THEATRE / Worlds apart: This week's Lloyds Bank Theatre Challenge enables young companies to showcase their work at the National. Rosie Millard profiles two groups, while (below) young performers give their views on the future of the theatre

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The Independent Culture
CULTURAL contrasts will be rife as the three-day Lloyds Bank Theatre Challenge culminates in showings of some experimental studio work at the Cottesloe tomorrow evening. Of the three companies performing, one is from the Netherlands, one from Glasgow. Both are made up of enthusiastic young performers, both are showing plays they devised themselves. But although they are sharing the same stage and facilities, the stories of how each company came into being are radically different.

The Jeugdtheaterschool from Zuid-Holland is based in the small town of Gouda (population 60,000). Founded last year by director Theo Ham, the school enjoys free use of a 200-seater theatre, a sports hall (for dancing lessons), rehearsal rooms and a grant which will rise annually from a starting position of 100,000 guilders (around pounds 40,000), all from the Province of Zuid-Holland. Ham's position is a salaried one and he has hired professional costume, set and lighting designers for the show, which has already toured to 30 venues across the Netherlands.

'Most of our theatre companies are publicly subsidised and tickets are very cheap,' Ham explains. 'Even Les Miserables was subsidised when it came over. Although we don't have a real theatrical tradition, we do think an arts supply is like a good health service; people must have the opportunity to go to the theatre and to concerts.'

After the curtain falls on the Jeugdtheaterschool's production of If I Only Had Friends tomorrow night, the Toon's Speak youth theatre will take centre stage. Toon's Speak is based at the Red Road estate in Springburn, Glasgow. A designated 'Area of Priority Treatment' (aka a deprived urban area), the Red Road flats are the tallest domestic buildings in Europe: the company's HQ at the YMCA centre on the estate is on the 27th floor.

Unlike Jeugdtheaterschool, Toon's Speak has no government grant, and is run by youth worker Stephen King on a voluntary basis. Sprogs, the show to be performed at the National, is based on his experiences working with homeless children in the centre of Glasgow. The pounds 3,000 it cost to tour the show around the city was raised via small donations from Glasgow District Council, private companies and fund-raising events put on by the YMCA. The company rehearses in offices and school halls, but spends too much of its time raising funds.

'We try to be creative with our finances,' King explains. 'We have social nights for parents, where we might raise pounds 300 in a night; we borrow most of our equipment; and all the children wear their own clothes for the shows, or make them. We exist purely on local goodwill . . . But it would be nice to have funding so we could grow independently.'

Like Ham, King believes strongly in the social importance of theatre: 'The thing about Toon's Speak is that we do issue- based stuff. 35,000 people live here in these flats, and many have never seen theatre used to discuss issues in this way.'

King is especially anxious to create a salaried post for the company, so it won't collapse when he leaves. 'We've been going for a good few years now, and I think our apprenticeship's over. We now need some core funding: hopefully this trip will generate a wee bit of enthusiasm.'

Ross Andrews, Aged 20

Plays Orlando and is musical director of 'As You Like It', presented by Gloucester Everyman Youth Theatre tonight:

'My favourite show has to be Les Miserables: I think Boublil and Schonberg are great composers and it is the ultimate musical. I think theatre has got to take more risks. At the moment the West End is full of safe theatre. You've got to push theatre forwards, or our play industry will become like the American film industry, full of tried and tested plots. Not many theatres will put on a comedy that's new or controversial - I'd like to see more real new comedies. The other problem is ticket prices. Unfortunately, theatre still has a snobby image among the young, and that will continue unless it becomes cheaper. And the thing with people my age is that they're always out for a good time - you've got to compete with nightclubbing and cinema.'

Alexandra Shephard, Aged 18

Plays the lead in 'Little Shop of Horrors', presented by Forest School, Snaresbrook, London tomorrow:

'The last thing I saw that I really enjoyed was Wind in the Willows at the National, because there is so much you can do with the stage in the Olivier. I go to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East a lot and I saw Five Guys Named Moe. I like it there because you know it's not going to be something run-of-the-mill. For my age- group, musicals are the most attractive. The publicity is most important though. Most people my age are going to go to the theatre because they see a poster that makes them think it will be interesting. I think it's going to be hard to get people away from videos - a lot of people now, if they're planning a night out, wouldn't even consider going to the theatre. The only way to get them in is to go out and show them what you've got.'

Jasvinder Bassi, Aged 16

Plays an Asian girl in 'Mind the Gap', presented by Sidney Stringer Youth Drama Group from Coventry tomorrow:

'Mostly I see plays at Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. I liked Vinegar Tom (Caryl Churchill), I liked the way people explained their feelings and the way it was put together. I'd like to see plays that involve more age-groups - I think that's how theatre will survive the video age. We saw one play at the Belgrade about the Blitz kids. There were a lot of young people in it. It helped you to feel what it was like for them much more than reading about it would. You have to deal with the questions children have about their lives - like the problems between black and white. I hope that if we tell other people things might change. I'm a Sikh and I'm not allowed out often. My parents came to see our play and thought it was good - but I still can't go out]'

Gregor Henderson-Begg, Aged 15

Played a schizophrenic angel in 'Dr Faustus', performed by Unit 108, Orchard Theatre Company, Devon yesterday:

'I love the energy of theatre, it's much more exciting than film or television. I go to see as much theatre as I possibly can. I think if theatre got going again people would prefer it to TV. It's partly price that puts people off going, and it's partly that the imagination of people is degenerating and they don't want to see things they have to think about. I've spoken to my friends about why they don't go. I think it's because they think it doesn't have as much mystery about it as cinema, and it is expensive. I love Shakespeare, I like musicals and I like to see new plays. There are not enough new plays coming out, also they don't come out of London much. If I were in charge of a theatre I would try and produce more energetic productions and aim them at a younger generation.'

Cheryl Hartley, Aged 12

Plays a homeless child in 'Sprogs', performed by Toon's Speak Youth Theatre, Glasgow tomorrow:

'Our play is about homeless children, prostitutes and runaways. I play a young girl whose father has sexually abused her brother. My character has said he did it to her to protect her brother. I try to put myself in that position. Through doing the play I understand much more about it all. I go to the theatre a lot now. I go to the Kings Theatre and Theatre Royal in Glasgow. I'm trying to get my best friend to go - I tell her it helps you with reading and it gives you more confidence. I would love to go and see classical plays if I knew they were good productions. I'd also like to know more about drugs and prostitution. If I was running a theatre I would speak to young people and ask them what they like seeing. I think theatre is falling away - it's really expensive.'

(Photographs omitted)