Myself and my friend Marianne Yeomans met in 2002, just after I had graduated from Glasgow University, to discuss changing the dance school that Marianne had inherited from Peggy Ingles into a youth theatre. It was something that Largs was calling out for. There were two great community theatre groups, but if you weren't interested in musicals or being in plays with 60 year olds, then there wasn't much for you. So we thought we could change that. We called a public meeting to see if there was interest from the local community in helping us do this and I vividly remember the first meeting (there's not much I vividly remember about anything, but this is an exception) where a great group of parents and theatre enthusiasts gathered together and we formed a plan. At first we didn't know what we were doing! Our very first performance, from what I remember, was a similar take on what Marianne had been doing with the dance school, a panto-esque show written in Marianne's distinctive rhyming verse. We put it on in a church hall and...well... nobody died! We followed this with a show at the local theatre, using some pretty bland and safe plays from the school curriculum, but they were a success and we were certainly finding our feet. But as we got to understood the children better, and we got used to working with one another and our enthusiastic board, we started to see the potential of what youth theatre in general could be. One of the first big shifts forward for the group was when Joan Braniff, a volunteer with a great love of theatre, managed to secure the group funding from the Scottish Arts Council. This allowed us to bring in professionals to run masterclass and to help advise Marianne and I. We learned about redrafting, story structure and a bunch of other skills that I hadn't really touched whilst at university. The strongest memory I have of this education was when Marianne and I had written a new comedy based on MacBeth (Something Wicked - Macbeth was a pop star and killed off the rest of his band), and we had it professionally dramaturged (though we never used that word - I don't even think it was a word back then) and the amount we learned in those short sessions really set us up.
Small Town Icarus - at the Lyceum The group had four main strands. Every couple of years we would do a show that people would know a bit about, things like The Jungle Book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. On alternative years we worked towards Guildhall certificates in acting, when not doing those things we were working on core skills and - the final strand which became the most important for us - was working on creating new theatre.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The drive to create new pieces and for the focus to be on the process and not the end product was definitely the great discovery that I made whilst at the group and I believe it is what made us extremely popular with over 200 young people attending every week. Young people weren't coming to rehearse. They were coming to chat to their friends, to explore their imaginations, to have lots and lots of fun through creativity. They were encouraged to be themselves, to tell the stories that they wanted. Can't sing? Who cares. Can't dance? No problem. Not even sure if you want to act? Well that's ok too. The actual creation of original shows was where our focus lay. We wrote songs, scripts and choreographed dance routines for them, but the underlying ideas always came from them. Sometimes the parents in the audience were left baffled by our shows - but that didn't matter to us, as the shows were by the young people and also for them. Granny Jones would rather see The Phantom of the Opera? Fine, let Granny Jones do that - we have written a show about a monster made of chocolate who is defeated by some children armed with hair-dryers, take it or leave it - the making of it is the fun bit! We experimented as much as we could. One of my favourite ventures was when we joined up with our other youth theatre in Greenock and put on spooky plays in a hut in a field! Or when we received a grant from the heritage fund and created a DVD about the Vikings, with a full sung-through musical section telling the story of Odin and his one eye! We also had a big hit in our Largs Has Got Talent show - the first one was the talk of the town and raised us a great deal of money that we could spend on making interesting shows.
Flashbacks - At Kelburn Country Centre, ghost story-esque plays
The young people loved to be doing different things every term - I loved to try something new. It didn't always work. But we always had fun trying. Personally the biggest turning point for me was when our committee managed to organise us to take part in National Theatre Connections. All of a sudden we were learning from the very best in the industry, theatre directors from the National Theatre were coming to watch our plays in Largs! And then we went to the beautiful Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh and put on a great performance of Davey Anderson's Blackout. It was a tough, hard hitting play. And the amount I learned from doing it and from working with the NT was massive, and I am sure those memories last long with the young people too.
Blackout starring Matt Hickman We did the festival another couple of times, the second time creating our own play. And that was when I started to realise that what we were doing was really fantastic and, at the tender age of 30, I left the group to go and train to be a professional director and writer - a career that I have been lucky to have had for the last decade. But no matter what project I work on now the skills, the creativity, the joy of making something new that I found at Largs remains. I sometimes bump into ex-students and it's brilliant to remind ourselves of the fun we had. Youth theatre is a safe space. A place for the weirdos and the misfits to get together and make something brilliant. I am delighted that LYT is still up and running and is still making memories for the young people of Largs and beyond.