally I think initiative and experience is more important. That’s how TakeOver is reaching out to young people.”

Find out more about what’s on offer at the TakeOver Festival 2012 here, with events continuing until 9 June. Scarberia runs until Saturday 2 June.

Tickets and information for all productions are also available on the site, including information about the limited number of FREE Under 25s tickets for every production. You can also call the Box Office on 01904 623 568 to book.

Image credit: Scarberia by Forward Theatre Project