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'You hear a lot about our generation being lost - but we're just trying to cope'

Youth theatre is giving young people in Ireland the chance to express themselves, grow confident, and deal with issues in their lives.

Source: Youth Theatre Ireland/Vimeo

FROM A VERY young age I was always going around the house saying ‘yeah I want to be an actor, mam – I’m going to be an actor, I’m going to be on stage, I’m going to change the world’.

Killian Kirwan is an 18-year-old from Drimnagh. Friendly, outgoing, and confident, from a young age he knew he wanted to be on stage. Today, he’s getting to realise that dream thanks to Complex Youth Theatre, one of Ireland’s theatres specially set up to give young people a chance to tread the boards.

But the theatre isn’t about Broadway musicals or stage school: it’s a chance for teenagers to explore what’s going on their own lives in a safe and supported way. And, they told us, it’s giving them a confidence they didn’t think they’d have during their turbulent teenage years.

The youth theatre is based at The Complex in Dublin 7, on a quiet road just off the busy Capel St. When TheJournal.ie visits, the teens – aged from 14 to 19 – are  warming up, taking part in a range of different games.

At Complex, there are no ‘teachers’, or classes. Instead, there are facilitators who lead the group at weekly workshops. The aim is for the whole process to feel like a collaboration between the experienced, trained facilitators and the young people.

IMG_3191 The group with Anthony 'Boo' Goulding at centre. Source: Aoife Barry

Right now, the Complex group is preparing for its summer performance. At this particular youth theatre, they don’t work on existing plays. Instead, they become the playwrights themselves.

Killian Kirwan was 14 when he joined Complex four years ago. Like Ella McGill, the other teen we talked to there, Kirwan said that youth theatre has given him a confidence he couldn’t have imagined.

As a self-confessed young ‘attention-seeker’, he decided to join a youth theatre, but was initially worried about what it would involve. “Theatre is a big word, [I thought] ‘it’s going to be very professional, I’m going to be out of my depth a lot’,” he recalls.

“I was very nervous about the whole situation, but [then] I went and I met these people and everyone in the room doing it with me was also nervous,” he says. “So we all stuck together.”

‘It’s not a stage school’

The idea of sticking together is something that crops up a lot when you’re in the presence of Complex members.

“You make friends because you have to stick together, you have to support each other through it,” says Kirwan. “You have to trust everyone around you and feel that you can mess it up… because you know these people aren’t going to laugh at you, it’s going to be supportive.”

Ella McGill, who’s 16, joined Complex Youth Theatre last September. Like Kirwan, she particularly likes the fact that being in a big supportive group means getting to know people you wouldn’t ordinarily get to hang out with.

“In other situations you might not mix with those people, but here because you’re working on something so closely you have to and that’s really nice,” she says.

Anthony Goulding – known as ‘Boo’ to those at Complex – is one of the founders of the youth theatre (which is a member of Youth Theatre Ireland) and its current Artistic Director.

“It’s not a stage school, so socioeconomic barriers are broken down,” he says. “You’d have people from all parts of the city. Some from D7, and then people as far as Donabate, Lucan, Drimnagh. It’s a very, very broad canvas which is really great. You have those people [who] wouldn’t have the opportunity to maybe meet until third level. It’s nice, it breaks down a lot of barriers.”

IMG_3197 Source: Aoife Barry

Boo grew up in D7 and had long wanted to set up a youth theatre in his local area by the time he set up Complex six years ago. He was involved with youth theatre as a teen, but drifted away from it before going on to study performing arts, acting and theatre arts studies.

Costs for Complex Youth Theatre are kept low, so that money isn’t a barrier to people joining.

“I felt that where I’d grown up, people in the area wouldn’t have had many opportunities to go to, parents wouldn’t have been necessarily able to afford after-school activities,” says Boo. “I saw the benefits from being involved in youth theatre so I wanted to share my experiences and to help people who would probably struggle financially also.”

‘It brought me out of my shell’

When Killian Kirwan joined Complex, he had just gone into secondary school. It’s a major time for any teens, but he found the workshops helped.

Joining Complex Youth Theatre “brought me out of my shell because I learned how to be more confident, and how to be more trusting with people and a bit more out there”, he says.

[It helped] as well to accept I was a bit kooky and a bit mad, and just to accept that within myself and go into school and be like ‘yeah, I’m bonkers, I am me’. And that’s that.

He says that there can sometimes be a stigma around drama for boys. “I remember we were doing a play in school in fourth year, a lot of the boys were [saying] ‘I’m not getting on stage, I’m not acting, I’m not doing that,’ this idea of it being gay or whatever it is,” he recalls.

“If I didn’t have it, if I hadn’t gone to theatre for the last five years and done this, there’s no way that I’d be able to even have a conversation with you [a journalist]. It’s so helpful and the stigma is really annoying. For someone to judge me because of what I do, it’s like, stop.”

McGill agrees: “I think with guys the biggest stereotype would be ‘that’s so gay’ and with girls you wouldn’t really get that but there is like ‘oh you do drama, ok you’re this [type of person]. But I think youth theatre is putting a much cooler slant on it.”

IMG_3198 The green room in the Complex. Source: Aoife Barry

When he tells people he does youth theatre, Kirwan says people often assume he means Broadway musicals.

“What we’re doing now is proper about us, it’s proper about youth, it’s proper about me and you,” he says of Complex’s work. “When we write a show, we’re making a statement, and especially the one now because it’s about youth and coming of age and struggling with identity.”

Their latest play, which will be performed at the end of June and beginning of July, is set at a gaff party. “It’s about the experimentation and the learning that happens when you’re 16 – 19 and this world that’s there. You’re just in it and how do you cope with it and how do you live within the world you’re in,” says Kirwan.

“Anything about the youth of today has been written by someone who is not the youth of today,” he says. “I’m watching things and I’m going ‘that’s not really realistic’.”

You hear a lot about this idea that our generation is lost, they’re on drugs or they’re drinking or there’s all this stuff going on. But actually we’re literally just trying to cope and trying to grow up. Yeah, we rebel, we do rebel, but it’s in everyone’s nature to rebel against their parents and try and go a bit mad. I’m hoping the older people and parents will see it and go ‘the younger generation aren’t that bad – they’re literally just the same way we were’.

McGill says she doesn’t like the way teenagers are represented on screen. “A lot of the representations are that it’s very black and white, the nerdy geeky academic kids and then the partygoers don’t do anything, [are] school dropout kids, whereas the majority of people are in between,” she says.

Writing their own work means that the teens at Complex can reflect the type of world they live in.

“It’s important to give them a voice,” says Boo of the youth theatre’s approach to having young people create their own work.

“A lot of them are saying it’s just that really difficult age of being ‘you are not an adult and you are over 16′, so you are stuck in this middle teenage limbo,” he adds.

“You’re giving the youth of today the opportunity to be tomorrow’s artists and hopefully some of them will come back and feed that back into the next generation.”

IMG_3197 Source: Aoife Barry

He also assures that the facilitators ensure that the work that’s done is appropriate for young people. “We would never put a young person in a vulnerable position or something that is inappropriate,” he says.

How does he think teenagers today differ from when he was growing up? “I think they’re more explorative now, they’re more informed,” he says. “I think a lot of things have changed in society that have benefitted this generation of teenagers.”

He says that teens are brave, not afraid to speak up and challenge, and are very supportive of each other.

Boo lists off the benefits youth theatre has for young people: “Confidence, self-esteem, the ability to be creative within a creative space, with like-minded people and have lots of fun also.”

‘They create their identity through it’

Michelle Carew of Youth Theatre Ireland tells TheJournal.ie that youth theatres are particularly special because “they exist outside of school” and are embedded in the local community. As such, this means they’re able to respond to the different needs within that community.

There are 55 youth theatres based all over the country, across towns and cities. “They are really vital places for the young people in the community because it is a place they choose to go,” says Carew. “They create their identity through it. As adults we are not who we are at work – we have broader lives. In the same way, young people don’t just live their lives through school.” Youth theatre gives them a chance to explore another side to their life.

“They can be political in that they engage in social issues,” she adds. “It’s really important to the youth theatres that young people have a say in how youth theatres are run, and their voice is very central to it.”

It’s not an acting course or anything like that, it’s a creative space and it’s for everybody so you don’t have to be the best at it, you just have to want to do it and enjoy it.

Carew says that the topics tackled at the youth theatres aren’t fed to the teens. “It’s not a dogma that they are being sold – they get to look at their point of view and I think that’s really key.” The majority of members of Youth Theatre Ireland are based in rural areas.

Youth theatre as a practice straddles both the arts and youth work. “It’s a specialist youth work practice if you like,” says Carew.

“It’s interesting – back in the early days we would have been seen by the youthwork sector as an arts organisation and the arts as a youthwork organisation. Over 40 years we really have developed an understanding of what youth theatre is as a very specific practice.”

But one of the issues for a youth theatre is funding, says Boo. “When it comes to it, we’re fortunate enough here that we’re an umbrella under a big arts organisation, so we get a lot in kind,” he says of Complex.

“We get the space in kind, our bills, the governance and all these things, and we’re grateful to the main complex for that. Youth Theatre Ireland also are very good at guiding us.”

Complex has a number of funders, including Dublin City Council, and European grants.

We would be working on a shoestring, but if we didn’t have those benefits it would be really difficult because then you’re competing with everybody else for a limited amount of money through the Arts Council.

For the teens who take part in youth theatre, the benefits are manifold. “It has changed my life, completely and utterly changed my life,” says Kirwan. “Confidence-wise, and friendship-wise as well, you make a lot of mates when you’re doing this and friends who will stick by you.”

“I definitely have progressed, maybe not in acting but definitely in confidence,” says McGill. “It’s amazing, I don’t know how it does it but it made me more confident.”

For more information on Complex Youth Theatre, visit the Complex website. Youth Theatre Ireland will produce Reasons Universal Robots by Karel Capek on the Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre with a cast of 16 young people from youth theatres across Ireland from 21 – 26 August. Tickets are now on sale. Complex Youth Theatre’s summer play will be performed on Friday 30 June at 7.30pm and Sat 1 July at 2pm and 7.30pm in The Complex.

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