Ulidian Youth Drama Group leader, Gemma Walker, discusses the importance the Youth Theatre!
Tell us about your background in Youth theatre, how/why did you become involved?
When I was 12 years old my brother and I joined a drama group at the YMCA in Drumahoe, Derry. I think it was the only drama group in the Waterside at that time (1997) and Wednesday nights quickly became the highlight of my week. It was an escape from everything else that was going on in my life and it instilled in me a lasting confidence and friendships, I maintain to this day. It was a place where all the different teenage factions worked together and I don’t remember experiencing that anywhere else. From about the age of 15, I understood the importance and the value in what we were doing, and I knew I wanted to study it in depth. I eventually went to the University of Birmingham to study English Literature and Drama, with a focus on Theatre in Education in my final year. My tutor on the module offered me work as an Assistant Facilitator on various youth projects before I had even graduated. I was over the moon as this meant I could quit my 10 hour a week bar job and earn the same amount working 2 hours on a Saturday doing something I adored! He was a wonderful mentor, and working with him gave me the confidence and experience to pursue self employment back home. When I returned to Derry in 2007 my drama teacher from the YMCA days offered to hand me the reigns of the group I had been a part of from 1997-2001 (now called Ulidian Youth Drama Group). The first project I directed with them was Macbeth in the creepy surroundings of the Workhouse Museum in Derry and 10 years later I am still leading this group and I’m so proud of the work we have done over the years. I get to watch young people gain confidence and make friendships and surprise themselves the same way I did all those years ago. It never gets old!
Tell us about Ulidian and your work with the group.
Over the years we have worked on all sorts of different projects from Shakespeare to panto, charity nights, murder mysteries and variety shows. The group is for 11-17 year-olds, of all abilities, and is based at The Waterside Theatre in Derry-Londonderry. We are a small group who now focus solely on devising theatre. We never have auditions and completely embrace the idea of collaboration over competition. The projects we work on are very much led by the interests and passions of the individuals within the group, and we are constantly looking for new ways of making theatre and telling stories. The group learn a wide
range of techniques including clowning, mask, improvisation, writing and directing, and we have an interest in taking theatre into unusual spaces and out into the community as often as possible. Earlier this year we did a project involving local care homes and group members even learned some facilitation skills, so they could lead elements of a storytelling workshop with the residents in the homes. This summer we also piloted a ‘Play in a Day’ project which was hugely successful.
Are there any challenges working in Youth Theatre, particularly in NI?
A lot of the work I have done with Ulidian over the last 10 years has been for free or for very little. Thankfully I manage to make enough of a living through my other work as a facilitator and performer. Funding is always difficult. I try to get funding on a project to project basis and we have a lot of support from the Waterside Theatre, which is great, but there’s always been an issue with funding. I believe there is immense value in the work we do but I want the group to be accessible to everyone, so don’t want to charge prohibitively expensive membership fees. On the other hand, there’s a worry that if you offer something for free then it isn’t seen as ‘worthy’. I also wonder if there’s a lack of understanding about the benefits of youth drama (and participation in the arts generally) in that it’s not just about ‘doing a wee play’. Recruitment and commitment can sometimes be problematic when drama is often undervalued.
Why do you think Youth Theatre is important?
Youth Theatre, done properly, is a safe space for creative fulfillment, confidence building and acceptance. There is so much competition and pressure to conform in the lives of young people and I believe that Youth Theatre can be a genuinely inclusive environment where there’s no ‘getting it wrong’. I believe it is important for the young people to feel like they have complete ownership over the work we make and that they feel empowered to take charge of any and all aspects of the creative process. As an industry professional I feel that the competitive nature of the theatre ‘business’ is debilitating, crushing and unhelpful. I also refuse to believe that’s just ‘the way it is’ and that in order to be involved in the industry and do well ‘you have to play the game’. I want the work we do in Ulidian Youth Drama to reflect this belief in the benefits of collaboration and to provide participants with a diverse range of skills and options, so that they feel capable and competent no matter what they choose to do in the future. Most people I know working in the industry today are there because of their involvement with a drama group at a young age. We need to value and encourage Youth Theatre so we can foster the next generation of creative talent in N. Ireland.
What are your thoughts on TheatreNI’s Youth Theatre steering group?
I think it is a brilliant initiative. I cannot wait to meet other people involved in Youth Theatre and hear about the work they are doing. It can be quite an isolating line of work and the idea of forging relationships with other groups nationwide is very exciting. I would like to think this could lead to other opportunities for collaboration and skill sharing which can only be a good thing for the teachers, group members and the sector as a whole.