Wednesday 23 January 2019

A theatre of confidence

Founders of Swords youth theatre talk to John Manning about the new group and how they hope it will help foster self-esteem and confidence

A new youth theatre for Swords is on its way this weekend and its founders are promising an experience that will transform shy and timid children into confident and exuberant young people, engaged with the world around them.

Swords Youth Theatre is not your traditional drama society and the process that Lewis McGee and Graham O'Neill are bringing to the Fingal capital is as much about personal development as it is about learning to act.

Graham explained: 'I did a programme called Arts Train which was a part of the of what used to be called the National Association for Youth Drama which is now Youth Theatre Ireland.

'They did a programme that trained people to be facilitators and Lewis did that a couple of years after me. It's different from being an art teacher in that we are not there to necessarily get them up on the stage and become professional actors.

'As a facilitator, you work on their social, personal and artistic development. '

Lewis did the same course and when the two men met at a youth theatre festival, the idea to establish their own youth theatre took flight.

Graham said: 'In chatting to Lewis, that is our main cause. We want to get people out and get people interacting socially through arts and through games so they drop their barriers and become more open.

'We are planning to do some kind of a show at the end of a term or at the end of a year and that's a massive part of it but it's also about their social and personal development.

'If a young person comes in and they are shy and won't lift their head up and by week three or four, they are looking around them and engaging -- that's what we are all about.

'The great thing about it is that it's done through games.

'The young people play games without knowing what they are about. They are just having fun but what they are really doing is interacting, looking each other in the eye and making contact with each other.'

Lewis added: 'They become much more comfortable with their peers and realise they have nothing to be nervous or afraid about.

'It's really the beauty and the brilliance of these games and what a youth theatre can do for people.'

Graham said that the pair know the value youth theatre can have for a young person and what it has done for their own lives.

He said: 'We both come from youth theatre backgrounds and we know what it has done for us.

Lewis explained: 'I'm from Ballymun and I went to the Ballymun Youth Theatre. I was 14 years old and I was your stereotypical moody teenager.

'I wore black all the time and I was constantly looking down at my feet and never engaging.

'Within a year I was completely changed. I was up and bouncing around.

'I was getting out and meeting people from other youth theatres and we had this shared language.'

Being involved in youth theatre also opened up a whole new social outlet for Lewis.

He explained: 'It was really nice to have this common ground that nobody else knew about in my own circle of friends. These people who I never met, I instantly had this connection with.'

Graham said that for those nervous about giving youth theatre a try, it's important to know that Swords Youth Theatre will provide a safe and supportive environment for all of its participants.

He said: 'What I love about youth theatre is that it is so accepting. Everyone is welcome and it's such a supportive space to be in.

'It's such a scary thing to stand up and maybe make a fool of yourself. It's a scary thing just to stand up and speak. And maybe it's a scary thing for some to look someone in the eye.'

The facilitators know that and encourage a supportive environment among the participants where it becomes safe to do all the things that scare you about speaking and performing in public.

Establishing the youth theatre in Swords where Graham lives, was actually Lewis' idea. He said: 'I've always wanted to do it, ever since I left Arts Train. I've always wanted to do my own youth theatre.

'I done a bit of research and found that there is no youth theatre in Swords. There is a stage schools and dance schools but not a youth theatre.'

Graham rowed in behind the idea and with some inspiration and support from another well known figure in youth arts from Swords, Dave Kelly, the youth theatre facilitators got the ball rolling.

They have secured the community centre in Applewood for a free taster workshop on Friday at 4pm and everyone is invited.

The two youth theatre facilitators hope as many young people as possible come along and have a go and if the demand is there, they intend to establish Swords Youth Theatre on a more permanent footing with weekly workshops.

They will offer a 10-week term of workshops for a price of €100, paid weekly at €10 each week.

But this initial taster session is completely free and everyone is welcome, whether you are from Swords or not -- if you can get to Applewood, then you are welcome.

Lewis and Graham have been busy sorting out all the paper work from insurance to Garda vetting and now cannot wait to get started.

Talking about the upcoming free workshop, Lewis said: 'We have been busy promoting it and putting out flyers and creating a Facebook page for Swords Youth Theatre and we are now just hoping and praying we get enough people in.

'It's open to 13 to 17-year-olds but we will take children as young as 12 if they want to join.

'Just come along and have a go. It's a free workshop just so people can come along and get a taste of it.'

He added: 'We will meet weekly and every week there will be a new workshop. Each term will be 10 weeks.

'Hopefully they will be out of their shell by the end of the first term.'

Graham was involved in Dublin Youth Theatre as a member and more recently he found himself on the other side of the fence, judging auditions for the group and saw the value of youth theatre from another angle in that capacity.

He said: 'I've seen a lot of growth in people. I know who is getting in before they do and I've seen them in auditions and I may not get to see them again for a month or two and the difference in them is just huge.

'A few months go by and they are just a different person.'

Lewis added: 'It really helped me growing up and on the artistic side as well as socially and as a person.

'I went on to be a professional actor and worked for RTE on Fair City and Damo and Ivor and stuff like that.

'I wouldn't have been able to do that without youth theatre.

'Not just for the artistic side, but just to bring me out of shell. To give that back to one just one young person and to just see one young person look someone in the eye and have a conversation, that will do it for me. '

Graham said: 'I didn't get into youth theatre until I was 17 going on 18 and I've grown so much from youth theatre.'

Making a pitch to those who might be thinking of going down to the Applewood Community Centre to have a go at the free workshop, Lewis told the Fingal Independent: 'If you are interested in youth theatre, doing a bit of acting or just want to have fun for a couple of hours, it's free and it's with people your own age - come down and give it a shot.

'If you do like it, there is potential for you to sign up and do it once a week.'

It's a wonderful initiative and the passion that Lewis and Graham have for the project is obvious.

The impact of youth theatre on their own lives has obviously been a huge one and they cannot wait to have that kind of impact on the young people who join the brand new Swords Youth Theatre.

Fingal Independent