In the UK, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain has become a bit of an institution over the 60 years since it was founded by the legendary Michael Croft. For me as a teenager some 30 years ago (gulp) it was somewhat of a lifeline when, at the third time of auditioning, I was accepted onto one of their summer courses. It opened my eyes to a world beyond London and the suburbs, and brought me into contact with people I would otherwise never have met.
On Sunday I attended the NYT’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Gala at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and “Story of Our Youth” was mesmerising – not because of the many starry alumni present – but because of the sheer energy of the 90-strong young cast. Many of those young people had not been on a stage before that night, but the level of professionalism was daunting and would put many seasoned performers to shame. As I sat there I recalled the things that I learned during my time at the NYT and how they have served me during a career that did not include treading the boards after all, but focused on the effective communication of information about health and wellbeing – something that unites all of us at one time or another.
Paul Roseby, the current Director of the NYT summed it up very succinctly when he declared that the performances we’d just seen and indeed the work of the National Youth Theatre itself epitomised a currently unfashionable word: ensemble. I don’t think he just meant an ensemble cast though, I think what he really meant is what we achieve when teams work seamlessly together, when by acting together we are more powerful than we might be as individuals, and where each person has an opportunity to shine (and nobody feels threatened by that because we’re all too busy playing to our strengths).
Of course, to do that you have to feel confident about your worth in the first place. Channel 4 News Anchor and NYT alumni Krishnan Guru-Murthy had it right when he said that for those of us who didn’t end up ‘following the dream’ what the National Youth Theatre had given him was self-confidence and self-belief. I think that’s as true now as it was then. For every James Bond (and the NYT has two – Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, both of whom made a point of thanking the organisation for giving them opportunities they would never otherwise have had) there are many people not in that world whose achievements started when somebody saw something in them and gave them a chance.
Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, what the NYT gave me was an acceptance and celebration of difference. In a time when the debate about diversity and opportunity (or the lack of it) is raging, the NYT stands as an organisation which has been consistently supportive of people across the spectrum – the only discriminator is talent in their eyes. Their bursaries support young people in financial hardship who can’t afford to attend their excellent courses, and they have championed new writers and backstage talent with as much gusto as those standing in the spotlight.
Like I say, I learned a lot in a few short weeks and imbibed some lessons that have stood me in good stead throughout my career – and that are as important today as they were then. Who doesn’t want to be part of an ensemble, to feel confident in themselves, and to support diversity of opportunity for all? Thanks, NYT.