The Youth Arts Centre is about fun but it’s also about failure…in a good way. ‘Young people can try anything here and if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t matter. They can fail here safely…because they know we’ll always catch them,’ says head of youth arts Fiona Helleur. The Youth Arts Centre (YAC), funded by the Department of Education and Children and the Youth and Community Service has been, in the words of a former member, ‘opening its door, non-judgmentally, to fringe performance styles,’ since 2009 and gives 8 to 18-year-olds the space, encouragement, freedom and opportunities to take part in or, at the very least, experience the performing arts, with no exams and no set curriculum. As Fiona explains: ‘We don’t do “set”. Brings us an idea and let’s see how we can make it happen. We welcome young people who see the Centre as somewhere offering social activities as much as those wanting to create something wonderful.’ With sessions from fully qualified and experienced staff in dance to creating promotional pixies (ask Fiona) going on full-tilt throughout the building the place can seem like Blue Peter on steroids, but the perceived chaos is always organised under Fiona and her ‘incredible’ team’s direction. ‘There’s what we call a “happy hum” about the place and as long as it’s buzzing we know everything’s going OK. The second it becomes “work” then you know something’s wrong. Likewise if I get bored – and that’s very rare in this place – then people aren’t getting the support they need and they suffer.
‘The biggest problem we have is keeping up with what the kids want to do. When they first come, a lot don’t know about the theatre or what they want to do later in life…but then after a while, for many of them, especially for those who’ve spent time in the props room – always a great introduction to the centre - the theatre in some form or other is all they ever want to do, from performing on stage to becoming a sound and lighting engineer.’ The more times young people come to the centre, the more they want to know, which is why as well as the papier mâché pumpkins, acres of tulle, drum kits and feather boas there are books - masses of books - from the works of Camus to Harry Potter. And it’s not just about learning dance or drama, either. Fiona says: ‘You learn all kinds of life skills as well. We had one eight-year-old who couldn’t read when he came to us but after his time here he’s been a narrator in a play. Here you learn about working as a team and developing memory skills, too. For example, if you’re in a play you need to know your lines and here there’s no prompting because I want the kids to realise there’s a risk involved. If they haven’t learned their lines it’s not me they’ve let down, it’s themselves.’
Fiona cited the time a group was to perform a Youth Shakespeare Festival version of the Merchant of Venice. ‘The section they were given had two of the long speeches taken out as they were considered too demanding but the group insisted the passages – which included “Am I not a Jew?” and “The Quality of Mercy” speeches were put back in.’ The centre provides opportunities for groups to travel to the UK and perform at festivals. ‘It’s our job to introduce them to the wider world. When we go across we put our heart and soul into it and it can be a great confidence booster for our drama groups, for example, to discover they’re as good as - or very often better than – ones in the UK. It’s important to expose them to new influences, new people and new challenges. Years ago, on our first visit, no one wanted to act at The Big Youth Theatre Festival in London. They flatly refused believing that kids from across would naturally be better than them. They watched a few performances and realised they were as good as any other group and it gave them confidence to try anything and everything…and when my guys fly, they really fly - they were chosen to perform Shakespeare on the London Eye for politicians, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson and members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.’
Over time the YAC has earned a host of ‘yaccolades’. Here’s what some former members have said: ‘Having been bullied at primary school, in the Manx Youth Theatre I found a place I could be myself - and the scope to find out who I was. Without the Youth Theatre I may not have had the confidence now to be part of my local amateur dramatics scene - or to pursue my chosen career as a lawyer.’ ‘The YAC made me the confident person I am today.’ ‘I was a “weird kid” - never quite sure where I was supposed to fit in. Without NYT, MNYT and Youth Arts I genuinely don’t know where I’d be today.’ ‘It performs a unique role in encouraging and developing young people whose personal circumstances may not allow then to follow a creative path which would allow them to fulfill their potential in society.’ …and finally: ‘On the day [Fiona] collects her OBE I fully expect her to tap dance down the aisle and give the Queen a full show of ‘jazz hands’. Coming soon from the YAC: Our Day Out by Willy Russell: 2015, date(s) to be confirmed. Pronoun: New work by Evan Placey exploring transgender issues. YAC will be entering the play in the 2015 Manx Amateur Drama Festival of One Act Plays and taking it to the WhatAbout Festival in Northants. To find out more call Fiona, 437339 or visit the Youth Arts Centre, Kensington Road, Douglas IM1 3EG. Fiona is pictured with youth arts assistant David Dawson. Pictures Steve Babb
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