Saturday 23 September 2017

Coming of stage

This summer, 16 teens from across the country have been living and working together ahead of their debut at the highest level of theatre. Our reporter meets acting's rising stars - and its Moone Boy!

Sweet 16: the members of the National Youth Theatre
Sweet 16: the members of the National Youth Theatre
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

It's almost lunchtime in the LAB on Dublin's Foley Street when theatre director Caitriona McLaughlin calls for a rehearsal break - but first she has some notes for the 16 actors who are standing in front of her.

One of the actors is told to sound less ominous when he delivers a certain line - otherwise he'll foreshadow what's about to happen in the next scene. "Keep it light," she says.

Another actor has a question for the director. She says one of the words she has to deliver "feels really unnatural". McLaughlin nods. "I think that's right," she says. "I think don't say it."

The dynamic between the director and the actors comes across as open, equitable and inclusive. It also seems terribly grown-up - considering the cast members are between the ages of 16 and 19.

This is National Youth Theatre, a project Youth Theatre Ireland has been running since 1983. A cast of young people from youth theatres across Ireland are selected through nationwide auditions and brought to Dublin for five weeks where they rehearse with a professional director and crew, and perform in a leading venue.

This year they're performing Karel Capek's sci-fi play R.U.R. - Rossum's Universal Robots at the Peacock Theatre.

"It's a programme with a lot of ambition," says Director of Youth Theatre Ireland, Michelle Carew. "It's a statement of belief in the ability of young people to work at the highest level in theatre.

"Over the five weeks of the programme, the young cast work, eat and live together to a very demanding schedule. It certainly isn't glamorous but it is - they tell us - a lot of fun and hugely rewarding."

Bringing 16 teenagers together in a house in Dublin during the summer holidays may sound like the premise for a raucous reality TV show but the cast are committed to the production (and the occasional episode of Game of Thrones in the evening).

"We've got a couple of strict rules," says producer Alan King. "Obviously no drugs. And no alcohol, which is a difficult one at that age because you have people who are over 18 and people who are under 18 - but for us it's simpler to have one rule for everybody. We also have zero tolerance for bullying but it doesn't really raise its head."

And relationships? "Obviously people at that age will like each other but, for the most part, they'll park it."

David Rawle (16), from Carrigallen in Leitrim likens the experience to being in the Gaeltacht - "but thankfully we can speak English".

David, who joined Leitrim Youth Theatre Company at the age of 11, is funny, self-effacing and, like most of the cast, mature for his years. He says joining his local youth theatre helped him "get over gaps of confidence" and meet like-minded people. It was also led him to the leading role in Moone Boy, co-written and co-starring Chris O'Dowd.

"Chris and I have a similar sense of humour," he says. "We really got on well. From the first time we met each other we really enjoyed each other's company." As for the overnight fame, he concedes that one or two people shouted 'Moone Boy' at him on the street but quickly adds that it was "never Beatlemania".

The National Youth Theatre programme has been a launchpad for many Irish actors. Aidan Gillen performed in their production of A Midsummer's Night Dream and Cathy Belton of Red Rock was in The Crucible. Other former participants, like brothers Colin and Darren Thornton, the writer/director team behind A Date for Mad Mary, have segued into different areas of the arts.

Acting, as we all know, is a precarious business, but the teenagers rehearsing here today are determined to carve out similar careers. The answers to the question, 'Is this what you want to do with the rest of your life?' are immediate and emphatic. "Definitely!" "100pc!" "YES!"

Despite his Moone Boy success, David says it was only in the last year he decided that he would like to pursue acting as a full-time career. "Transition Year gave me time to think that there is nothing else I would like to be doing."

Isolde (Issey) Fenton (19), from Adare in Co Limerick, came to a similar conclusion a few years earlier. She's now studying drama and theatre in University College Cork. "I wouldn't be good behind an office desk," she laughs.

Sarah Stafford (16), from Carlow town wants to do drama and theatre studies in Trinity College. She has been singing and dancing since the age of three and attributes confidence-building to youth theatre. "Everyone is so sociable and so supportive of each other."

Molly Mew (18), from Strokestown in Co Roscommon agrees. She says she was timid and unsure of herself before she joined the Roscommon County Youth Theatre in 2012. The young woman sitting in front of me today is in full command of herself. "It's really heartwarming to see younger people coming in timid and then seeing them blossom," she adds.

Teenagers can be very age-conscious when it comes to making new friends. The youth theatre environment, where there can be an age difference of up to eight years in some cases, breaks down these barriers.

Molly says her Youth Theatre experience "speeded up" her development. "I had my friends in school but I also had my friends there."

Josh Campbell (16), from Bantry in west Cork, is the second-youngest on the National Youth Theatre programme, but he says age is irrelevant when they're all working towards the same goal. "Once you're living with these people, you realise you're all in the same playing field. You just fit right in regardless of who you are."

It's easier to connect with people in the youth theatre environment, he adds. "They don't have a problem just saying something. You meet a lot of people around my age who find complimenting someone, and taking a compliment, really hard. Here you just go up to people and say, 'You're looking really good today' or 'That scene was brilliant'."

Josh plays the role of Primus - "one of the robots who can, to a certain extent, feel emotion" - and he's been busy researching robot films as he travels back to Cork at the weekends. "Ava in Ex Machina is just so creepy," he says. "It's perfect the way they do it."

Issey is also enjoying the challenge of playing a robot. "It's very static," she says. "You move one thing as a time. You look in one direction and then your head follows. Someone will say something to you and then you have to let that sink in before you respond." For Sarah, who plays the role of the robot Sulla, it's an almost meditative experience. "You switch off your emotions and you're just living in the moment and taking your lead from another person."

Everyone agrees that Caitriona's character-building studies have developed their craft. The director has come up with lots of clever exercises to help them understand their characters. David helped to draw a map of the island where the play is set; Issey researched what their flag might look like.

There are photographs of futuristic-looking labs and chrome-plated robots on one wall, and a Morse code chart on the other (they make sounds by stamping their feet and clapping their hands).

The way they learn lines is different too. Rather than memorising them from the script, they are fed them, through a reader, during rehearsals. The actors say it makes the process easier and quicker. Judging from the rehearsal I sit in on, it makes the acting more naturalistic too.

"Caitriona said right from the beginning that this is our world. It's not the original script's world. It's our own creation," explains Issey.

"She's a fantastic director," adds David. "She just understands the text so well - she has such a unique way of thinking that I just find really, really interesting. She goes about things in a completely new and fresh way."

The National Youth Theatre is an intense programme, with early starts and a hectic schedule, yet there are no signs of weariness.

"I never cease to be amazed by how the cast copes with the pressure whilst remaining so generous, enthusiastic and focused," says Michelle.

"We're all so close," agrees Molly. "Nobody really wants to think about when this is over." Josh, meanwhile, insists that there have been no disagreements. "Even if one person didn't get along, the dynamic would be very different. It's almost as if we've known each other forever."

Actors are always telling journalists that, behind the scenes, the cast and crew are "like one big, happy family". For once I believe them.

The National Youth Theatre's production of 'R.U.R. - Rossum's Universal Robots' runs at the Peacock Theatre at Dublin's Abbey Theatre from August 21-26. abbeytheatre.ie; youththeatre.ie

 

Photography: Ros Kavanagh

Shot on location at the National History Museum, Merrion Street, Dublin 2, museum.ie/natural-history

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