Suffolk’s got talent

The cream of Suffolk’s young acting talent are deeply immersed in being someone - not someone as in ‘someone famous’ as such but a character, an individual who goes to make up the ensemble comedy drama The Country Wife.

Lines are learnt and now rehearsals are all about refining the character, really getting the skin of the part. Under the direction of Michael Platt, the actors are coming with a host of individuals with which to populate their theatrical town. There’s no such thing as generic townspeople in this production, there are no extras, every person on stage has a personality, character traits, they have a history which informs how they react not only to the story but to the other characters in this bawdy restoration romp.

In a week where it was reported that a government survey had discovered that half of 16 year olds regarded fame as a career path, here are a collection of talented youngsters, who may well become famous but they won’t be famous for being famous. They won’t be some vacuous non-entity parading down a red carpet at someone else’s movie, they are likely to be famous as a result of being great actors.

The cast are rehearsing the opening of the play, a mimed tableaux, which establishes the personality of the entire town before a word is spoken. It a visual cast list or town directory, so by the time the action begins the audience knows exactly who is who. Who’s the town gossip, the bumptious official, the strutting peacock of the community and the town grouch. All human life is here.

The choice of play this year is a thank you to several of the older members of the Suffolk Youth Theatre, who will be off to university in September, opening up the ranks for a new intake of fresh faces. This mix of ages and skills is what keeps SYT fresh and exciting.

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Although many of the talented youngsters who pass through the ranks do go on to drama school or will study performing arts at university that is not an end in itself. Suffolk Youth Theatre functions to provide confidence, performance and a variety of presentation skills which would be useful in any walk of life.

Three of the leading actors Ed Crosthwaite, Nancy Smith and Aaron Seaman have been members of the company for nearly four years. But, as nancy discovered it’s not always easy to get in. “I auditioned at school. Although I had auditioned twice before and hadn’t got in.”

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Aaron was accepted at the same audition as Nancy while Ed had attended a couple of summer schools before he was accepted into the main company.

Rehearsals are fun but they are also clearly hard work. There are lines to learn, a couple of rehearsals a week. Director Michael Platt demands commitment from the cast, so why at a time when they are also studying for exams are they also adding to their workload?

Nancy is clear: “I just love it. I love the people. I love working as part of an ensemble cast. I love the fact that we are working together. We are like-minded people. Also we are learning new skills and having fun. Although it is hard work, it is also great fun.”

Aaron adds: “We also trust Michael to do a good job. He always comes up with something interesting, He never takes the easy route or the predictable route. There is always a lot going on. You are always busy and it makes you want to commit. You want it to be good.”

Ed Crosthwaite says that the strength of Suffolk Youth Theatre is the movement. “Michael is very good in the way he moves things. Movement plays a big part in our performances. It is part of the story telling process. The work we do comes from a wide variety of sources and sometimes audiences are not always quick to pick up on the dialogue, particularly if it is challenging, something like Shakespeare for example, but because Michael is so visual in the way he directs, he puts so much thought into the movement, then audiences will know exactly what is going on because the visuals enhance or explain the words.

“Last year when we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michael brought along a friend, who is Spanish, to see the show. He didn’t speak much English but he was able to follow the story and the comedy through the movement.”

He added that by focusing on movement it also kept then other members of the company involved, even though they may not have as many lines as some of the leading characters. He said that the movement added to the atmosphere of the piece and

Aaron said that the benefit of combining a variety of different storytelling methods was that it kept things interesting for the audience and made the plays accessible for people of all ages. In additional to dialogue and movement, Suffolk Youth Theatre benefits from songs and an original music score from Pat Whymark, who is well known from her work with Eastern Angles.

“The lyrics are mixture of Pat’s own and lines from the script. But the music has all been written by her,” Nancy said.

They said that it was the mix of ingredients which make a Suffolk Youth Theatre production different from many other theatrical experiences. Ed said: “We initially have to drag our friends along, and perhaps they don’t normally go to the theatre and they come away having had a really good time.”

“Michael is really good at making it accessible,” added Nancy.

They said that the opening tableaux was a very interesting experience for them because it was all movement and because it was set to music, was also highly choreographed. Ed laughed: “I think several of us think we have two left feet and yet we feel quite comfortable doing it and it looks very effective.”

Nancy said that a lot of time had been spent in rehearsal developing characters so no two people were alike. “The script just comes up with parts for various maids and they are just referred to as maids. We have done a lot of work to make sure each maid is easily recognisable because they have different characteristics. Not does it make it more enjoyable for the audience to watch but its more interesting for the actor to play the part.”

Aaron said that the rehearsal process is intensive, starting in November as soon as auditions are over. “You audition to get into Suffolk Youth and then you audition again for parts in that year’s production. Once you have got your part, work then begins on exploring the character before you really start work on the play with the script.

“Once you have the character then we start looking at how we can incorporate the script into the character we have developed.”

All three youngsters have ambitions to pursue a career in the theatre, and have applied for places on various drama and theatre university courses. Nancy said: “Suffolk Youth Theatre is a very good starting point because it teaches you take the process seriously. It also allows you to develop as an actor because you have so many good people around you.”

Michael Platt said that blending drama, music and movement to tell a story provides him and the cast with a challenge. “Basically it’s what interests me. It helps to really bring a story to life. We take a text and adapt it, play with it. We’ve never devised anything, we always work from an established text, usually a classic or older text and one of the joys is then looking at that text from a very visual perspective. I am looking at new ways of telling the story or looking to explore and bring out the undercurrents which are already present in the text. I am looking at the physicality of movement and the design of the bodies in the space and what they are doing gesture-wise. It’s using physicality as a language and we usually start from that basis. That’s where I feel comfortable coming from. It about getting a shared movement vocabulary before we start working with the text.”

He said that it was important that all the SYT shows had an ensemble quality because it encouraged the young actors to work together and to share knowledge and experiences. All the actors have a large input in developing their characters which are explored through pre-rehearsal workshops.

The other part of the process is for the young people to make sense and take control of the language and to feel comfortable with it. “I think this has been a challenge, for some. It’s not Shakespeare but it is 17th century language and it does take a while for younger people to get to know it and then to own it and make it sound like naturalistic dialogue.” He said that some of the dialogue had been cut to lose of the 17th century witticisms which have lost their sense of fun in the intervening centuries. “But even so there is an extraordinary amount of material left which seems so incredibly contemporary and relevant and the cast have a lot of fun with it because it is so of the moment.”

He said that the hunt for new shows suitable for Suffolk Youth Theatre is ongoing. The current show ends in May and after a short break Michael has usually settled on the next show by the end of July, so he can plan out the form the show will take over the summer.

“I spend a lot of time trying to find something that will appeal to me and to them. When I’ve settled on a show, my main concern when I am directing is how do we tell the story.”

He said recruitment comes from a variety of sources. Their annual summer schools, which are run at Northgate Arts Centre, provide a steady stream of hopefuls and there is a lot of promotional activity carried out in schools around the county, particularly targeting youngsters on performing arts courses.

“We make it clear, it’s a big commitment. It’s two nights a week for six months plus days in half term and the run of the show. So if they want to take part, they have to commit and it’s not easy because they are of an age when they are in exams either GCSE or A levels, so it is a big ask. But, drama teachers are very good at steering people towards us and there is a lot of word of mouth.”

He said that the age range normally extended from 14 to about 18-19, although some people have stayed until 21. “The content of the play also has a bearing on who gets cast. This year, because of the content of the play, it was always going to be a play for the older members and with so many moving on after this year was a little thank you for their support over the past years. I like the fact that we do have a mix of ages and experience. The younger ones learn a lot from the older members. They give them something to aspire to and before they know it, they too will be the older members.”

The County Wife is being performed by Suffolk Youth Theatre at the New Wolsey from April 28 to May 1. There is a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm on May 1. Tickets are available at or by phoning 01473 295900.

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