Britain's Youth Theater Flourishes

Aspiring actors get intensive training plus performing opportunities in a `real' company. STAGE EDUCATION

`IT started off when I was about 3 and saw my first John Wayne film, and just grew from there,'' says Paul Nelson of Cornwall, England, a member of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. ``I've always had starry eyes, from when I was very little. ... I just couldn't imagine myself doing anything else,'' says Fiona Tong of Aberdeen, Scotland, also a member of the troupe and now in her second year at the Bristol Old Vic Drama School.

``If you look at the present composition of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre,'' says Edward Wilson, artistic director (and former member) of the company, ``you'll find that a very large smattering of people in there are our ex-members.''

It's been going strong now for 33 years, this London-based company for people between the ages of 14 and 21. And it really is a ``company.'' It's not a drama school. Mr. Wilson says ``The play's the thing!''

In fact, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain (NYTGB) does five or six plays a year. It performs them, both classics and brand-new works, for the general public.

``It's not wise for young people to play just to young audiences,'' Wilson maintains. Fiona Tong says the great thing about the company is the way ``you learn on a performance level.'' She says, ``It's a chance to be in a situation that's almost professional.''

NYTGB productions appear in London's West End. And they tour, both nationally and internationally.

T.S. Eliot's ``Murder in the Cathedral'' was sold out last year at the Edinburgh Festival, while another group from the company did ``Pacha Mama's Blessing'' (a play about the plight of Amazonian rain forests) at the same time.

``Murder'' was played again this past spring to packed houses and a front-page accolade: The place was Moscow; the newspaper, Pravda. Tickets were changing hands at ridiculously high, black-market prices. The young actors were mobbed at the stage door like pop stars. (Plans are in the works for a tour to Spain next year.)

London, by stark contrast, is tending to take the NYTGB productions rather for granted just now. Seats are selling well, however, for the current revival of Arnold Wesker's ``The Kitchen'' in Cambridge.

As part of the rigorous learning process for aspiring actors, they are having to learn to cope with both excessive praise and undue indifference.

The young people interviewed all mentioned the disciplines they were learning.

Julie Pastor from Liverpool, the youngest player in ``Pacha Mama's Blessing'' in Edinburgh, said ``it's just like being in a professional theater.'' But she also pointed out how much she was enjoying being able to ``talk and talk and talk'' about theater with the other members without their getting bored.

``And,'' she said, ``there's no bitchiness, no hatred in our company ... everybody's equal ... no stars.'' All of them, she felt, were as ambitious as she is. ``It's an incredibly high standard.''

Wilson says the aim is to show the young members ``the disciplines that we professionals apply to our work.''

The list of past members who have made names for themselves in the profession is impressive. It includes Derek Jacobi, Ben Kingsley, Timothy Dalton, Michael York, Helen Mirren, Simon Ward, Simon Cadell, Diana Quick, Hywell Bennett, Robert Powell, and Paul Wilcox, among others.

Such a list suggests that the company is an excellent training ground, or that the selection of promising young talent has been remarkably perceptive, or both. Wilson points to a ``strong family involvement'' in the company: Past members become active supporters.

The directors, the technicians, are all professionals. They are also keen to impart their knowledge. Youths wanting to do technical stage work are also given exceptional grounding.

THESE professional theater members are subjected to professional criticism. The critics by no means treat the company with kid gloves. When Fiona Tong was interviewed, she was in Lorca's ``Blood Wedding,'' and a couple of caustic reviews had made her rather indignant.

The thing was that Fiona hadn't learned anything new from them - unless it was further confirmation of her conclusion that being an actor is ``a hard slog,'' and ``often a thankless task,'' and that its rewards come from its being ``an art form,'' not because it brings ``applause.''

Fiona's mother, Ina Tong, up in Aberdeen, says the NYTGB has done a lot for her stage-struck daughter.

``They don't stand any nonsense,'' she says approvingly. ``They work them very hard.''

Fiona's parents reacted unexpectedly when their daughter was given a place in Bristol. ``I think,'' says Mrs. Tong, ``it was about 2,000 girls auditioned, and Fiona was one of four that were taken ... it's quite something, we thought. We were all a bit ... well ... upset when it happened because we never, ever dreamed she would do it!''

The NYTGB, among other things, had given Fiona a good grounding in the business of being auditioned: Would-be members undergo a tough (though kindly) audition-interview. Its aim, director Wilson says, is to assess ``their ability to be part of an ensemble ... and not ... some kind of starry system, which we're not.'' An actor may be a lead in one production, and a walk-on in the next.

Previous acting experience isn't a prerequisite. They often take on ``kids who have just suddenly thought `I'd like to have a go at that!' Maybe there's some spark there that we rather like.'' And often these are among the best of the 15 to 20 percent of members who go on to successful careers in the professional theater.

There is a remarkable social mix in the company; members come from all over Britain. In ``Pacha Mama's Blessing'' the actors used their own regional accents: They came from everywhere.

The company has 300 members at any one time selected from an annual application of about 3,000, but the director insists that the mix is not ``socially engineered.'' He is a little worried that the ever-increasing costs (and inequitable availability of public grants) involved in coming down to London and being a member may be putting off some.

Joining fees are very small, but youngsters or their parents are mostly responsible for food and accommodation. This could be socially divisive. Fiona's father was eager to give her pocket money, and she did a catering job mornings and worked backstage at Drury Lane evenings to earn her keep. Her mother says Fiona has stamina - ``plenty of that.''

In the first year, every member does a course. Some 80 percent go on to become part of the performing company. They are continually re-auditioned for each new production.

Rehearsals are intensive; they can last from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. Fiona said laughingly that she was ``very much looking forward to getting paid for this!'' and Wilson points out that they are not hampered in the NYTGB by strict adherence to union hours. But the thing that makes it all work is that ``the kids are here because they want to be here.''

The fiercely burning enthusiasm of the members interviewed definitely bore him out.

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