Where there's a Will, there's a way: youth theatres are keeping up the act across the UK

Theatres may have been dark but young performers are keeping active whether that means making movies or performing acapella over Zoom

The show must go on: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat performed by the Talentz at Tonbridge School
The show must go on: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat performed by the Talentz at Tonbridge School Credit: Andrew Crowley

When the teenage members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre (CFYT) saw an article in their local paper about how people in care homes were feeling lonely and isolated in lockdown, they decided to do something about it. The result? An acapella rendering of Stand by Me, recorded and mixed over Zoom which was then shared with three local homes and can still be watched on the theatre website. 

“It brought so much joy,” says Dale Rooks, Director of Learning, Education and Participation at CFYT. “Not just for the older people, but for all of us at the theatre. There was such pride in seeing the young people being so creative. Our lives are built around the interactivity of live arts – the very thing lockdown has denied us."

“Plus, it was a real outlet for the young people who belong to our group, many of whom are quite geographically isolated. 

“Normally, our members would have been busy doing their regular range of activities, from stage combat to puppetry. But as soon as lockdown happened, the theatre was closed and so were all the on-site opportunities we can normally offer them. It was so disappointing.”

Rooks adds: “Youth theatre groups like ours are so important; teenagers join to engage in acting, singing and all the fun of putting on a show. It gives them a place to make friends, learn new skills, and develop their confidence, to invent, to share and to use their imagination.  Plus, we are an asset to our wider local community – we operate in eight satellite locations - as well as a vital part of the pipeline of future talent to the arts industry.”

The UK has more than two thousand theatre and dance groups for young people, groups which, rather than being full of Bonnie Langford-style child stars, are home to kids of all backgrounds and every level of both talent and ambition. For every future Spice Girl, there are scores of youngsters who simply enjoy being part of a show, whether back row or backstage. The idea of these groups being closed, with some perhaps not to reopen, is very worrying. Yet in true show-must-go-on spirit, far from bringing down the final curtain, most have been finding new ways to engage their members during these difficult times. There are useful lessons to be learned here – for schools, as well as other major organisations – about how the right combination of inspiration, team spirit and sheer hard graft can work miracles.

At Stagecoach Theatre Arts, whose alumni include Emma Watson and Jamie Bell and which boasts 290 franchises and 44,00 students across the UK, lockdown came as a “shock to the system,” says Group Marketing Director Jo Scalpello, “as for 32 years we have been in-venue teaching.” 

Stagecoach swiftly switched to an online programme of ‘creative conversations and engagement’, including pre-recorded lessons and masterclasses. 

Simon Callow, for example, offered a workshop on Shakespeare and Dickens and around half of Stagecoach franchises also delivered classes via that universal godsend of lockdown, Zoom. 

It was vital that her Stagecoach colleagues carried on their work, Scalpello believes, because ‘children lost a lot of creative and social outlets in lockdown. Performing arts is a safe space for children to explore who they are and who they want to be in the future, but schools are having performing arts squeezed from the national curriculum. Our children learn essential life skills such as empathy, resilience and body confidence. We call it creative courage for life and we work on it every week with our students’. 

Like so many, Stagecoach is waiting for further government guidance before it finalises its structure for the forthcoming autumn term, but is planning to return with class sizes limited to 15.

At Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, which normally runs 39 sessions a week, involving 800 members across West Sussex, Dale Rooks says: ‘We went to sleep in one world and woke up in another’.

On stage: Dale Rooks at Chichester Festival Theatre Credit: Christopher Pledger

Yet after just one week of contingency planning, she and her team devised an initial 10-week programme, whose Week One started on March 30th - just seven days after the Prime Minister announced full lockdown. 

The first week saw an online dance tutorial, so that young members could learn the jitterbug. Their Stand by Me Zoom performance was finished not long after.

Rooks is planning to start up in-person classes again from mid-September, with fortnightly meetings instead of weekly to accommodate smaller class sizes. 

On the first weekend of September she held auditions for Pinocchio, CFYT’s much-anticipated Christmas show that always takes place on the grand main stage of the Festival Theatre. 

‘We’ll make a start and re-assess at half term’, she says. ‘We’ve got to have something positive to look forward to’. She agrees with Scalpello that the greatest gift youth theatre offers is life skills. ‘They gain confidence and self-esteem through being able to use their own voices’, she says and reports that her students often go on to form lifelong friendships. ‘There’s that great quotation from Philip Pullman, which goes something along the lines of ‘Children need the arts as much as they need fresh air, or they’ll perish on the inside’’.

If they were jitterbugging in Chichester, there were online proms popping up in Luton thanks to Next Generation Youth Theatre (NGYT), run by the indefatigably enthusiastic David Lloyd and his wife Laura. ‘It was out of the question for us to give up and go home’, says Lloyd of their ebullient response to lockdown, which at one point saw them encourage their students to deliver monologues to neighbours from their back gardens. 

‘Art can transform people and give them a more positive outlook, especially in challenging times’. They did not find it hard to predict the impact all the restrictions were going to have on their members. 

‘We realised young people might feel quite isolated and miss key milestones in their educational journeys such as proms and exams’, he says. To that end, they decided upon an online prom - which morphed into three online proms hosting more than 50 young people – for which everyone was told to dress up, disco lights were procured and Laura became DJ Covid for the night.

This month NGYT restarted its comprehensive programme of theatre, writing, street dance and contemporary dance, but for an independent organisation committed to keeping fees admirably low there are considerable additional challenges in the current landscape. They need to bring in extra staff members to cover each session and six months’ worth of PPE for a single adult will cost £750. The Lloyds are applying for emergency Arts Council funding. ‘We’re going to start in September and not know if we’re going to have the cash to sustain it’, says David phlegmatically. Summer schools and holiday workshops, often complete with shows at the end for proud parents to enjoy, are big business for youth theatre. 

The Reading branch of the Pauline Quirke Academy, founded by the Birds of a Feather actress in 2007 and now including more than 200 franchises nationwide, made a ‘musical movie’ in their ‘Covid 19-safe’ summer school 2020; the exuberant short film goes under the tagline ‘High School Musical meets Bring It On with a short cut through Matilda and Thirteen’. 

PQA Reading’s pragmatic principal Doug Kirby explains: “‘Live performances were not allowed and there were restrictions on not being allowed to sing, so I wondered ‘How do we get around that?”

“But at PQA we have a film and television module, so by judicious use of camera angles they look much closer than they are’. 

The children were asked to record the songs themselves at home by laying their phones on pillows and putting duvets over their heads in order to ‘deaden’ the sound, so that everything could be blended together in the final edit. 

“At one point it did flash through my mind that it wasn’t worth all the risk and the hassle’, says Kirby. ‘But then you see the eager faces...”

 An hour-long ‘murder mystery musical revue’ called Murder at Biddlestone Manor was what the senior summer workshop of Louth Playgoers Society in Lincolnshire came up with. Eight days of rehearsals via Zoom culminated in two days of filming in the Riverhead Theatre in Louth. 

‘Everybody had to be shot in this particular murder mystery’, says director John Hewer. ‘You couldn’t have any fighting or stabbing or anything involving close contact’. 

The Talentz, a youth musical theatre company in Tonbridge, can certainly sympathise with the perils of proximity. In August they staged a sell-out production – yes, an actual live theatre production – of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the amphitheatre at Tonbridge School, with audience members seated in family ‘bubbles’. 

Director Debbie King found herself studying the small print of changing government regulations on singing and performance every day in the lead-up to opening night and finished up with ‘38 7-18 year-olds all two metres apart at all times and six metres away from any audience members’. A dose of wry good humour was also helpful in the making of the show. ‘When Joseph gets his coat, no one is allowed to touch it. Joseph is also having an affair with Potiphar’s wife – but at a two-metre distance’, says King.

With professional theatres still dark for the most part, youth theatre seems to be spreading some light. It’s easy to see this resourceful, resilient Covid 19 cohort providing some of the star performers of the future once theatre takes to the stage again.