West Side Story In May Street Church

MT4Uth prepare for their unique production at the Belfast Festival

On a weekday morning in early September 2011, the austerely magnificent interior of May Street Presbyterian Church in the centre of Belfast is silent and serene. But in a few weeks’ time, it will be a hive of noise and activity as preparations begin for Music Theatre 4 Youth’s spectacular new production of West Side Story at this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

The set has already been constructed and is currently being stored in the depths of the Paint Hall Studios in the Titanic Quarter, where the next season of Game of Thrones is currently being shot. It was specially designed by Boyd Architects and built by the team of the HBO series, whose producer, Mark Huffam, is on the board of MT4Uth.

Jenny Cooke, founder and voluntary chief executive of Ireland’s only cross-border performing arts education charity, is a woman with a huge network of connections and an unshakeable determination to get things done. She explains the various dilemmas involved in this ambitious artistic undertaking.

'Financially, it was a struggle to get West Side Story professionally produced in a listed, city centre building, with no set and no in-house technical support,' she says.

'Mark asked Tom Martin, from the construction company for Game of Thrones, to come and take a look. He was blown away by our vision of creating a performance space in a listed church and by our desire to direct funds back into the charity and the church. But they have donated to us a purpose-built £15,000 set, which can remain in the church and which we can let out to other arts or orchestral groups.'

The top notch creative team behind West Side Story is led by artistic director, Anthoula Papadakis, a former ballet dancer and internationally renowned choreographer, who is currently directing Aida in Germany.

The multi award-winning composer Tim Sutton, one of the founders of MT4Uth, is the show’s musical supervisor. The organisation brings together groups of talented youngsters from all over Ireland in a year-round series of intensive residential boot camps. Sutton explains how he began working on the score with the young singers during the Easter residential:

'I started looking at key moments and working out performance versions of the songs, which would best play to the abilities of these young voices,' he says. 'The show is demanding, musically and emotionally. It contains some big acting roles and the story deals with very big themes. Above all, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and the challenge is in the way we use our own ensemble to perform Bernstein’s score.

'The thing about doing West Side Story in a church is that we can’t perform the full orchestrations because the acoustics won’t allow it,' he adds. 'So what I’ve tried to do is bring the colours into the vocal harmony.'

At the heart of West Side Story is the doomed love affair between Maria, from immigrant Puerto Rican stock, and Tony, a white, working-class city kid.

Their story unfolds in New York in the mid-1950s, where two teenage street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are constantly at each other’s throats. Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein’s muscular, full-blooded musical travels well, and will certainly resonate with Northern Irish audiences.

Re-creating the cramped tenements of Little Italy in a conventional theatrical setting always throws up a host of logistical challenges, but mounting it in a vast, unyielding space like May Street Church – previously the venue for large scale concerts at the Belfast Festival – certainly added to the production team’s headaches.

'We always knew it was not going to be easy, but we wanted our first festival appearance to be a ground-breaking production,' says Cooke. “We have worked closely with May Street Church to make the venue a real asset to Belfast’s cultural landscape.

'We were keen to push the boundaries of music theatre, which is why we chose to West Side Story as a site-specific piece. But, yes, it has not been without massive challenges. What audiences will see will take their breath away: two large towers, connecting the stage to the balconies in the church, all made up from bits and pieces left over from Game of Thrones.'

MT4UTH

In these financially straitened times, Northern Ireland audiences have become accustomed to being presented with scaled down, locally-produced theatre, often involving just a handful of actors. So it should be quite something to witness on stage a cast of 50 young people, from 16 to 25 years of age. They come from right across Ireland and were selected at auditions in Dublin and Belfast back in February 2011.

For many years, Cooke worked in drama and children’s programming for the BBC in London and Belfast. She set up MT4Uth in her own home in 2005, inspired by the work of the London-based National Youth Music Theatre.

Its first artistic director was Vernon Mound, an NYMT associate director and director of the musical theatre department at Sweden’s Gothenburg University, who died just over a year ago and whose absence is still acutely felt.

Cooke has put in place an artistic panel comprising some of the leading figures in the performing arts, as well as partnerships with the Guildford School of Acting, Arts-Path in Dublin, The Playhouse and Waterside Theatre in Derry~Londonderry and several London colleges.

'Our aim is to provide opportunities and structured pathways for gifted young people, regardless of religion or social background, and to bring in top level professional practitioners to work with them,' says Cooke. 'In November, we’ll be launching our Weekend Academy, based in May Street, where youngsters aged from 6 to 25 can take part in dance, drama and singing classes.'

Exciting young talent in spectacular surroundings are a hallmark of this year’s Belfast Festival, with Dance United NI’s Merge bringing street dance, rap, opera, BMX bikers and skateboards to Titanic Quarter, and the Ulster Youth Choir performing Bach and Mendelssohn in St Peter’s Cathedral.

Musicals don’t come much bigger and bolder than West Side Story, however, and MT4Uth’s production in this imposing landmark building is one not to miss.

West Side Story runs from October 26 – 30 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On Guide for more details.