Eamon McNally meets the theatrical whizzkids that can produce a musical in a weekend
‘Those who see any difference between soul and body have neither’. Oscar Wilde’s quip could have been the strapline for a range of human activities including yoga, martial arts and sport.
Music Theatre4Youth was founded by Jenny Cooke and Vernon Mound to give young people in NI access to quality training and experience in musical theatre.
It offers a ‘musical in a weekend’, culminating in a public performance, and intensive training weekends which are open to all. It offers special projects for selected participants and a mini-company called Footlighters, consisting of thirty of the selected young performers.
Mound is head of music theatre at Gothenburg University and he works with the West End’s leading artists. So what motivates this man to devote so much of his time to youth theatre?
‘This is a worthwhile endeavour on so many levels. There are some of these young people who will make a career in theatre or drama education.
'There are many who will gain self confidence and social skills that will help them in other careers and in life generally. There are some who will just have an enjoyable weekend.’
‘Then there is that exciting moment when you witness the creative spark, when you see a talent come to life and kids discover what they can do. It happened this weekend. One young man came to me and said ‘I feel great’.’
Choreographer Anthoula Papadakis works with top companies across Europe, and has produced major musicals like Miss Saigon, Les Miserables and West Side Story.
Papadakis also has extensive experience of youth theatre, having worked with more than 20 productions. She feels that NI does not offer young people the same opportunities and experience of professional theatre, compared with England.
She believes MT4Uth helps to level the playing field.
‘There is nobody who makes a success of any career without commitment,' says Papadakis. 'This is a tough business and we take no prisoners. The kids see what it is really like. We pepper it with a bit of humour but we demand a high level of personal discipline.
'They learn how to work as individuals and as part of a team and these are the skills they will need in life no matter what they do.'
But let no one think that MT4Uth is merely a youth club for drama enthusiasts. I sat in on rehearsals for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine.
The Children meet the directing team on Friday evening for auditions, working from five until eight in the evening.
Saturday morning they start at nine and before lunch have rehearsed and learned the music and choreography for a major musical number. Papadakis rehearses two of these and a minor number each day.
Rehearsal is intense. There are no interludes for conversation.
A portion of the choreography is rehearsed again and again. A cue is changed and the chorus practice starting their movement on a specific word.
Someone in the chorus speaks and is called emphatically to order. During rehearsal no one but the director speaks to say anything but what is in the script.
As they leave for lunch, musical director Paul Smith charges them to learn all twenty nine colours before returning for the afternoon session. Smith loves to work in NI.
‘The youth here have a real hunger for the opportunity,' he says. 'Most of what is available is in London and is not accessible to them. When we come here they are so keen and committed that it is really rewarding for us as well as them.’
Work continues until eight at night on Saturday and Sunday, and during the day on Monday, until the public performance on Monday evening.
Two of the young people are assistant directors in the production: Barry Leonard and Sam Magee.
Barry Leonard has taken part in a previous production and is on a directing placement in this one.
‘I went on that previous weekend with very little confidence,' he says. 'I came out of it knowing that I want to be a professional actor.
'Working with professionals like Vernon and Anthoula is such a difference from working in AmDram [amateur drama]. They are different worlds.’
At 19, Magee already works as a dancer and trains at Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education.
‘I have been with MT4Uth for a year and have been in three productions. When I first came I was the shyest person but everybody really pushed me. They made me work so hard and gave me a real incentive. Now I love to perform.’
There was a remarkable consistency in the feedback from young actors, who came from a variety of backgrounds, with varying levels of experience.
Brendan O’Hare and Phillip McVicker are on their first productions with MT4Uth. They had previously been unable to afford the fee, but this year obtained a bursary.
Christina Bennington and Emma Moore have nine MT4Uth productions between them and still find they can gain a lot from working with professional directors.
The same theme came back again and again: the benefits of professional discipline and personal development, as well as performing technique.
These four also stressed the importance of the networks they establish through the production. Although they come from such a wide variety of backgrounds they actively keep in touch after the production to meet again in future productions.
If ever there was living proof of Wilde’s claim, I saw it this weekend. The soul of the whole far exceeds the individuals involved. Here is young life bursting forth, tireless and irrepressible. Here is hope for the old or the jaded.
Jenny Cooke spoke of the appetite that exists. ‘If we had the funding we could run one of these every weekend.’ Now there’s a thought.