Resilient youth theatre takes centre stage

NAYD director Orlaith McBride applauds the rise of community drama, reports Pádraic Killeen

SINCE its foundation in 1980 the National Association for Youth Drama has helped foster and develop the production of youth theatre nationwide. As a cultural sector it has progressed enormously during that period, and it continues to grow apace. There are now over 50 youth theatres in operation around the country, with almost 5,000 young people participating in them on a committed basis.

It is also a resilient sector. According to the NAYD’s director, Orlaith McBride, in the wake of the economic downturn the impetus behind youth theatre has begun to change in kind.

“During those days when we had more public monies, the youth theatres that were growing were those supported by local authorities and arts organisations,” she says. “So they were funded through the state in a way. But now we’re seeing youth theatres coming through that are led by volunteers looking to develop something specifically for young people in their community. It’s reminiscent of the type of youth theatre that emerged in the 1990s, and in many ways it’s telling the national story, in that youth theatre is once again about communities making things happen for themselves.”

In addition to providing training and resources, commissioning new writing, and organising national and regional festivals, the NAYD each year stages a national production — the National Youth Theatre — in the Peacock Theatre, Dublin. “It provides a showcase of the best youth theatre has to provide,” says McBride.

In recent years this showcase has revived works by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Strindberg, but this year’s production is a new work devised by its young cast and director Mikel Murfi. A self-aware romantic comedy about a 17-year-old desperately seeking summer love, It Only Ever Happens in the Movies takes its cue from iconic scenes in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Annie Hall, and Juno.

Its 16-strong cast, meanwhile, include representatives from youth theatres in Cork, Donegal, Sligo, Wexford, Waterford, Dublin, and Limerick, each of whom came through regional auditions in April. Their director, Murfi, is renowned for his work with Barabbas and his celebrated collaborations with Druid and the Abbey.

“He is the king of devising this kind of material,” says McBride. “It’s a winning formula. You have Mikel Murfi and a group of young people who have huge imagination, invention and energy. They’ve created a great show. It’s a show that we can all relate to. We’ve all been young. We’ve all looked for love. And no-one will sit in the auditorium and not be moved by the honesty and the integrity of these young people telling their story.”

A native of Ardara, Co Donegal, McBride is a prominent figure in youth-related bodies and movements around the country. She currently presides over the National Youth Council of Ireland. She is unreservedly committed to the belief that the arts offer a unique space to young people as they negotiate their own everyday lives.

“Every single young person has a back story to their lives and some of them have more difficult back-stories than others,” she says. “Because of their age and because of that developmental period that they’re going through in their lives as a teenager, the arts allow them a space and a voice to explore who they are and what they are in a way that can be quite transformative. Watching theatre liberate a young person’s mind, or actually liberate a voice that either hasn’t been allowed or hasn’t had the confidence to express itself, it just takes my breath away sometimes.”

Having served as director of the NAYD since 2003, McBride’s tenure comes to an end this summer following her recent appointment to the prestigious post of director of the Arts Council. She takes up her new role in September.

Reflecting on her time with the National Association for Youth Drama, McBride says she is particularly struck by the confidence and professionalism that now marks the youth theatre movement in Ireland.

“There’s a validity about it now in terms of its contribution to theatre and its place in the wider spectrum of theatre-making in Ireland. My hope is that this confidence will take it through the times ahead, which hopefully will not be too difficult.”

Of her new position, meanwhile, McBride knows that she takes on the directorship of the Arts Council at a time when there is much fear of further government cuts in arts funding. “Of course, there will be challenges ahead,” she says, “but I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge. Offering hope and optimism to us as a society and as a people, that’s what the arts do and they deliver all the time.”

It Only Ever Happens in the Movies runs in the Peacock from August 22-27

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