Joyce McMillan: Chrysalis Festival puts youth theatre at fore

A new piece of theatre inspired by Fever Dream: Southside by the Citizens Theatre's Young Company. Picture: Karen Gordon

A new piece of theatre inspired by Fever Dream: Southside by the Citizens Theatre's Young Company. Picture: Karen Gordon

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IT’S a gloomy November Saturday in Edinburgh, and rain is beating down on the city centre. Underground at the Traverse, though, there’s nothing but warmth, enthusiasm, and a glow of creative energy as youth theatre companies from Scotland and beyond gathered for the second day of Scotland’s first-ever Chrysalis Festival.

Designed to bring together companies from the fast-growing youth theatre sector, the festival offers them a chance not only to experience each other’s work, but to debate and discuss it, in the context of Scotland’s wider theatre scene.

The Chrysalis Festival has been brought together – after four years of thought and preparation – by Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, the Edinburgh-based umbrella body for youth theatre groups across the country. The festival is co-curated by Viviane Hullin, producer with the award-winning Junction 25 young company at the Tramway in Glasgow, and a former J25 member herself; and the shows represented this year include two from Scotland, and two from leading companies in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Scottish-made shows are Junction 25’s 2014 hit I’d Rather Humble Than Hero, and the Citizens’ Theatre Young Company’s Southside Stories, a brave and impressive verbatim piece with music about community tensions in Glasgow’s hugely diverse Govanhill area. And they are matched by Headz, a selection of three breathtakingly vivid urban monologues from a series of 11 written by Keith Saha in collaboration with Liverpool’s 20 Stories High company, and the Contact Theatre of Manchester’s Young Company in Under The Covers, a wise, bold and funny devised piece about sex in the 21st century.

All four shows are fine pieces of theatre, mainly co-created and devised by youth theatre members in the 15-19 age range; but what’s especially thrilling about watching them in the context of Chrysalis is the intensity and warmth of the young people’s reaction to each other’s work, as they crowd into the Traverse’s two auditoriums to watch and learn, and then emerge in an excited buzz of critical chat and response. And to help the conversation along, the festival also features discussion sessions – one on reviewing youth theatre, led by critics Mary Brennan, Mark Fisher and Thom Dibdin, and one on international exchange and collaboration in youth theatre, with speakers including Casper Nieuwenhuis of the Like Minds company in Amsterdam, and Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Our aim with Chrysalis is to widen the audience for the best of youth theatre in Scotland and beyond, raise people’s aspirations, and open up critical discussion about youth theatre,” says Viv Hullin. “This festival feels like a really, really successful first step in bringing people together and starting those conversations.

“I think it’s in the nature of youth theatre work – which is often fitted in around a very busy time in young people’s lives – that they get very little chance to see other people’s work, or to reflect on what they’re doing in a wider context. And I think you can feel from the extraordinary atmosphere in the Traverse over the weekend how much people welcome that opportunity, and how much they’ve enjoyed it.

“For the future, I think we’d like to do more on how shows emerge, and the different working processes used by youth theatre companies. And we’re interested in different models of performance that might allow shows to tour to a wider audience – Headz, the Liverpool show, is an interesting example of that, with a huge flexibility about which monologues appear at any one performance.

“On the whole, though, we’re just delighted that this first Chrysalis festival has come together so successfully. Chrysalis is funded for three years, up to 2017; so we hope that over that time we’ll be able to develop the idea much further, and start to make a real positive difference both to the ambition and achievement of youth theatre, and to the quality of debate it inspires, in Scotland and beyond.”

• The next Chrysalis Festival will take place from 11-13 November, 2016

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