Stage Struck

March 15th was a special day for Mary McCluskey. Not, we hasten to add, because she found herself speaking with The Scots Magazine; the date marked the 25th anniversary of her becoming Artistic Director of Scottish Youth Theatre.

That said, Mary’s involvement with the company actually goes back even further—her first job was as part of the residential staff at an early SYT summer school. She subsequently returned, in the late 1980s, as an associate director, before being appointed Artistic Director in 1992.

“I suppose it’s the young people themselves,” she says, when asked why she’s still so enthusiastic about SYT. “It’s seeing them develop; the growing of their confidence, self-belief and creativity. And it’s not just about people who go on to work in the industry; this is about everyday citizens of Scotland.”

Jacky Hardacre, SYT’s Chief Executive, agrees. “We all believe that youth theatre changes young people’s lives for the better, that the life-skills you learn through the theatre process serve everybody well in whatever they do.

“The main thing is confidence, but there are also aspects like problem-solving, teamwork, and leading as well as working with others—what I guess now hangs under the title of ‘resilience’—so that, in an ever-changing world, our participants are well-equipped to deal with whatever comes their way,” she adds.

Although only a minority of SYT “graduates” go on to work in theatre, the company’s numerous weekday, weekend and summer courses have provided an invaluable grounding for many now well-known names: SYT alumni include Hollywood star Gerard Butler, former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan, Taggart’s Colin McCredie, and singer-songwriter K T Tunstall.

“I always give a speech at the beginning saying that it’s all about mutual respect,” says Mary about SYT’s participants. “It’s about us respecting them, them respecting us, and them respecting each other. And then, in turn, it’s about all of us respecting the audience that’s going to come and see the work.”

This August, as a way of marking the 40th anniversary of SYT’s debut show, the company’s new National Ensemble will bring a fresh production to the stage. “This National Ensemble is about, dare I say it, the ‘excellence’ side of things,” Mary adds. “It’s about young people who we’ve identified as being particularly skilled or talented, and providing them with a new outlet—and new challenges—to develop their skills.”

Participants will sign up for 12 months. “The main production each year will be during the summer, but we will also have monthly skills development workshops. Some of those will be developing new pieces that will be produced during the summer, while others will bring in experts in particular areas—like stage combat, physical theatre, acting for camera or acting for radio.”

So what of the future? “We’ll be really investing in developing young people as theatre makers; not just as performers, but starting to draw in more to do with writing, directing, design and so on,” Jacky says. “We expect there to be other young people who are perhaps more interested—who have strengths—in things like music, dance and digital arts, who’ll be coming into our building to play as well.

“Like every arts organisation, there are financial challenges ahead, but I think we’re all feeling really excited about the future,” she adds, “and making sure that those kinds of opportunities are available for more young people—to ‘sell’ SYT not only on the basis of creating more theatre people, but all those others who can benefit from the life skills that it delivers in spades.”

First published in The Scots Magazine, #August 2017.