Behind the scenes of the North West's biggest youth production

Stewart Robson speaks to those helping to foster the future stars of musical theatre in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats at the Millennium Forum

Forty talented young actors from across the North West are set to grace the stage at Derry~Londonderry's Millennium Forum at the end of this month, immersing us into the Jellicle world of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

The major youth production is curated by the theatre and is the 12th year that the Forum has invested time and money in the best dramatic talent in Northern Ireland. Mairead Carlin (Celtic Woman), Dylan Reid (Once the Musical) and Rachel O’Connor (The Voice UK/Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games) are just some of the names to have found success having gained their start with the project.

Ranging from teens treading the boards for the very first time, to young adults who continue to follow their dreams of having their names in lights, the training workshop will culminate in four mystical performances from the energetic cast later this month.

Jonathan Burgess is the musical’s director, and has been involved in the theatre’s youth productions since 2004 when he directed the classic Les Misérables. He says that a lot of focus is given to nurturing the young talent and to let them see if acting really is the career for them.

'It’s done from the perspective of informal training to see if they want to go into the industry,' he explains. 'We have a fairly regimental training schedule. We’ve four weeks to put on a show, which is what they’d get in the professional world.'

Burgess adds that a great deal of thanks is owed to Chief Executive of the Millennium Forum, David McLaughlin, who invests profits from the Christmas pantomime each year into the youth production to make it free of charge to attend the classes and workshops.

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'If we start excluding people because of price, we’re excluding talent. There’s kids I’ve had here at 12 and 13 years of age who are on the West End. This gives them the opportunity to work on a big stage and be treated as a professional. There’s no hierarchy.'

Being in the industry for so long, Burgess admits there have been times where it’s hard to let some people go, but competition has been getting stronger with each passing year.

'The most that ever came and auditioned was 250. I was very unpopular that year, with young people in the street scowling at you and you’re wondering why, then realise,' he laughs.

'We’ve a cast of 40 this year out of the 80 people who auditioned.'

The seasoned director explains that although there is a wealth of talent in the North West region, these workshops and community projects are to set the actors up for taking the world by storm in the West End or in larger cities across the UK and Ireland, with the hope that they’ll one day return to their roots.

'The situation we have here is that every big talent is always going to leave,' he says. 'My ambition is that by creating something for them, they’ll come back at a later stage in their career and put a little bit back in, because they’ll have realised the value of it.

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'It’s very difficult for anybody to sustain themselves in this part of the world and I say that as being someone who’s been in this industry for 25 years. Especially as an actor or performer you really do have to expand your horizons. If we don’t give the young people the opportunity to do that and don’t try and nurture and make that viable for them, then they’re going to have to try and do it somewhere else under much more difficult circumstances.

'There’s a very good attitude of work amongst the young people. They treat it as work and they do what they’re told. Come closer to the time they might get slightly nervous, maybe not so much amongst the older ones. A couple of the guys work for me in my other company but return here because they understand the value of it.'

It goes without saying that Cats has one of the most recognisable soundtracks from any musical within recent times, including hits such as ‘Memory’ and ‘The Jellicle Ball.’

A calling was put out to young musicians in April to audition for musical parts to highlight how the success of a show isn’t just down to those who are on the stage, but those who are below it too.

'What we try and do here is have young players who have the grades but don’t have the experience of actually playing in a show,' says Musical Director, Alan Wright. 'They can come in and see the process that we have to go through.

'Normally with instrumentalists, they can take something home and learn it. Cuts are made, changes are made, the music is shifted around and they have to just keep reacting to that as well.'

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Wright was 19 when Burgess scouted him in a play in Derry’s Waterside Theatre.

'A lot of people know these songs, they can sing and hum along to them. Basically, our aim is to have the audience coming in, enjoying the experience and leaving with a smile on their face.'

Siobhan McParland takes the lead role of Munkustrap while Robert Kelly plays the wise Old Deuteronomy. Both aged 18, the pair are looking forward to putting the produce of their hard work and dedicated training regime centre stage.

'You want to always come back,' says Kelly. 'It’s the experience of working with such a professional production team in a professional theatre. The team won’t stop until we’ve reached a professional standard and it’s ready to go on that stage. It’s still a paying audience and gives us something to aim for and drives us to work.'

'I guess with every show you do with being a principal, or even just being 18 and older you do feel you’re influential to the young kids,' McParland adds. 'I remember when I was young looking up to the older principals and thinking that’s what I want to be when I’m older. You have to be professional and we definitely feel responsibility.'

Cats runs at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry from July 25 - 28 with tickets available from the venue Box Office and www.millenniumforum.co.uk.