Acting, the next generation


A new Shakespearian production by the National Youth Theatre emulates an earlier play that launched the careers of many of Ireland's top actors, writes Sara Keating

WITH THE RECENT closure of Trinity College's acting programme bringing the continued dearth of training opportunities for actors to the spotlight again, the National Youth Theatre's now-annual production provides young people with an alternative and intensive introduction to the world of professional theatre. This year, a cast of 20 has joined director Gyorgy Vidovszky for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will open at the Peacock Theatre on Monday.

For Orlaith McBride, director of the National Association for Youth Drama (NAYD), the organisation that oversees the production, the National Youth Theatre (NYT) provides an "essential ensemble model to the practice of training young actors. It is a very rigorous professional experience," she says, "working from warm-up at 9.30am through till 5.30pm for four weeks. But the young cast also work two evenings a week and, coming up to production, they are in rehearsal every night and weekends too.

"There is little opportunity for the training of young actors," McBride explains, as she introduces me to some members of the cast, "and many young people use this as a platform to be an actor." Twenty-year-old Roxanna Nic Liam, who has been involved with Dublin Youth Theatre for the last four years and has just finished NAYD's drama facilitation course, Artstrain, certainly sees it that way. "It's the first time I've worked outside of my own youth theatre, with 20 new people who I've never met before and that is a brilliant learning experience," she says.

"I've never done any Shakespeare really before either, but we have been learning how to read and perform it in ways that are relevant for us rather than dated." Kevin Corcoran (16), who is also a member of Dublin Youth Theatre, says the opportunity has been "huge for me because I haven't really had any experience before this. But I don't have any problem with the language, because I don't have any scripted lines, but I do get to sing twice. I'm only in Transition Year but I always thought I'd study music in college, but now I'm thinking about drama too."

Even for those more experienced cast members who are engaged in formal training, the intensive four-week production schedule has been eye-opening. Mary Lou McCarthy is a student of drama and theatre studies at UCC, who first found her passion for acting at the youth theatre at the Cork School of Music. She says that working at youth theatre helped her to realise that acting professionally "was actually achievable, and it was a big influence on my decision to study it at college. But my course isn't performance-based, so this was a chance to get some more practical experience." She particularly commends "the personal and professional attention you receive, even in a group of 20", while Barry Morgan, who is a first-year student of drama at DIT and a member of Droichead Youth Theatre, agrees, saying that NYT is a "great way to apply the background work from college to something new and hopefully to apply what I've learnt here to my college work next year".

While McBride commends the "focus, the energy, the risk-taking that untrained actors can take with extraordinary results", this year's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is especially significant - it harks back to a 1985 production of the play by NYT which was a springboard for the careers of some of Ireland's most established actors, directors, and media personalities.

"All the young people need to do is think about what people like the late Tom Murphy and Risteárd Cooper have achieved to believe that their aspirations are possible," says McBride. "Aidan Gillen even got nominated directly for his equity card after Niall Toibin came to see his daughter Sighle in the production. Now that's motivation."

Here, some of the original cast members of the 1985 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream share their experiences.

ANDY HINDS is artistic director of Classic Stage Ireland. He directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for NYT

"Before the National Youth Theatre production I had directed a lot of plays for young people but I had not really worked with young people. I remember that I got a special kick from working with and fostering the emerging, fresh talent in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a really great experience for young people to be working with professionals, because they have to up their game, and they usually respond favourably. And it's great for a director to work with young people, because professional actors can sometimes be guarded - they might be worried about their reputation or they would be aware of certain pitfalls - but with younger casts you can often get a lot more out of them because they are willing to try anything. They are doing the work because they love it - the art, the craft of it - not because they're getting paid. It can remind you why you're involved with theatre in the first place.

"The incredible commitment, energy and joyfulness that young people bring to a production is infectious and with A Midsummer Night's Dream all that passion and fun was in the play itself as well. As a director, I went in for a lot of the comedy in the play. We had a mock kabuki style for the play within the play and the comedy set pieces were funny. We got on very well as a cast throughout rehearsals, and some of the cast were really outstanding. So I knew, I was confident, that we had a special show.

JIM CULLETON is artistic director of Fishamble. He played Demetrius

"In 1985, you did not need to be connected with a youth theatre to be part of the National Youth Theatre so I heard about the auditions that were held nationwide and went along.

"What was great about it was the sense that you were in a group of people from all around Ireland who shared your passion and enthusiasm for theatre and many of whom were hoping to make a career in theatre. The fact that we were all rehearsing full time, with a professional theatre team, was wonderful as it really gave an insight into how theatre worked in a professional context.

"My desire to work in theatre was definitely developed and influenced substantially, experiencing up close how actors, director, designers, and production crew all connected and related to each other. I also got to know people who were like-minded and many of whom I have worked with since, in Fishamble or elsewhere. I even married Clodagh O'Donoghue, who was playing Hermia and whom I first met during rehearsals - I mentioned this once when I was giving a youth theatre workshop and really freaked all the young actors out."

BRENDA DONOGHUE is a radio presenter. She played First Fairy

"I remember my audition piece: it was a big long monologue of a séanchaí. I couldn't believe I got in, and I got a lot out of it. To be there witnessing and taking part in a full production - all lights and sets and dress rehearsals and reviewers - was brilliant.

"For us teenagers, Andy Hinds was like a rock-star: good-looking, passionate. And it was on in the old Project so we were rubbing elbows with all sorts. It gave you a real appetite and was important for our self-development and confidence. Then there was the social side of it: parties after the show . . . great craic. The experience was definitely important in how I ended up on the radio, because I learned a lot about myself and my strengths and weaknesses.

"First Fairy was a comedy part, and I learned that I found it hard not to play myself, and that I preferred directing, which I went on to do in UCD Dramsoc. I use those skills a lot now when I'm on the radio: organising groups of people that I meet on the road together, getting them to do things for the show. I guess it's not too far from working in the theatre: I'm always looking for the drama."

RISTEÁRD COOPER is an actor and played Lysander

"At the age of 16 I was really excited by the existence of the National Youth Theatre. I was dying for something like NYT to come along because there was no other way to get a sense of what a professionally mounted play might involve. I'd been in a production of Our Town the previous year, which the then-up-and-coming Ben Barnes directed, but I was only on stage for five minutes playing a miming milkman, so I was delighted to play a big, 'actory' Shakespearean part in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It had a big influence on me and it certainly was a factor in me wanting to act for a living.

"I never warmed to the routine of school so it was a revelation to discover that something that required discipline could be so enjoyable and rewarding. I've no recollection of anything specific in the audition, other than doing a lot of shouting and gesticulating, but I especially loved the rehearsals, where I learned how to navigate the tricky path between diplomacy and integrity, and that's something I've definitely carried through to the present.

"I was also pretty buzzed about performing in the Project. I'd seen a lot of shows there and it was good to feel part of that scene at such a young age. It was great fun, a brilliant way to gain confidence, make a fool of yourself in a supportive environment, and get familiar with a great play. And also meet girls."

AIDAN GILLEN is an actor and played Bottom

"I auditioned for NYT around the time I was leaving school. Well, I had actually been expelled, but that's a different story. I wasn't new to theatre, having already spent three or four years hanging around and acting with Dublin Youth Theatre, and I was also familiar with NYT, having been sacked as an assistant stage manager from their inaugural production in 1983.

"The first audition was in the Dublin Shakespeare Society studio, which was located in a crumbling basement on North Great George's Street, and smelt fantastic - damp and gloss paint mixed with alcohol. You had to 'do a piece' (a practice I never grew to like). I'm not sure when I heard I was in, but some time later, maybe a few weeks, you had to report to a hall on Herbert Street, where the casting proper was carried out. Everyone read different parts and I ended up as Bottom.

"I don't remember too much about the rehearsals. There was a rigorous warm-up every morning led by Andy Hinds, and I don't think he thought too much of my languorous approach to the whole thing. But he was very good. My favourite moment was when we were discussing this bit where Titania says to Bottom 'I would like to kiss thy fair large ears'. She wasn't giving Andy what he wanted so he told her more to be thinking 'I would like to kiss thy fair large hairy bollocks'. Oh she blushed."

TOM MURPHY (1968-2007) played Puck

The late Tony Award-winning actor Tom Murphy made a significant impact on NYT's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with reviews at the time commending his "inventive" and "finely-delivered manic Puck".

David Nowlan, in this newspaper, said he "would have been outstanding anywhere both in his understanding of the words delivered and in the physical effectiveness of that delivery". During rehearsals, Murphy was "always very modest and unassuming" says Jim Culleton. "He was so perfect for Puck - so honest and magical in the way he brought the character to life - that I can never see the play since then without thinking of him."

"He stood out even then, he really was effortless," says Brenda Donoghue. "I remember bumping into him just after he won the Tony and I said to him 'Jesus, Tom, whatever happened to me?' We had a great bit of craic about it." Risteárd Cooper remembers him as "the complete package: full of invention, enthusiasm and, crucially, he worked very hard. He had clearly found his vocation even at that age."

 • A Midsummer Night's Dream is at the Peacock from Mon to Sat