The Kids are Alright  

In the last issue of Ink Pellet, Mark Glover, reviewed Lucy Kerbel’s book All Change Please, a rally cry to achieving greater equality in the theatre. The book focused, in part on the influence of young people, and the impact they can make. Here, he delves into the work of the National Youth Theatre, to see how they, like Lucy, empower the theatre’s next generation.

Lucy Kerbel founded Tonic Theatre in 2011, having previously worked as a theatre director across the United Kingdom. It was during this period, working across the industry, she became interested in the question of gender equality, creating Tonic to try and achieve a greater gender balance in its workforces and repertoires.

A year later, Lucy, along with like-minded support from Company of Angels (Now Boundless Theatre), Zendeh Theatre, and the National Youth Theatre (NYT), published a report entitled Swimming in the Shallow End, the ‘shallow end’ symbolising the small pool of roles and opportunities available to girls in youth drama.

After publishing the report, which you can find at , and I urge you to read, Lucy produced 100 Great Plays for Women, a collection that focuses on female-centric casts, she continues to address the gender imbalance through her work at Tonic, and this year her book All Change Please – A practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre sought to clarify the message further, identifying key areas that can affect change as ‘pressure points.’

One such ‘pressure point’ hones in on young people where Lucy has highlighted the next generation as a pivotal cog in the mechanism of change. It’s at the National Youth Theatre that Paul Roseby, Artistic Director of ten years, has the opportunity to nurture through this change with nearly 6,000 students. “They (young people) are the game changers of tomorrow,” he affirms. “But they can’t be the game changers of tomorrow unless you allow them to be the game changers of today. We do this by giving them as many opportunities as we can, empowering young creatives, not just on-stage but off-stage too.”

The work that Paul and those at the NYT have achieved, like other innovative set-ups such as Chickenshed, Kneehigh and Tonic, is based on understanding each individual is their own person. “Part of their empowerment,” Paul explains. “Is to allow them to be themselves, and to not be a barrier to an opportunity, in particular and unfortunately, gender comes into that and remains a barrier.”

Female representation in youth theatre and drama courses generally seems to be higher than male involvement. As Lucy observes in All Change: “I had long been familiar with the scenario of turning up at the start of a new term to find a rehearsal room full of eager young people, where at least 70 per cent of whom would generally be female.”

This year the NYT had an intake of 5,800 students following its auditions, where over 60 per cent were young women. Paul is aware that this leaning to female acceptance is essential, despite the industry continuing to create male focused parts.

“It would be ridiculous to reflect it (female representation) negatively and resign ourselves that there are more male orientated roles out there so we’ll take less women,” He says, “It can only change, directly and positively through young people and we are very much one of those gatekeepers that can influence that. We’re proud of those in-take statistics”

One opportunity in particular was the NYT’s creation of an all-girls’ course, established in response to many females wanting to take part in the organisation, included in its entry level programme Epic Stages. Since then, Paul explains, the females involved have gone on to create their own company. “They’ve stuck together, and I think became so empowered by it, felt that they had to continue that change.”

It’s at this point that Paul, who started out with the NYT as a student in 1984, with a little exasperation, says; “Gosh, we could be having this conversation in the 70s.” He pauses, “People aren’t going to like this, but I think theatre, for all its openness and comradery and in a sense, ensemble spirit, it has at times been a bastion of misogyny and also homophobia, of which I’ve been a victim. I think we’ve got to be honest about all this.”

I ask Paul if he has seen more positive conversations in changing gender equality taking place both within NYT and into the theatre industry as a whole. “I remember when I was a young actor in the company, back in the early 80s, and I remember some of the most stand-out talent I met, were the women, but they had to work hard to get there, to get in the system, and they weren’t given very good roles, but some of those women inspired me and are still working in the industry today, so I think some credit must go to the NYT’s directors at the time.”

As well as females from his acting classes, Paul cites Joan Littlewood as a modern, female creative leader who still has resonance, despite making her initial impact in the early 60s. He wonders if the industry needs more role-models like the Oh, What a Lovely War! Director. “Joan and her methods aren’t really new anymore, but she still seems quite radical in terms of a woman at the top of her game, running a venue, in the 60s, unaccompanied.”

He references The Globe’s current Artistic Director, and former head at Cornwall’s Kneehigh theatre as a current positive example but wonders “Where are the other artistic leaders who want to set-up a particular style of theatre making? They are there but they should be there more, and we’re the opportunity for getting them there.”

The NYT celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, and throughout its six decades has created many such opportunities for female talent to flourish, including pro-actively approaching the issue of female roles, the majority of which, as Lucy Kerbel uncovers in her report, seem to rarely drive the action forward on-stage and tend to sit on the borders of a narrative. Their personas are victims or stereotypes, and in these modern times, rather outdated.

To try and remedy this NYT have been commissioning many first-time female writers, who naturally bring a modern voice to their stories.

One such voice is Nessa Muthy, whose play The Host, directed by Zoe Lafferty will be showing at the Yard Theatre in August. It’s an important and topical piece, telling the story of a Syrian refugee, taken in by Yasmin and her family at their South London flat.

The cast, bar one male, are all female, with elements of the story reflecting Nessa’s personal experiences. “It’s meeting her, that I just said ‘tell me your story, I believe it and I want other people to hear it,’” Paul says.

These opportunities, such as commissioning new, modern and forward thinking female writers, fortunately, according to Paul, is a legacy of the NYT. “I think we’ve been changing it for some time,” he says. “It has happened instinctively over many, many years by empowering young voices not just actors, but writers as well. We have commissioned a lot of first-time female writers. This change has to come from the people that write the material.”

In its effort to re-shape the roles of females in plays, the theatre has also re-visited and adapted old novels and in some cases ‘flipped’ the gender casting. Selfie, staged in 2014, was one such example, a modern take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, that cast Kate Kennedy as Dorian with a selfie in the attic, instead of a portrait.

The NYT is also reversing the gender casting in a forthcoming adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, and GCSE set-text, The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. The tale noted for its famous mutating monster scenes, set against the backdrop of dark and foggy London streets. When I studied the book as part of my English degree at university, themes of sexuality, eugenics and identification came to the surface.

The NYT’s female-led adaptation, which will be running for 50 dates across the UK, delves into issues of 19th century femininity; and how society at the time was coming to terms with the first few shouts of females making their voice heard as the first wave of feminism – via the suffragette movement – began to be heard.

Paul was keen to keep the piece very much rooted in Victorian times, however the narrative in places seems to share similarities – rather worryingly – with modern Britain, as Paul explains: “It felt, politically, very timely. There’s some wonderful parallels and fun to be had, but we wanted to show all the paradoxes and contradictions that that (Victorian) era implies.”

Last year, Paul and his team were blowing out the candles on the NYT’s 60th birthday cake, celebrating its innovative approach to not only empowering young actors and writers, but making sure that gender equality conversations remain at the industry’s top-table. Let’s hope then, that with outfits such as Tonic and the NYT pulling up a chair, society’s parallels to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde can remain in the 19th century.