A star is reborn

THERE may be no business like showbusiness, but acting has never really been my forte. My first (and last) foray into drama was in my school's production of Cinderella, where I played the fairy godmother and had to sing a painful solo of Bibbety Bobbety Boo, complete with dance moves. From that moment on I steered clear. If all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then I'm probably best cast as the lighting technician.

However, after watching Helen Mirren pick up her Best Actress award at this week's Oscars, who could blame me for suddenly hankering after a piece of the action? But at 22, and with no experience (bar Bibbety Bobbety Boo, of course), I wondered if I was perhaps a bit over the hill to start seeking my inner thespian. After all, Keira Knightley (23) claims to have been "very single-minded about an acting career" from the age of seven, and Lindsay Lohan (22) had a regular role in a soap opera by the time she was ten.

But I reckoned without the Scottish Youth Theatre, which offers blocks of weekly drama classes for all abilities for ages three to 25 in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It didn't sound all that terrifying, so I decided to face my fear of the spotlight and headed along to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to join the class for 15 to 25-year-olds.

Feeling not particularly confident when I arrived, I decided first to take a look at the 8-11 group in action to find out what I was in for.

Predictably there were a fair number of prima donnas, who might as well have been wearing sandwich boards bearing the slogan "Look at me now!", throwing themselves around the room, repeatedly interrupting each other and generally making a nuisance of themselves. While each of their pushy mothers undoubtedly thought that their own little darling was a Judy Garland in the making, it was the quieter, more observant and less, well, dramatic children who appeared to be getting the most out of the session.

Through a series of games, tutor Kieran McLoughlin was gradually teaching the group to have more control over what they did with their bodies, and encouraged them to look for ways to use the body and its energy efficiently, and to really explore their imaginations.

As it turned out, things were much the same in the 15-25 class. After much ostentatious switching off of mobile phones by the younger members of my group, we all stood in a circle and introduced ourselves. So far, so not-too-scary, but I was feeling rather stiff and painfully aware of my extremities. McLoughlin explained that his approach to drama is "very physical" and that his philosophy was that each of us is "like a set of traffic lights" and we should always be on green - exactly the sort of peppy approach that I had been dreading.

Time for some warm-up exercises, and I was feeling decidedly amber. Thinking I might have to recite a soliloquy in front of the group, I was pleasantly surprised to find that these exercises were just games, designed to make us more aware of our bodies and those around us, and quite good fun in a non-humiliating way. In one exercise, we stepped in and out of a space, in turn, forming different shapes with our bodies. In another, we worked in pairs and simply moved objects around silently. I beamed with pride when McLoughlin observed that the careful manner in which I moved a sheet of paper from a chair to the floor was a mini-performance in itself. Next, in groups of three, we were asked to create a 90-second scenario and perform it for the rest of the group. We had five minutes to write and rehearse the scene, and the results were raw and funny. Once we had seen each performance we were set two more challenges. First to act out the scene without any dialogue, then to act it out silently, and backwards.

Suddenly each scene became more than just a silly little skit. How would we communicate what was taking place in the scene without any dialogue? Could we do it without suddenly exaggerating our movements? How would we mime each movement backwards? (The moment where I fake-slapped another member of our group proved particularly difficult, as I stepped backwards and flailed my arm back from his cheek.)

I would describe myself as a confident person, and generally I don't have a problem with public speaking. However, the group performance was pretty nerve-wracking. I realised that being myself in front of a group was one thing, but playing a character was quite another. Happily there was no need to employ the old "picture the audience in their underwear" trick, as everyone laughed along at our sketch, where I played a jealous fiance berating my cheating partner, and applauded at the end (applauding everyone's work is a firm pre-requisite of the classes).

By the end of the session, I was definitely on green, and I had even made a couple of friends.

"While a very small percentage of people who attend the classes might make a name for themselves in acting, 100 per cent of them will make a friend," explained 17-year-old Ashleigh-Kate Wilson, who has been involved with the Scottish Youth Theatre since she was nine and now helps out as a workshop assistant.

Others have not worked with the Scottish Youth Theatre for so long and view it as a hobby, something they do at the weekend in between work or studying. Laura Rogan, 21, from Selkirk, has been attending the classes for a year. "I've always been curious about drama, but I didn't really get the opportunity to pursue it at school, and after I graduated from college I heard about the Scottish Youth Theatre from a friend," she says. "It's a great hobby and I've made loads of friends through it. I studied radio broadcasting at college, and being involved in drama has given me loads of confidence when it comes to public speaking, so I hope I can apply that to my career in the future."

Building confidence is a key element of the Scottish Youth Theatre's approach. "Drama is fun for people of all ages and all abilities, and it's a wonderful way for young people to build their confidence and develop social skills," says Roy Shuttleworth, a consultant clinical psychologist and the founding chairperson of the British Association of Drama Therapy. "The skills that you pick up through drama can be applied to so many aspects of life, from speaking in front of an audience to memorising information or working as a team. It's a great tool to help young people feel comfortable with themselves."

Alethaea Dhillon from Edinburgh has six children aged between four and 18, all of whom have attended classes with the Scottish Youth Theatre. She says that the classes have helped to improve her children's confidence. "Most of my children were very shy when they were younger, but coming to the Scottish Youth Theatre has really brought them out of their shells. When my eldest applied for university she said that her experiences with drama meant that she felt relaxed and confident in her interviews. At the other end, my youngest started classes when she was just three, and wasn't yet speaking. She immediately became much more confident and now she is very sociable."

McLoughlin agrees that the transformations in many of the students are incredible. "I teach young people from three right up to 25 and I find that they all get something out of the classes, whether or not they are particularly interested in drama," he says. "I've seen a lot in the 15-25 age group who are incredibly shy to begin with, and their development is incredible to watch. One of the key things about our approach is that you don't have to be an actor to take part, and the classes are great for improving speaking and listening skills. We've had lots of young people who have gone on to university and have been able to apply what they have learned to interviews, public speaking or just social situations."

There is something a little intimidating about drama that makes most people feel that it's not for them. However, despite taking us out of our comfort zones, as I discovered, most people find it good fun, whether their talents are Oscar-worthy or more befitting of a SouthAmerican soap opera.

Famous Alumni of the Scottish Youth Theatre

• The head newsreader on Five News, and the presenter of BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs, Kirsty Young was involved with SYT as a youngster.

• Singer KT Tunstall attended one of SYT's summer schools.

• Actor Gerard Butler played a street urchin in SYT's production of Oliver! and has gone on to appear in Reign of Fire, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Phantom of the Opera.

• Actor and Taggart star Colin McCredie joined SYT when he was 15.

• Sea of Souls and Holby City actress Siobhan Redmond began her acting career with a year at SYT in 1977.

• Ugly Betty and Extras star Ashley Jensen took part in an SYT production as a teenager.

• Teen heartthrob Sean Biggerstaff got his big break at SYT when Alan Rickman asked him to play the role of Tom in Sharman McDonald's drama The Winter Guest. He went on to play Oliver Wood in two Harry Potter films.

• Valerie Edmond, who appeared in the TV adaptation of Iain Banks's The Crow Road, took part in SYT back in 1984.

• Taggart actress Blythe Duff worked with SYT for seven years before she landed the role of DS Jackie Reid in the TV cop drama.

• Primeval's Douglas Henshall joined SYT with a friend while he was still at school.