Lift off  

Frantic Assembly’s Ignition training programme is aimed at young men, some of whom have never set foot inside a theatre. Mark Glover finds out more about this pioneering scheme and how it’s challenging the male stereotype.

Scott Graham, Artistic Director and co-founder of Frantic Assembly recalls an outreach workshop where a group of boys soon to be excluded from school were taken to see a play. “Some of them were really troubled their aggression was barely held back,” he says, “but when we took them to the theatre they stood there terrified, totally out of their comfort zone; I didn’t see the barriers, I didn’t see the traps and I didn’t see what was scaring them – I just didn’t get it.”

It’s an image that, if we are honest, is not a common one in the plush carpeted and chandeliered environment of a foyer, and yes – that description may be a stuffy and lazy cliché – but honestly, during the interval are groups of 17-year-old boys the main demographic amongst the audience seeking refreshment?

Scott also experienced the dearth of male participation first-hand after a turn-out to one of Frantic’s advanced physicality auditions produced just two males and over 50 females. He had intended to fill 20 roles: 10 males, 10 females.

“It was just a bit of a frustrating experience and overall just a bit of a shock,” Scott remembers. “I could have drawn the conclusion that our (Frantic’s) work doesn’t appeal to males but I knew that our training, our education, our workshops had an incredible impact with young men.”

Scott’s belief in the work of Frantic is justified. Since it was formed much praise has been heaped on the outfit and its energetic and physical brand of theatre making. Audiences continue to flock to Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, which was so wonderfully choreographed by Scott and his team. The outfit’s modern re-working of Othello set in a West Yorkshire pub after the 2001 race riots toured to acclaim in 2008 and 2015, with Scott receiving a TMA award for best production following its original run.

“I knew that our training, our education, our workshops had an incredible impact with young men.”

Growing up in Glasgow, geographically and metaphorically miles away from the theatreland of London, and with no interest in drama or dance, a football loving Scott was – unknowingly – put forward by a teacher for a school production; despite initial uncertainty and not a little anger it was an experience that was set to change his life. “A brilliant English teacher put my name down for a theatre piece,” he says. “I was outraged on the inside but was actually probably quite thrilled and I did the show and I loved it. It opened up something in me.”

However, while studying English Literature at University of Wales in Swansea (now Swansea University) insecurities re-surfaced after he turned up slightly late for an audition. “I opened the door a little bit, looked inside and everyone was stretching,” he remembers. “The director saw me and said, ‘Are you here for the audition?’ I said ‘no’ and quickly left. It took me another year to pluck up the courage to go again.”

It’s not too surprising that courage is at the heart of Frantic Assembly’s Ignition project; a programme where all performers are young men aged between 16 and 20. Scott and his team began auditions for its fledgling 2008 intake where a willingness to be brave, in some cases, took precedent over any acting skill.

Taster days take place at venues across the country followed by auditions (or trials) for those who like what they sampled. Twelve individuals are then whittled down and invited back to take part in a four-day intensive residency in London, culminating in a show to a paying and public audience.

As the name suggests the intensive residency is a full-on four days. Hours are nine until six on the first two days, nine until ten on the third and another full day on the fourth which concludes with the show, taking place this year at the Stratford Circus Arts Centre. “It’s incredibly intense for everyone,” Scott warns. “Very thrilling but we work them to the bone.”

At the beginning of the week, the group are taken to see a production, usually Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night Time at London’s National theatre, where as well as absorbing the play, participants get to meet the cast and stage management team. All involved also come away with a Bronze Arts Award qualification at the end of the week.

At the time of writing this year’s intake has just been finalised and the final show taken place, with the chosen twelve having travelled to London at the beginning of the October half-term week. Approximately 600 attended this year’s taster workshops with 200 putting themselves forward for the trials so getting on the intensive residency is some achievement; mentally as well as physically. It’s the men’s willingness to be out of their comfort zone that Scott covets, something he communicates to the new group on arrival. “One thing I say to them, once they’ve made it to the intensive (residency),” says the 46-year-old, “is that they’ve come a long way. To get to this stage they’ve already jumped over massive hurdles and shown such commitment and trust.”

For the young men, the programme represents more than committing to Frantic’s energetic style of physical theatre. It means more than four extremely concentrated days of rehearsals, and perhaps means more than performing in front of an audience who, given Frantic and indeed, Ignition’s reputation, now expect to see something special, but according to Scott it means developing relationships, building bonds with those people you might not usually cross paths with in life. “It’s how the participants act with people from different communities, so that they look at people in a different way,” he affirms.

Changing people’s perception of young men and challenging the stereotype drives the Ignition programme. A wonderful YouTube video showcasing the 2012 intake blends footage of the rehearsals with soundbites from participants; one quote in particular stands out: “When we do the more slow, emotional stuff we engage the audience more as stereotypically that isn’t what males are like.”

“When we do the more slow, emotional stuff we engage the audience more as stereotypically that isn’t what males are like.”

It’s a very powerful sentence and indeed does perhaps sum up people’s attitudes towards the modern-day young male. Scott is adamant that Ignition challenge this: “The work itself is highly physical but there is always an element in it which requires them to be unbelievably tender. The moment you run against the wall, or throw someone up in the air, it’s all very spectacular but it’s also exactly what the audience think they’re going to do, but that moment you hold that man in your arms, that moment you touch his face and tell him that everything is okay that tenderness is the bravest thing you’ll do and it’s the thing that will tear the audience’s heart out and it’s going to make them realise the depth of you.”

He admits that one of the reasons he started the programme was to grow and create young performers to call on further down the line. He wanted those same young men to be in the business and industry. I asked him if he was surprised by the scheme’s obvious triumph? “I never thought it would be so successful but that was probably down to my original lack of ambition or imagination,” he reflects. “People like Inga Hirst (Frantic’s former Head of Participation and Learning who is now Director of Creative Learning and Engagement at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and was interviewed in September’s Ink Pellet.) have been incredible for the development of this project. Neil Bettles (Frantic’s Associate Director) as well has led this all the way.

“It’s also about the success stories of those young men who have come through and have now found places in the profession, who might have thought this world was a closed door to them, it might not have even crossed their minds. But it’s also the long-term affect and how we get that narrative out there.”

One alumni, Paapa Essiedu recently played Hamlet at the RSC and Scott tells me that Frantic have employed many young men from the programme who are now making their way through theatre and TV but for Scott, there is still work to be done, and he underlines the importance of teachers and schools to help point young men in a direction they might not have considered. “I think schools have a massive part to play,” he says. “I know about the lack of arts provision and the huge amount of pressure that arts departments are under, but I feel like we’ve got to be part of that fight, we’ve got to come together a little bit. There is value in our connection in that we need to be doing what that teacher did for me.”

“We as a company need to be helping teachers and teachers need to know that we are here and promote dialogue, because ultimately, we are going to be failing students and we are going to be failing young people who have a lot to offer and their voices need to be heard.”

Go to for more information about Frantic Assembly’s national Ignition programme for young men aged
16 to 20.