When my son, at the age of eight, came home from Upton Cross Primary School one afternoon holding a leaflet advertising a ‘play in a day’ workshop during half-term, I could not have envisaged where it would eventually lead.
He loved that day, joining the activities of an outfit called SmallScale, who were based in Launceston, and it led to further workshops, meeting other children, playing with words and props and ideas and costumes, working together as a collaborative team to create shows to be performed to an audience.
Stepping back a little, my son’s first encounter with live theatre – and perhaps the spark that led to his future life in theatre – came at Sterts when, at the age of three or four, we took him to a Kneehigh show. To keep him happy, we’d always pack a small croust box of soft food and a drink. Spotting this little chap tucking in, one of the actors climbed through the audience, bent over, selected a sandwich, took it, opened it, extracted the contents, and returned the bread to its owner. It was a lovely, unforgettable spontaneous moment of live theatricality.
His love of performing – and in particular devising shows – grew over the years, and he soon joined productions with About Face, Sterts, Callington Community College, National Youth Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth, before gaining a place at the Central School of Speech & Drama. This was followed by the National Theatre’s production of Warhorse, plus stints with Los Angeles Opera, Simon McBurney, Fantastic Beasts and, most recently, playing Abu the monkey in the Disney remake of Aladdin.
My son has made a career in theatre and film… and it all goes back to a stolen ham sandwich and a homemade flier in Upton Cross.
Although very few young people who tread the boards as children and teenagers go on to make a career on the stage – that’s not really the point. In fact the benefits are perhaps even greater for those who don’t go on to work in theatre because they take with them through life all the lasting lessons of how to interact with others, how to accept others different from themselves, how to work as a team, along with all the other life-skills and confidence-building that go with creating a production.
With savage cuts to state education under the Conservatives’ failed austerity experiment, provision of creative arts classes – both in school timetables and extra-curricular – has been severely limited. Gone are the days when a child could choose an activity that fired them, and be granted an opportunity to pursue it. Lots of schools and lots of dedicated teachers do, of course, battle on in the face of diminishing resources, by continuing to offer, largely in their own
time, the same opportunities enjoyed by their counterparts of just a few years ago, when education was still valued by government.
So it is refreshing and exciting to witness that Sterts is not only continuing its long tradition of providing opportunities for young people to experience hands-on theatre-making, but extending those opportunities to include much younger children.
As well as helping to redress the shortfall resulting from government funding cuts, Sterts offers a safe and inclusive environment for learning and collaborating, with the added bonus of performing in an exceptional venue, with all the technical back-up that affords.
Last year, Sterts launched its Youth Theatre Company for 14 to 25 year olds, led by a core team of Jane Warwick, Jonathan Plunkett and Mark Sidey. The company kicked off in June 2018 with a short run of Urinetown. The choice of this award-winning ‘anti-musical’ was a clear statement that the company would not be ‘playing safe’ by working on tried and tested standards. The result was a show worthy of any theatre in the land – acting, staging and direction all superb.
They followed this success earlier this year with a double bill of DNA by Dennis Kelly and It Snows by Bryony Lavery. Again, these scripts were adventurous choices and the resulting productions proved challenging to both performers and audiences. The result was another triumph.
Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the youth company’s members,, and with the support of the Sterts’ management, this year saw the launch of Sterts Junior Youth Theatre Company, catering for under-14s. Led by Mark Sidey, their debut production, in May, saw some seventy or more children present Disney’s Aladdin Junior. Played in one act, the singing, acting, choreography and staging were a delight – and testament to the huge amount of hard work put in by all concerned.
As anyone who has helped, even at the fringes, of a live show is aware, success doesn’t happen by accident but is the result of commitment, innovation, collaboration and a whole lot of other things besides. They’ll also know that the final night curtain call, the applause, the standing ovation, is only a very small part of its success, of its purpose.
One boy I spoke to after Aladdin had closed said he felt ‘empty’ – not because he was desperate to play to a capacity audience but that he wouldn’t be meeting up and working with his Sterts ‘family’ so often for a while. The best bit of the process for him was not the performance but the making. It’s a feeling echoed by my own son (currently doing The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne) all these years after that first Sterts ‘ham sandwich incident’ and SmallScale’s play-in-a-day.
Apart from the inevitable fun that comes from being part of a youth theatre company, the benefits are myriad, boosting self-confidence, imagination, concentration, communication, physicality and fitness, learning to empathise
with others and opening your mind to a whole world of creativity and the arts in all its forms.
So forget the notion of ‘preparing for a life on the stage’ and embrace the wider benefits of stagecraft. If you have a child who would like to join, call 01579-362382 or visit sterts.co.uk
Simon Parker is a playwright, publisher, and journalist. His plays have been produced at The Minack, Sterts, Theatre Royal Plymouth, and on BBC Radio 4. He is currently writing a new play for Sterts’ 2020 season.