Gallery: Living the theatre dream

The Suffolk Youth Theatre celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

Andrew Clarke

The Suffolk Youth Theatre celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to founder producer and county drama advisor Joss Leeder about this inspirational theatre company.

This week Suffolk Youth Theatre have been breathing new life into Shakespeare's dazzling comedy of fairy mischief A Midsummer Night's Dream. The imagination displayed on stage and the spirited performances seen on stage at the New Wolsey Theatre are testament not only to the talent of the young performers but also of their mentors director Michael Platt and county drama advisor Joss Leeder.

The fact that they can put on such a high quality performance says a lot about the talent they are able to harness and the dedication the young actors devote to their craft - particularly when many of them are also sitting GCSE and A level examinations as well.

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Joss Leeder is justifiably extremely proud of the ad-hoc company, based at Northgate Arts centre in Ipswich, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary.

On arrival he supplies me with two lists one is a summary of past productions and the other is an impressive list of SYT alumni who have gone on to greater glories in the world of professional theatre. Among the talented former members are Jo Lewis, who has worked with Trevor Nunn in the West End, Polly Hazlewood who has established her own theatre company in London, Michael Oakley, who has worked as The Globe and is now Trevor Nunn's assistant, Alice Henley recently appeared in the BBC's Rome and Michael Brown has just finished a season working with Mark Rylance at The Globe Theatre in London.

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There are another half dozen names who are currently earning a living in the theatre. This a wonderful jumping off point to start our discussion.

But, Joss wrong foots me from the beginning. The Suffolk Youth Theatre is not just there to encourage and support the next generation of young professional actors - although that is part of its function - it is also there to enable young people to develop self confidence, life skills and the ability to stand up in front of people and put ideas across. Skills which come in handy in whatever walk of life you happen to go into.

He says that the Suffolk Youth Theatre was born 15 years ago out of a number of different after school drama clubs that Joss was running in Ipswich and Felixstowe.

“I had been running a whole series of youth theatre groups - one in Felixstowe and six in Ipswich - and they were run in schools in the evening. They were open to 13-18 year olds and most were staffed by drama teachers, many chose to work in schools other than their own, so they could work with the kids on first name terms and wouldn't be known as Miss or Mr.

“What we used to do then was have a sharing night at the Wolsey. All the groups would bring their work to the Wolsey and have a ten-15 minute slot each and it would be a great night.”

He said that out of that evening arose the idea that there could be a group which the members of all the groups could aspire to join. “It wasn't conceived as an elite group but one which would work on a big performance and one which people would strive to join.”

He said that their first production was of Steven Berkoff's Metamorphosis. “But, I was very lucky to stumble across Michael Platt and immediately got him involved as director. Michael had just started teaching at Holywells High School and when I went a long to see his school production it was one of those Road To Damascus experiences. It was simply stunning and I said would you be interested in doing a youth theatre show because I think you would be the right person to get the best out of the kids.

“He said that he would give it go. We chose Metamorphosis because it was an interesting play by Berkoff adapted from a Kafka piece about a man who turns into a beetle - just a bizarre story but typically Kafka and Berkoff is a fantastic image and physical theatre practitioner and we thought it would be a good production to launch Suffolk Youth Theatre with.”

He said that having started on a small scale, they immediately upped the stakes the following year with a large-scale production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although the production was a huge success, the scale of the production and the cast of 25 actors made space a little tight and production facilities difficult at Northgate.

“We found that working at a proper theatre gives you room to work, the opportunity to leave sets out over night, it's not used for anything else and it's just generally a better environment for actors to work in, so we negotiated with the Wolsey to use the studio and we staged Cymberline there the following year and Blood Wedding the year after.

“Just as everything was going so well, the Wolsey closed and we were left high and dry.”

He said that they were due to stage the visit just weeks after the Wolsey's closure in 1999 and had to make hasty arrangements to stage it back at Northgate.

The following year was a landmark year for Suffolk Youth Theatre - their production The Turning Tide, which encompassed the legend of the Orford Wild Man, and other tales from the sea, was seen by many more people. It was not only staged at the Ipswich Corn Exchange but was also part of the county's contribution to the events at the Millennium Dome as part of the celebration to mark the dawn of a new century.

Joss said that he lays much of the credit for the success of Suffolk Youth Theatre at the door of director Michael Platt. “It's very much his show. He's been the director for every production and that means that we do have a definite style. It's consistent and people now know what to expect when they come and see our shows - but there's always a surprise or two hidden away.”

He said that in recent years they have developed with local actor, musician and composer Pat Whymark, who along with her work with Eastern Angles, has now started working with the youngsters on the annual Suffolk Youth Theatre production.

“The shows all have music in them now, even if they didn't originally. Who would have thought that Jane Eyre, which we did last year, could be a piece of musical theatre? But it was. She also helps Michael with the staging so the music is not like a bolt-on, it's seamlessly interwoven with the rest of the show.”

He said he has been amazed by Pat's work with the youngsters, improving their confidence and their technical capabilities. “So many of them say to her: 'No, I can't sing.' She goes: 'Yes, you can' and before they know it, they are standing there singing their hearts out. It's wonderful to see.”

But, Joss stresses that the Suffolk Youth Theatre is not just about one big show once a year. Courses, workshops and a summer school are run throughout the year and are available to those who want to come along and try their hand at doing something different.

“The summer school is great because we have 50 kids along, it's not auditioned, it's just the first 50 to sign up and we do something I call Kamikaze Theatre. On Monday you started with a group of enthusiastic kids in a room and by the end of the week you put on a performance. It's a full-blooded show which lasts 45-50 minutes and it's terrific.

“It always reminds me of Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare In Love when he's asked why plays work, he says: 'I don't know it's a mystery,' and it's so true, but it always does work and we all get such a buzz from it.”

He said that having a revolving cast in the main shows means that older kids who have done shows in the past can mentor the younger kids who in their turn will mentor youngsters a couple of years down the line. “It gives kids people to look up to and learn from.”

He said that this culture of inspiration carries on after the various members leave Suffolk Youth Theatre, past members who now work in the theatre profession stay in touch and do inspire those who follow in their footsteps.

But, stressed that the SYT was just as important for those who don't want to make it their profession who just love acting, just love performing on stage.

“It's great to see their confidence grow. When they first arrive they asre inevitably a little shy, surrounded by people they don't know, people who are perhaps more experienced than they are but within a very short time you can see them grow as people and that's one of the marvellous things that theatre can do.”

He said that a sense of camaraderie quickly develops and during rehearsals for this production of Mid-summer Night's Dream, the kids have been organising their own parties and trips to the theatre to see shows. “It's great to see them, enjoying themselves and getting so much from the friendships that develop here.”

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