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Eleanor Claire Taylor and Luke James on…The Opportunities of Youth Theatre

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Eleanor Claire Taylor and Luke James are both York Theatre Royal's Youth Theatre members performing Coram Boy this week.

Eleanor is completing her Gold Arts Award, and works in the YTR cafe.

Luke is in YTR's Young Actors Company and starred in Equus, Terrorism and will be in Elsewhere this October. He also works on the Box Office.

Current and former members of York Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre are taking over the Main House at the end of August to stage a production of Coram Boy. Two members of the cast, Eleanor Claire Taylor and Luke James take time away from rehearsals to discuss the challenges of the show and the benefits of Youth Theatre.

Coram Boy may be a production by York Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre (in association with The National Theatre for Early Music), but judging by the amount of work that has gone into bringing it to the stage, the results should be nothing less than professional. Eleanor Claire Taylor and Luke James head up a cast that includes performers ranging in age from 14 to 25, something that Eleanor believes has given the show “a really interesting dynamic” and is also something of a first for the company as “normally Youth Theatre shows are a particular age-range”.

For Eleanor, who has been involved in Youth Theatre from the age of nine, this has afforded the opportunity to see old friends, as well as work with younger members of the company. “For me, having been in Youth Theatre for such a long time, all of a sudden there are older members of the group…people who were my friends when I was 16 who are now back from drama school and university. At the same time there are younger ones who have the experience of working with people who have been through the whole Youth Theatre system.” She admits that while this was “a bit risky” at first, overall it has been “completely positive” and that the opportunity to work with other age ranges “was what first made me want to do Coram Boy”.

Luke, meanwhile, became involved with the Youth Theatre a little later. “It was probably 2006, just before I left school I joined the National Youth Theatre and after that I was looking for theatre groups to get involved in. The start of 2008 was when York Theatre Royal’s Young Actors Company started and I was part of the project that was piloting it to see where it could go. He also had the chance to travel to Poland as part of the Magic Net scheme, where “different youth theatres from across Europe…got together in one place and created theatre together”. “When I came back I got involved with Youth Theatre…and did a couple of shows.” He then returned to the Young Actors Company, but “when director Kate Plumb said Coram Boywas open to ex-Youth Theatre, I just jumped on board as soon as possible”.

It is clear from the experiences to date of Eleanor and Luke that York is a very advantageous place for aspiring actors to be. Says Eleanor: “There’s a very active student scene for drama in York…York Theatre Royal facilitates most of it with its Young Actors Company and Youth Theatre, but there’s a lot going on, like York Shakespeare Project, and it is one of those cities where there is a lot on offer.” Indeed, the end of August sees current and former members of the Youth Theatre take to York Theatre Royal’s Main House to stage an ambitious production of Coram Boy.

Adapted from Jamila Gavin’s novel by Helen Edmundson, Coram Boy is set in eighteenth century England and tells the story of two boys, abandoned at a hospital for deserted children, who are searching for their parents. Originally produced to great acclaim at the National Theatre, Coram Boy then moved to Broadway and received a number of nominations for Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. All of which leads to the obvious question of whether staging a show with such a pedigree is daunting for the young performers? “Absolutely!” Luke says. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to see the show at the National, but it’s just the thought of how different we’re going to be compared to what they did.” Eleanor agrees, and adds that the fact Jamila Gavin is going to be in attendance on 26 August to do a book signing and post-show talk only increases the pressure. “It started off as ‘oh, it will be lovely to have the writer, why don’t we invite her down?’ and now she’s coming and…I think we’re all incredibly grateful, but also slightly awed.”

Luke also points to the fact that, unlike at the National, this production is being staged in the round, something which adds additional challenges, and he admits: “Jamila wondered how that was going to work.” But Eleanor adds: “There are certain things about the space that are incredibly dynamic. For example, there are six possibly entrances and exits…so for an audience watching it, it will be a lot more intense…because we’re popping up from all sorts of areas.” She continues: “A big thing that we talked about…is that if you sit at the very front of the stage, there are times when you can see the audience on the other side, so…you can catch facial expressions and the reactions of the people who are going on the story with you. I think that intensity will always help…and hopefully make it a better experience for everybody watching.”

Another element enhancing this experience is the use of a live choir of around 30 to provide a musical backdrop that incorporates Handel’s Messiah. Eleanor says: “Fifty-percent of the performance is about music. Lots of the characters’ stories are driven by their passion for music, how they feel about it and what it does to them…so it is a very vital aspect of the show and it will sound great.”

So just how close is this to a professional production? Says Eleanor: “Coram Boy is the first Youth Theatre show that’s gone all-out professional.” She points to the “professional rehearsal schedule” and the fact the cast “all auditioned in a professional manner”. She adds: “I think this show is a really accurate representation of what York Theatre Royal is like. We’ve got age ranges from all different groups and we’ve got professionals working with us. For example, Christopher Madin who is our musical director…does a lot of professional shows, and to have him on board is incredible”.

Luke adds: “I think the further you progress through the Youth Theatre, the more the shows become a lot more professional. In terms of the set up of Coram Boy, this is essentially a professional show with three weeks’ intensive rehearsals and then the production week in the final week. We’re able to…see what these professional actors and the backstage crew and directors do on a day-to-day basis, so it’s really interesting for us.”

However, Eleanor reveals that this professional treatment is not confined to the older members of the Youth Theatre, which is open to ages from five to 25. “With the younger groups, they perform in the studio space at York Theatre Royal and they have a set time each year where they do their shows. Obviously they’re not a professional cast, but they still work in a professional space and they still get a technician…and they get to use the dressing rooms and backstage. When the theatre’s encouraging that sort of attitude, when they’re eight, nine, ten years old, it’s fair to say they get professional treatment.”

So what’s next for Eleanor and Luke? While Eleanor admits she “would love to go into acting” as a career she has decided to take a detour into academic life and plans to go to university to study and history and politics. But she stresses that “acting isn’t something I’m putting off”. “I do want to study those subjects and I do want to spend three years at university and have a chance to be a student.” She adds: “I think it’s a great testament to York Theatre Royal that no one ever pretends it’s an easy career choice. Getting into drama school is one thing, but when you’re there it’s an incredibly intensive process and I quite like three years of studying something different and exploring the real student drama scene that’s on offer before making any big decisions about going into acting, which are decisions that I am 99% sure that I would like to make.”

Luke, however, is following a different path to fulfil acting ambitions that took hold when he was still at school. “Ever since Year 10 I was choosing my GCSEs and initially I hadn’t put drama down as an option, I was going to do PE, and then one day I just decided it was going to be drama and sort of built on my confidence with it and worked towards getting somewhere eventually. So the plan this September…is to be applying to drama school. But for the time being just find as much experience and as many projects to get involved with as I can.”

Right now, understandably, their focus is on Coram Boy, and evidently things are on schedule for opening night. Says Luke, “We’re just getting fluidity going and piecing it all together.” However, he adds: “To think that we’re in the third week of rehearsal now; it felt like yesterday we only just begun.”

But it seems that any apprehension about the scale of what they are taking on is mitigated by the support they continue to enjoy at York Theatre Royal. Luke says it has been “the place that has given me the most opportunity, which is absolutely brilliant”, while Eleanor neatly sums it all up: “There’s a huge encouragement in the building to be involved and to work together and to explore those dynamics of professional meets non-professional and see how good it can be.”

- Eleanor and Luke were talking to Hannah Giles

Coram Boy is on at York Theatre Royal from 26 to 28 August 2010. For tickets, contact the box office at 01904 623568 or visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. The show is suitable for ages twelve and above.

For further details on York Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/youth.shtml


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