Friday 24 January 2020

Theatre: Young guns rising to the challenge of 1916

Roll call: Aidan Gillen was one of the alumni to come out of DYT
Roll call: Aidan Gillen was one of the alumni to come out of DYT

Maggie Armstrong

To get to know Dublin Youth Theatre, you would have to see its building. A tumbledown redbrick at 23 Upper Gardiner Street, you couldn't miss it if you were taking a pleasure stroll through Dublin's north city. The garden bursts forth with pink and orange flowers and the windows give a peek of a fun palace.

Inside, the front room is painted electric pink and covered in peeling posters of bygone DYT shows, made by people who have since become stars. Stuffed birds stare out of glass cases. A frayed Persian rug is masking-taped to the floor. Tinsel and other baubles lend a festive feel. Sometimes there are 35 kids in here for a workshop, can you imagine that, asks DYT's enthused artistic director, David Kelly - who himself joined DYT aged 17.

Through double doors you'll find a rail of costumes complete with vintage wedding dress in yellow satin. Up a precarious staircase is a modest-sized black-box space - sometimes there are 35 kids crammed in here, too, says Kelly. (It should be noted, DYT is keenly searching for a new building).

Another room is coming down with spools of wire, lights and assorted technical equipment; another is packed with ancient-looking books and teacups. The back garden is chaotic, piled high with stuff. "Everything is begged, borrowed and stolen - costumes, lights, smoke machine," says DYT's exuberant general manager, Ella Daly, of this modestly resourced youth club. "We are completely oversubscribed," she says. Every year 35 new 14 to 23-year-olds join from across Dublin, but four times that number audition.

Why all this talk of Dublin Youth Theatre now? The immediate reason is a play, brought to the Peacock stage by members of DYT next week. Rising is a piece of documentary theatre devised by a 20-strong ensemble cast, with a professional creative team including documentary theatre-maker Helena Enright, director Tom Creed and award-winning lighting designer (and former DYT member) Sarah Jane Shiels.

The play is a response, says Enright, "to the idea of 1916 and a 'young person's revolution'. What are young people rising up against now?" They have combined original testimony from 1916 rebels with fresh interviews from young activists today. The unlikely mix of living voices include Josh Molloy, the Co Laois soldier who travelled to the Middle East to fight ISIS; Ben Conroy, the Iona Institute's youth spokesperson and a rising conservative; Senator Lynn Ruane; street artist Will St Leger and journalist Una Mullally.

But play or no play, there is every reason to talk about DYT all the time. DYT was the first youth theatre in Ireland, founded in 1977 by educational psychologist Paddy O'Dwyer. (There are now over 60 youth theatres around the country). In 40 years, it has produced a disproportionate number of actors and people working in theatre from Ireland today. An Olympics team of theatre-makers whose work shares something: it's young, risky, socially-engaged and unafraid of darkness.

Let's name-drop: Enda Walsh wrote and acted in plays as a boy at DYT. Aidan Gillen built sets and collected props until he was allowed to join DYT, aged 14. Camille O'Sullivan spent time at DYT. Grace Dyas, Shane Byrne, Lauren Larkin, Doireann Coady and co met at DYT and formed their fearless and politically-vocal THEATREclub here. Emmet Kirwan spent time at DYT; this moment he is at the Edinburgh Fringe with his successful show Dublin Oldschool - produced by Phillip McMahon, another DYT member who now produces Pantibliss's shows and many more with his outfit THISISPOPBABY.

McMahon says, on the phone from Edinburgh: "It's hard to work on any production where there's not some sort of DYT alumni involved." When he came here at 15, he had "never seen a bloody play before. I had no interest in theatre." Within weeks, he says, "life changed dramatically".

"For me, coming from the depths of working-class Dublin, suddenly arriving in this true melting pot, which was kids from every corner of the city and everybody arriving with equal status - it was really, really idyllic." It felt, he says, "like we were part of a perfect storm."

Artistic director David Kelly adds to the cloyingly good feeling that surrounds DYT. Growing up in Ballymun, he considered anything outside the walls of Sillogue Gardens in Ballymun as "Poshland" until he joined DYT. "It filled a void that I didn't know was there," he says. His job is now to eliminate that void for others. "The artists of the next generation are emerging all the time, and we just have to give them that space."

Dublin Youth Theatre presents Rising, August 17-20, in the Peacock

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