Suffolk Youth Theatre: Transforming and performing

Youth theatre is a very broad, all encompassing term and can be a bit of a mixed bag at times. Quality can vary wildly, as can the shows on offer and the groups performing them.

Most people have probably performed in some kind of youth theatre, even if it was just your primary school nativity.

Others may have taken it a step further, taking to the stage in the school musical, age 10, parents trying to pick you out in the chorus line as someone else’s child murders Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

If you still had the bug, in a few years time you might have had a leading role, but, should you want to try your hand at something a little different, or perhaps fancy a career as an actor, where do you go from here?

Fortunately, when this thought occurred to me at age 15, there were several youth theatres in and around Ipswich and Mid-Suffolk from which to choose and it was Suffolk Youth Theatre which took my fancy.

I started by doing their one week summer schools at the beginning of the holidays and the first year I knew no one else at the start of the week. My first tribute to SYT is that now the majority of my best friends have all been made through its productions.

The summer schools followed a simple formula: a theme would be set (poetry, Greek myths and Chinese legends for example), then the cast of between 30 and 50 young people, aged 13 to 18, would devise and rehearse a show to perform at the end of the week.

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Suffolk Youth Theatre has always been very physical theatre orientated and it was the first time I had really experienced acting like this.

I was able to take part in four summer schools before hitting the upper age bracket, but was given the opportunity to carry on as a tutor, something I have enjoyed just as much as being a participant.

The other side of SYT which was a major part of me for four years was the main house production, which I auditioned for after two summer schools.

A group of us who had met during the summer course decided to go along and give it a try. I had never seen one of the main house shows before and neither had I ever been through a proper audition process, something I would be delving into very often when I decided to audition for drama schools.

Suffolk Youth Theatre’s focus for its main house shows has always leant towards more classical productions; more A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Jungle Book than Grease or We Will Rock You.

Fuente Ovejuna was my first show – a story about a Spanish town (whose literal translation, I believe is Sheep Fountain), fighting back against the oppression of a ruthless military tyrant, played my myself. Commander Gomez is possibly my favourite of the characters I have played (because of the fun I could have performing him, not his personality), and Fuente is one of the best pieces of theatre I have been involved in.

This was followed by an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, playing various characters, including one for which I had to learn a form of stilt walking (as did another cast member for another role), and the next year was my first Shakespearean outing as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I ended my four years with restoration comedy The Country Wife, playing another lover (Mr Harcourt) and wearing far too much flamboyant make up.

The variety is one of the many things which really made Suffolk Youth Theatre such a great experience for me; I don’t think there was anywhere else where I could have done such a mixture of shows in the same company at the ages I was.

The director for all of Suffolk Youth’s main house shows was Michael Platt, his background as a dancer giving each production their physical and movement based characteristics.

After selecting the company for each show, we would often spend two or three weeks workshopping, becoming familiar with the play, its characters, experimenting with posture and physicality, before really looking at a script in depth.

The time and effort Michael put into Suffolk Youth Theatre was incredible. The dialogue in his script was hardly visible from the multitude of stage directions and ideas he had come up with, and he knew exactly what he wanted from every scene, every line and every action.

His techniques (many of which game from his dance background) also helped us get the best out of ourselves, as well as contributing to the overall performance. Exercises and drills on movement, relationships with the other characters, your character’s own emotions and physical traits often worked their way into the final performance. One drill in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was adapted to become the opening dance.

Alongside Michael for all but one of the shows was Pat Whymark, working as musical director. Her original music and arrangements worked not only for those for who singing came naturally, but also for the ones like me for whom singing tunefully was a challenge.

Pat’s ability to create songs for the shows was such that Michael could rely on her to come up with something which would fit with what he had planned with little, if any alteration. Pat’s training as an actor meant her and Michael were always on the same wavelength.

A partnership like this guaranteed successful show after successful show and is one of the reasons why I continued to audition for SYT for as long as I could. There was never any doubt for me that whatever the show, the vision of Michael and Pat made them some of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I have ever done.

Behind the scenes were Jos and Helen Leeder, dealing often with the less glamorous production and costume jobs. There are also others who have done valuable bits and pieces over the years, some of whom I know and others I don’t, but it all goes to show that it is an ensemble company both on and off stage.

That this is all coming to end because funding has become too tight to carry on genuinely devastated me when I first heard the news. SYT has been such a huge influence on me and where I want to go in life that I think it is terrible that other young people will not have the same opportunities if it is to end now.

Of course, there are other youth theatres and young companies, but because of its style, its choice of productions, those who have acted in it and those who have moulded each show, for me it is one of the top theatre companies in Suffolk. There are some adult companies who could not compete with the quality Suffolk Youth has become known for and if you have not seen one of their shows yet, I urge to get a ticket for Metamorphosis. Hopefully not SYT’s final throw of the dice, but should it have to be, it is fitting that it finishes with the same show it began with in 1990.

Hopefully there will be some future resurrection and when there is, it will not be soon enough. I would give anything to be part of it again.

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