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Give youth a voice

Since Paul Roseby took over as the artistic director

at the National Youth Theatre he has increased its output of productions, commissioned work, educational courses and resources. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about his vision and the theatre’s work with schools


AUL ROSEBY may have left his Norfolk comprehensive school with three O levels but it didn’t stop him becoming a successful radio and television presenter, and more recently, artistic director of the National Youth Theatre (NYT).

“I always had a gob on me,” says the plain-speaking

man. “At school I used to ask all the questions nobody else would. I once went to the head and said I didn’t want to do maths, could I do something useful instead, like cooking or drama? He seemed more amused than angry.” Despite growing up in a tiny Norfolk village, Mr

Roseby was naturally outgoing, likeable and eager to communicate. “My dad was made redundant twice in the 1970s so we did bed and breakfast at home to bring in some extra money. Our house was always full of strangers which encouraged me to get on with people I didn’t know very well from an early age. “By the time I got to secondary school I was old

before my time in terms of my social skills. I always got on with everyone and I kept out of trouble. I think the staff felt I was someone who could be trusted.” At a time when drama was very much an extra-

curricular activity, Mr Roseby took it more seriously than his studies, famously playing Fagin in Oliver! when he was 15. It was enough to convince him that a career in the theatre, or at least in the media, was the way ahead. Now he is responsible for the theatrical aspirations

of hundreds of young people from all over the country through the offices of the National Youth Theatre of which Mr Roseby himself was an acting member in the 1980s. Since the NYT was set up by former actor and

teacher Michael Croft in 1956 to “give youth a voice”, thousands of stage-struck teenagers have benefited from its patronage and some – David Suchet, Helen Mirren, Jude Law, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig,

David Walliams and Matt Lucas (who became friends through the NYT) – have gone on to distinguished careers in the profession. The world’s first nationwide youth theatre, the NYT

has since been replicated in various forms across the world. Mr Roseby and his team now audition nearly 5,000 young people a year for the 750-strong acting company. They are seen at 34 audition centres around the country. The chosen ones take part in a two-week induction course, after which they have the opportunity to audition for NYT productions. NYT also distributes £100,000 worth of bursaries to enable disadvantaged kids to attend auditions and indeed the course itself. “We are seeing more people than ever before,”

explained Mr Roseby. “We are constantly tapping in to those communities and social sectors that would never think of auditioning for us. I want to break the mould of an archetypal NYT person.” The other thing that has happened on Mr Roseby’s

watch is that the NYT has hugely increased its output of productions, commissioned work, educational courses and resources, and interactive projects online. In addition to their regular productions, they run

a programme of Open Access workshops, open to anyone aged from 14 to 25 in London, Glasgow and the West Midlands, as well as partnerships with Cardboard Citizens and Centrepoint to provide performance opportunities for NEETs (those not in education, employment or training). They also deliver Drama Across Boundaries (DAB)

courses in schools and colleges to help with foreign language teaching, and they are linked up with IdeasTap. com to foster new projects and build bridges with other arts organisations and potential sponsors. Just before Christmas, a group of NYT members

took part in the closing ceremony of the FIFA World Club Championship in Abu Dhabi, part of Mr Roseby’s drive to ensure the NYT has a role to play in the 2012 London Olympics. “We’ve yet to have the invitation, so we might just

gatecrash anyway,” he joked, adding more seriously that he believes there is a place for theatre in big stadium events. Meanwhile, 2010 is already jam-packed with

activity and preparation. In addition to two original main productions – one about the struggle of three women sharing the same name, the other about the first celebrity chef – NYT will launch three environmental projects covering art and the environment, the plight of the bee, and a collaboration with the Wildlife Trust. Does Mr Roseby believe some young people are

predisposed to act or seek out the limelight? “Yes, I think it is an instinctive thing, and unlike in

Inspired: NYT’s artistic director Paul Roseby

SecEd • April 29 2010

my day when you had to make a real effort to realise those aspirations, now every school seems to do drama and there are many, many more extra-curricular outlets. I have the sense that talent in young people is recognised and nurtured more now, and perhaps that is due to our X Factor culture.”

Joys of the Bard: The Coventry students who worked with Paul Roseby (centre) to stage an updated version of Romeo and Juliet

Has the X Factor culture, as he calls it, had a knock-

on effect on the NYT? “Well, I think a lot of kids come to us thinking

they’re going to be famous, yes. But that isn’t all bad. Let’s not pretend that anyone wanting to get into the theatre doesn’t want to be celebrated for doing it. Every actor wants an audience to admire them.” As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Mr

Roseby is also the host of a BBC2 series, When Romeo Met Juliet, recorded last summer, in which two sets of initially reluctant Coventry secondary school pupils are recruited to stage an updated production of Romeo and Juliet at the Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre using the music of The Specials. Was it difficult enthusing them with the joys of the

Bard? “At times I got very frustrated by their lack of

appreciation of what they were involved in,” he confided. “A lot of them resented working so hard during their holiday, sometimes we were rehearsing from 9.30 in the morning until 7.30 in the evening. But they all came round, and there was real talent there. It was tough for them because I set the bar very high. “The guy who played Romeo had never done drama

before and he kept saying to me, ‘I’m not a drama kid’. I found that they labelled themselves about what they did and didn’t do even before they’d got into the rehearsal room. I was amazed by their narrowness of outlook, the self-inflicted barriers. What was really gratifying for me was that they didn’t have the same labels or barriers by the time we’d finished.” Though some of the Coventry kids will be

auditioning for the NYT, Mr Roseby found it a different experience because the majority of the kids who put themselves up for the NYT do so because they are nuts about the theatre. What energises Mr Roseby and everyone involved

in running the NYT is the fearlessness and the commitment of youth. “The optimism you gain from working with these

young people, without baggage, without politics, is absolutely brilliant,” he said.


• Nick Smurthwaite is a freelance education journalist specialising in the arts.

Further information

National Youth Theatre:

A brief history of the National Youth Theatre

1956 – Founded by Michael Croft, an English master at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, south London, with a great love of drama. So popular was Mr Croft at Alleyn’s that when he left, his former pupils persuaded him to continue putting on plays during the school holidays.

1965 – Having started out doing only Shakespeare, Mr Croft staged his first contemporary

play, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs by David Halliwell.

1967 – Peter Terson’s musical play Zigger Zagger, set against a background of football mania, proved a landmark production.

1971 – NYT takes over the Shaw Theatre in Euston Road, originally erected as a conference centre.

1986 – Michael Croft died and was succeeded by the actor Ed Wilson who increased the NYT’s range of activities, started an outreach programme, and established a base for the company in Holloway Road, north London.

1989 – NYT performs TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at the Moscow Arts Theatre.

2004 – Ed Wilson is succeeded by joint artistic directors John Hoggarth and Paul Roseby, both ex-NYT members. 2007 – Hoggarth steps down, leaving Roseby to carry the torch alone.

2009 – Former NYT member Matt Smith, the new Dr Who, launches NYT Angels, seeking financial backers for future projects and productions.

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