As a star of the global smash-hit TV series Outlander, Sam Heughan has the acting world at his feet.
But far from getting carried away amid the glitz, glam, and trappings of fame, Dumfries and Galloway-born Heughan is returning to his roots as the patron of Youth Theatre Arts Scotland (YTAS).
Alongside Kenny McGlashan, chief executive officer at YTAS, he is looking to inspire Scotland’s young people to get involved in the arts.
Before landing the Outlander role, Heughan was involved in various aspects of youth theatre in Edinburgh where he was encouraged to apply for drama school.
“When I was going through school, I joined the Lyceum Youth Theatre and that kind of cemented it”, he explains. “Through being in and around the building and watching shows, I realised that there was something I really loved about it, so I went into the stage management side. I did a bit in the Traverse where I worked with them on the festival and realised quite quickly that I wasn’t cut out for that but the youth theatre gave me an understanding of theatre and the community involved, and I met a lot of friends there.”
The belief that access to the arts shouldn’t be limited by where you live or your ability to participate is at the heart of what YTAS do. A recent survey by the group found that about 60 per cent of its 100 members offer their activities for under £5 or free, and nearly all of them offer bursaries for people to attend.
“I think there can be the perception that you have to have money and you have be middle class, when actually there’s a lot of youth theatre’s running and targeting areas that face multiple barriers”, Kenny explains.
“Youth theatre isn’t just about a precocious child that wants to sing and dance in front of people”, Sam adds. “It’s for everyone; it’s about a community, it’s about being supported by your peer group. You learn skills, not just acting but all the other sides - working in the TV, film and theatre industry.”
Before achieving cult status for his role as Jamie Fraser in Outlander, which Sam describes as “a history adventure romance with time travel”, he was nominated for his part in David Greig’s Outlying Islands in 2002, appeared in Midsomer Murders and BBC soap operas Doctors and River City. He attributes much of the success throughout his career and during his time at drama school to his participation in youth theatre. “I was fortunate that I was one of the older ones in that particular year so they used me a few times in their main shows, as a sort of glorified extra, so I got to meet a lot of actors and a lot of people I looked up to”, he recalls.
“I quickly got to learn who was involved in the Scottish industry, who was running what theatre and it gave me an understanding of the business. It gave me the skills as well like how to be in a main stage show, how to work on my voice or how to prepare for a role - just little things you learn, but when I got to drama school I felt that I was well prepared for that world.”
“I think that what I’d like to instil is that if you join the youth theatre, it’s a gateway into greater career prospects”, he says of his role as patron.
A whole community and lifestyle exists around Scotland’s arts sector, from theatre, television and film. However, encouraging people to participate in it is one of the obstacles Sam and Kenny must overcome. “People can enter at any level and progress however they like”, Kenny explains.
In the lead up to Scotland’s Year of Young People in 2018, YTAS aims to play an important and inspiring role, one which can’t be accomplished without funding. Kenny believes that one of the biggest challenges for the future is local authority funding. “In the coming years we’ll have to make the case to local authority that this is actually vital work, that isn’t just nice to have but will impact your young people and community it you remove that support”.
YTAS is one of Creative Scotland’s Regularly Funded Organisations between 2015-18 and receives under half of its annual turnover from the arts body towards its core costs. Other than that, 25 per cent is raised from youth projects and training with the other 25 per cent coming from fundraising.
A generous body made up of Sam’s fans, under the name of the ‘Heugligans’, has raised over $19,000 (around £13,000) through a JustGiving page to support YTAS. Their generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the star who describes them “terrific and very supportive”.
Even with a few years to go before the Year of Young People, something very special is going on in their community, which Kenny believes is linked to the 2014 independence referendum. He says: “We’ve seen young people become far more engaged in their own voices and politics since the referendum. There’s something really interesting around that, there is something very special going on right now regarding youth arts and it will be very interesting to see in 20 years time what impact that will have on youth theatre, film making and the television industry as well.”
Sam adds: “Scotland is flourishing in the film and tv sector. I know quite a few big productions that are going to be coming here and I think if we get young people involved in the sector, it’s going to pay dividends in the future.”
Youth Arts Theatre Scotland was established in 2004 with 28,500 young people and 1,800 volunteers now involved in youth theatre activity across the country. This November, the group will launch Chrysalis Festival at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh to showcase emerging talent, spark critical debate and challenge perceptions of theatre by young people.