'Look at the other members of the group, not the canes,' says Anthony Taylor, who is leading the workshop session with Manchester Youth Theatre. 'Wait for the unspoken agreement to move.' Suddenly, everyone steps round to the next person's position, abandoning their original canes, and hoping to place a fingertip on the next one before it falls. At the third attempt, they all succeed.
Last week, MYT began its summer rehearsal period in the classrooms of Ellen Wilkinson High School, Ardwick, with exercises designed to break down barriers and get people working together as well as introducing some performance skills. The cane exercise is a step on the way to using masks, and Mr Taylor explains its rationale to the group: 'When you're using masks your visibility is restricted, so your sensitivity to the other person you're performing with has to be more acute.'
Other workshops concentrate on improvisation, accent, movement and dance. In one corridor, overlapping renditions of 'Over the Hills and Far Away' indicate youth theatre members are practising for their singing audition. 'I'm going to have to be stricter this year,' says David Shrubsole, musical director, anticipating the vocal demands of The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht.
'They're party animals, some away from home for the first time. They like talking till three in the morning. But the voice is a muscle that needs to rebuild itself.'
Some 180 school and college students have chosen to spend their summer holidays working towards MYT's September season of four productions: The Threepenny Opera, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, Bartholomew Fair, by Ben Jonson, and Whale, David Holman's play for children. Of these, 120 are here as performers; the rest are working on lighting, set design and stage management.
Although most come from the North-west, half are staying in a local hall of residence. 'A large part of it is the residential bit,' says Chris Ingold, 17, a member of the backstage crew who has returned for a second summer. 'You get to know people properly.' He denies there is any difficulty caused by age difference, or a division between performers and backstage workers. 'The great thing about working in theatre is that you're always part of a team. That's the thing you get most out of.' One difference between drama at school and what the youth theatre offers is that they do it all day, every day, voluntarily. 'You get tired, but it's a good tired,' says Sevil Delin, 17.
MYT was founded in 1966 by Geoffrey Sykes, then northern secretary of the National Youth Theatre. Standards are high and most of the adult production staff are young theatre professionals, such as Helen Skelton, head of design. She has designed the set for Bartholomew Fair as a series of units, specifications to fulfil rather than completed designs to copy. 'They're not just here to do my work for me. I want them to feel it's their own show,' she says.
Neil Davies, director of Bartholomew Fair, takes a similar view. 'In youth theatre you have to step back as a director. It's not a question of telling people to walk across there and say their lines like this; it's about giving them the space to achieve what they're capable of.'
He sees Jonson's satire, which depends upon ensemble-playing to create the hustle and bustle of early 17th-century London, as a classic text for youth theatre. 'The good thing about this show is that someone who doesn't have a named role in the text may end up with more to do than someone who does, because we ask a lot in terms of creating characters and plot lines that are not actually in the script.'
A good deal of talent is thrown up among the 600 or more hopefuls who apply for places each year, although Paul Jaynes, director of productions, says MYT is looking for people who will benefit from the opportunity as much as for star quality. 'There are people we take on because they're very good and people we take on because they're ordinary kids. It's a difficult line to draw, because we're putting on shows for people who buy tickets, so they have to be good.'
Many of the young people are pointed towards MYT by drama teachers. For those without that support the main problem is gaining the confidence to apply. Neil Edwards, 20 and unemployed, from Llangollen in north Wales, saw an MYT advertisment in the job centre. 'It had the word Manchester so it sounded important. But I wouldn't have had the confidence a few years ago.' Now he has been helped by a grant from the Prince's Trust.
'People come in who have little sense of self-worth, who don't realise what they're capable of, and who will walk out of here six weeks later two feet taller,' says Mr Davies. 'And they go away having worked with theatre professionals and semiprofessionals, doing it as it would be done in the professional theatre.'
Manchester Youth Theatre will be performing at the Library Theatre and the Green Room, Manchester, from 1-18 September. For further information call 061-273 2719.
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