At the end of February, a group of Shaftesbury youngsters met in the Arts Centre to discuss forming a youth drama group. This week, the cast of secondary school-age actors is getting ready for their first production, ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Emerald of Alcazar’.
ThisIsAlfred called into rehearsals and heard how the young actors have risen to the challenge of staging a show in just six weeks.
It’s Wednesday evening and there’s an excited atmosphere upstairs at Shaftesbury Arts Centre. Youngsters are rehearsing lines in different corners of the Rutter Room. Sophie Lester is fine-tuning the performance of a group of actors standing on a small raised area which works as a stage. In the last half hour, she has coached cast members in how to scream, sob and smoke convincingly.
Sophie, an accomplished Arts Centre director, has found the teaching experience rewarding. “They have been so keen to learn, to be part of the performance, and to come together to create what we’re trying to do. We’ve done it in six weeks, which is ridiculously short.”
Sophie has been surprised at some of the guidance she has had to offer this young cast. Older actors wouldn’t need to be shown how to put a record on, for example. “The boy playing Sherlock didn’t know how to put a gramophone on. It’s lovely,” laughed Sophie.
As the rehearsals continued, Sophie had to tell ‘Sherlock’, 14-year-old actor Peter Rawlinson, how to puff on a pipe. Just like putting the needle on an LP, that’s an alien concept to a teenager – thankfully. “You can literally just put it in your mouth,” she instructed, assuring the hesitant young actor. “It has been cleaned.”
Some of the teenage actors might feel more self-conscious than their older counterparts. Sophie has helped them gain their confidence. 14-year-old Daisy Mai Booth wasn’t comfortable about crying in public, at first. Sophie gently encouraged her to put in a confident performance. “I have learned how to scream very loudly on stage, which is very useful,” Daisy Mai told me.
It is a credit to Sophie and her team that the majority of youngsters who turned up on that dark, damp recruitment evening in February have stayed with the group. “We’ve got more or less the same children. I think we’ve lost a couple and that was just over-commitment on their part. We have still got a really healthy group of about 25 or 26. And they all seem to be loving it,” said Sophie.
This is SAC’s first youth production and Sophie has found working with a young team refreshing. “The children tend to do as they are asked. They are really keen to please and they often outshine the adults, because they are so keen. They listen and they want to learn,” she said.
Peter has acted previously but Sherlock is his biggest role to date. He has enjoyed the different experience of working as part of a youth team. “It is definitely more of a challenge and more fun because you’ve been given a little bit more responsibility,” Peter said.
Sophie says it was a team decision to stage ‘Sherlock’. “We talked to the group and we gave them a choice of genre,” said Sophie. “They chose detective mystery. Sherlock Holmes is a great script. It’s very funny and it just leapt out at us when we were looking at scripts. When you talk about detectives, Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest.”
The SAC youth theatre production offers a modern take on the Arthur Conan Doyle story. “It’s got some comedy moments in it. It pulls out some of the era-specific things and makes them funny,” said Sophie.
Peter is playing a Sherlock inspired by a more contemporary portrayal of the detective. “I’m basing it on the Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch versions of Sherlock,” he said. Daisy Mai plays a rather over-the-top character, Harriet Poppin, who cries and screams a lot during the play. “She’s quite annoying, especially to the other people,” she says, confiding that she has someone in mind when she is playing this part.
Police Sergeant Gotcha’s role is played by 11-year-old Tyler Brady. His parents suggested that he should join the SAC youth drama group and get on stage. “My mum and dad say I am good at drama. They said it would be good if I could do it and I’m enjoying it so far,” Tyler said. Whilst Daisy Mai found memorising her lines easy, Tyler has not enjoyed that aspect of the production. “With the words, I know half. It’s just the other half I am struggling with,” Tyler said. He does enjoy the physical acting in the show, particularly a chase sequence toward the end.
Many of the cast members have joined the youth group because they hope it will help with their drama studies. Daisy Mai considers it a stepping stone toward a future career. “I would like to do it professionally. I don’t know if I can do that,” she said. She joined because she can’t take drama as a school option. “I’m not allowed to do another GCSE. It was either music or drama, and I really wanted to do music. I couldn’t do any more drama in school so I had to come to an outside club,” said Daisy Mai, who added that she has been doing productions at the Arts Centre since she was in primary school.
Peter says the rehearsals have helped with his drama GCSE. “You’re doing it practically, which helps a lot because I don’t do a lot out of school other than this. This is the main thing that will help me with my drama,” said Peter.
Encouraged by the experience of this youth theatre experiment, Sophie wants to create additional drama streams for different age groups. “Now this is a really strong group, we’d love to develop an older group and something younger as well. And then bring them all together for productions.”
Sophie says that 16-18-year-olds are not currently well-catered for. “The adult productions have youth parts but they’re not always frequent. Sometimes you get an older person playing a younger person. There is a gap between 16 to 18 and I think there’s really something to develop in there,” she said.
Sophie is hoping that this youth cast will put on Bugsy Malone next year and that they will host a seasonal show, after Sherlock, at Christmas. “It will be a Christmas play of some description. We’re looking at possibly some panto-type scripts, maybe ‘The Christmas Carol’. It will be probably a one-act play coupled with something else,” said Sophie.
Sophie is hoping that a full house will reward the young actors’ efforts. “It is a good, fun show. It will make you laugh. And it is about showing the talent that is the Youth Theatre Group, but also giving them that experience of performance and having a live audience and responding to it,” said Sophie.
‘Sherlock Holmes and the Emerald of Alcazar’ is on Friday 14th and Saturday 15th June at 7.30pm at the SAC. Tickets are £5 or £3 for under 12s.
Tyler can’t wait. “I’ll try not to be nervous. I will take some deep breaths before I go on stage,” he said.