Come Down Stage and Speak up! – Directing Youth Theatre with Dave Jackson

Youth theatre is a great training ground for young actors, but it also represents a formidable challenge for the director. Here Dave Jackson shares his knowledge and experience on why it’s best not to make any assumptions when approaching a young cast. Every actor has experienced a director who can direct a show almost imperceptibly […]

Youth theatre is a great training ground for young actors, but it also represents a formidable challenge for the director. Here Dave Jackson shares his knowledge and experience on why it’s best not to make any assumptions when approaching a young cast.

Every actor has experienced a director who can direct a show almost imperceptibly with a raised eyebrow here and all-knowing nod there. These enigmatic figures, often European accented and typically adorned in statement glasses, are held up as geniuses. The cast, celebrate after a first night, when the show has unexpectedly turned out to be a triumph. They all comment how it appeared in rehearsals that their now adored director didn’t seem to know his upstage right from his elbow. How wrong they all had been, for what at first looked like a charlatan turned out to be an auteur, a visionary, an alchemist.

Such rare creative birds as these will always be very particular about which actors they work with and will almost certainly turn down any offers of directing Youth Theatre. Some, however, of their less astute disciples may one day find themselves in a church hall, standing in front of a bunch 16 year olds, on a Saturday morning. In my 20 years directing Youth Theatre I have myself worked with these well-meaning graduates of the school of esoteric vagueness. They are usually economic refugees from Fringe Theatre or fresh out of Drama School.

Don’t think for one moment you can direct from behind a table at the back of a room, sipping coffee and rolling cigarettes.

 

After winning over the kids with all manner of fun and fabulous games and exercises, they then set about the task of directing them. They quickly become confused by the fact the kids aren’t responding to their notes. Despite explaining ‘at the end of act one their character needs to be edgier’ or just before the interval they should ‘move with the quality of the wind’ the performance still isn’t working. The Tristram’s and the Tabatha’s carry on regardless, as they know from their Conservatoire training in Barcelona that rehearsal rooms should be an anarchic place.

The dress rehearsal unfortunately is inaudible, incomprehensible and awkward.

The director perplexed embarks upon one and one conversations with each cast member, musing over the conceptual dimensions of the play. The cast sit and nod and some understand what he/she is talking about.

The opening night is a disaster. Poor Tristram/Tabatha is crestfallen. He/she talks about the fact that maybe ‘these kids’ imaginations have been crushed by the current education system. He/she blames social media for their inability to concentrate and suddenly the Flat White drinking, Guardian reading, liberal is beginning to sound a bit like The Daily Mail.

The word ‘edgier’ may have a set of connotations for a 28-year- old trained actor, it will be pretty much meaningless to a 13-year- old boy who has only seen Cats and two Pantos.

 

But most of these young directors are hardworking and eager to learn and after some scapegoating begin to ask the important question, where did I go wrong? The answer is vagueness. You cannot expect to give notes that are non- specific and expect young actors to interpret them.

One of the biggest mistakes made by Youth Theatre directors is to presume children have the same theatre literacy and reference points as adults. This often manifests itself in generic or conceptual notes that are incomprehensible to a young person. The word ‘edgier’ may have a set of connotations for a 28-year- old trained actor, it will be pretty much meaningless to a 13-year- old boy who has only seen Cats and two Pantos.

Long winded conversations about the back story of the character or his subconscious longings maybe enjoyable, for your brighter students, but will be next to useless, in terms of getting them to act better.

The key is clear specific notes.

‘At this point come down stage left and increase your projection on this word in order to….’

And never forget the first commandment of youth theatre, The Holy Grail, the epitaph that will be on my grave.

‘Come down stage and speak up’

This advice is not just for the kids it is also for the director themselves. Don’t think for one moment you can direct from behind a table at the back of a room, sipping coffee and rolling cigarettes. You need to be up and active, just like the children themselves.

‘What’s he on about?’

And sometimes, yes you will have to demonstrate. Of course this is a cardinal sin in professional theatre but you have to remember when working with children, sometimes you need to show them what you mean. The exceptional Youth Theatre Directors I have worked with are usually brilliant actors and often will, subtly or with gay abandon, act it out. This will save you hours of rehearsal time, at points your own sanity and more importantly the play. You have to remember the students are not professional actors, it is not their job to watch and perform in theatre. The vast majority of their week is spent doing other things. You are very often their porthole into the world of theatre. Your demonstrations, anecdotes, impressions and largesse are to an extent their theatrical experience.

Once Tristram accepts his mistakes and realises it is not ‘these kids’ but is in fact himself, he not only becomes a better director but has a new appreciation for professional adult actors. Their training and experience mean you can communicate in a creative short hand that can produce outstanding results. He also might reassess the talents of the near mute director that he has placed on so high a pedestal. Maybe this supposed auteur is not quite the genius Tristram thought he was. Could it be possible that the adult actor’s in his mentor’s company, faced with a vacuum of ambiguity, were able to conjure a performance using their own inventiveness?

After directing a dodgy Youth Theatre production of Wind in the Willows in my early twenties I realised just how specific you had to be and how hard this Youth Theatre gig is. Not only are you a director but you are also a teacher, a comedian, a raconteur and a mentor – it’s exhausting but incredibly rewarding when it goes well. I also understood why the enigmatic director at my University (who was a fully paid up member of the raised eyebrow brigade) would refuse to direct anyone apart from the Post Graduates. You will never find such enigma’s in Church halls, on rainy Saturday mornings, in front of groups of sixteen year olds. Why? Well, they might just get found out.

Dave Jackson has has written for BBC Radio 4, ITV and The National Youth Theatre where he has been an Associate Director for over ten years. Since winning the Radio 4 Fresh Air competition at 16, Dave has written, performed, directed and taught comedy and theatre all over the country. He has worked in a variety of different educational establishments from St Paul’s School to Chichester University to The Actors Centre. He is respected as one of the countries most experienced and talented youth theatre writers and directors.

www.dave-jackson.com