Theatre Critic and Journalist

Paul Roseby on the National Youth Theatre

Paul Roseby on the National Youth Theatre

Published in The Stage, 2.10.2014

Two years ago, the National Youth Theatre very nearly folded. A pile-up of financial problems left the company with debts reported as £650,000 and, but for a £200,000 extraordinary grant from the Arts Council, no way back.

Today, the company’s official line is to call it “a perfect storm.” Three distinct problems coincided.  First, a major flaw in the organisation’s financial model meant that project funds were being used to cover core costs, on top of which a large corporate contract, for work completed in China in 2010, was broken when a subcontractor reneged, leaving the company £160,000 out of pocket. Then, with the recession taking hold, donations started to dry up, some to the tune of £50,000 plus.

“All elements conspired against us to create a financial black hole,” says artistic director Paul Roseby. “If it had happened in any other year, I think the organisation would have closed down.”

Instead, with the NYT already booked to produce welcome ceremonies for athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics three months later, the Arts Council rallied. “It was the best time for it to happen. If we’d closed down before then, it would have been an absolute scandal.”

No one would have been more devastated than Roseby. A member at 17, covering costs by selling clothes door-to-door, then acting alongside Daniel Craig, the NYT “entirely changed my reference points.” He never really left, running introductory courses, directing shows, and finally rising to joint artistic director with John Hoggarth in 2004. Three years later, Hoggarth returned to freelance directing, leaving Roseby in charge.

Today, dapper as ever, with a pink pocket square that syncs perfectly with his pink shirt, Roseby is loudly advocating the organisation, no matter which member of the Soho House mid-morning set is listening in. “I’ve been doing this job for ten years and it’s only now that I really, really understand it. It’s always evolved. The nature of the people it works with means it has to. It’s never going to stand still. That’s the beauty of it.”

Faced with crisis, Roseby cancelled three planned productions and began a major overhaul of staff. He spent his first week as CEO orchestrating reduncancies. A company of 18 permanent staff reduced to nine, with some 250 associate artists employed on a project-by-project basis.

“With hindsight, it’s what’s known as an opportune crisis,” he admits. “It remodelled our financial structure, our trustees and the way we work as a much tighter, smaller organisation.” For the last two years, the NYT has run a surplus. Two-thirds of its income is now earned. Arts Council funding only 11%.

Cards on the table: I love the NYT. It’s a big part of who I am, let alone what I do, thanks to two utterly formative weeks at its Holloway Road HQ aged 14. Formative, not just for the realisation that life meant theatre and theatre, life, but for the way it expanded my horizons beyond measure. Stupid as it sounds – and blinkered as I was – I met my first northerners through the National Youth Theatre. I saw a different London, a world away from the leafy suburban corner I knew. Others left home for the first time, or experienced their first major city. It sounds ridiculous now, but for teenagers, all that is seismic.

What you don’t realise at the time is how much that’s sewn into the organisation’s DNA. You think you’ve joined a youth theatre – and you have – but you’ve also enrolled in a life school. “The difference between us as other education establishments is that we don’t teach, we learn,” says Roseby. That sounds pat and well-rehearsed, but there’s truth in it. The NYT functions largely through the new encounters and experiences it makes possible.

All of which means the NYT’s value isn’t limited to the theatre industry. “It’s a starting point to many successful routes, whatever your chosen field is…Without it, many of our cultural icons wouldn’t exist, sure, but neither would many of our great teachers, lawyers, journalists, better citizens.”

“I passionately believe it’s about championing the alternative,” Roseby continues. “Always – always – we’ll look for the alternative route, the alternative individual.” As a result, NYT members meet people from different walks of life, different cities, different social strata. “It breaks down those social barriers, because it is genuinely classless. If you start at the National Youth Theatre with a chip on your shoulder, you leave having lost it.”

It’s that philosophy – “banning the bland,” as Roseby puts it – which has left the National Youth Theatre with a superb record on diversity. “Our stats are better than any other national institution,” he explains, an edge of vindication in his voice; not from positive discrimination, but from valuing talent and personality whatever it looks like and wherever it comes from. One in four of last year’s new acting members were BAME; over half of its performers are women. The overwhelming majority of new members – 78% – live outside of London.

Each year, some 4,800 young people apply to join the company, the majority as actors, but a fifth in technical capacity. After around 100 audition days nationwide, each consisting of a workshop and a solo audition, around 700 are accepted as members and invited to undertake an introductory course; either the standard two weeks, or for those over 17, the six week Epic Stages programme.

Presently, the company has between 5,000 and 6,000 members after increasing its upper-age limit from 21 to 25, a decision Policy and Public Affairs Manager Joe Duggan attributes to the sense of a “lost generation,” leaving higher education without stepping straight into a career. Of those, around 1000 have some interaction with the NYT in some capacity or other each year, but only 15 are part of the organisation’s rep company.

They spend nine months training with the NYT, culminating in a three-month rep season at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End, playing around Stomp in the West End. “I still believe you don’t need three years to train as an actor,” Roseby says, still unrepentant despite criticism from drama school leaders. “I also don’t believe you need to pay £30,000.”

The scheme is intentionally vocational. “The best way of learning is to ask someone who’s doing it for real.” Each performer gets a mentor – perhaps casting director Wendy Spon or actor-playwright Lolita Chakrabati – and one show is made with a young playwright. This year, Brad Birch is behind Selfie, a modern spin on Dorian Gray: “We have such a strong new writing culture that anything which brings young actors closer to writers can only be a good thing,” he says. Furthermore, the West End platform means more casting directors and agents are in.

But, it’s only for 15 of 5,000. Isn’t that over elitist? “That’s life,” says Roseby. “We don’t apologise for that. We celebrate excellence.” They did try to double the number with a rep scheme and an Arts Council uplift, but failed to secure funding. “It’s important that the company has an aspirational structure, without being impossible to get into.”

There are other, more participatory opportunities: welcome ceremonies at the Commonwealth Games this year; a new writing scheme, Boiler Room, with West Yorkshire Playhouse and Sheffield Theatres; Creative Pathways, intended to help would-be creatives; Playing Up, a vital nine-month scheme for NEETs, equivalent to two A Levels and aimed at opening up higher education. International tours, as well: China and Saudi Arabia in recent years. “We were working with local young people on the ground,” says Roseby. “That’s absolutely pioneering.”

Many more will benefit in time. The NYT’s HQ is about to undergo a massive refurbishment as part of a new Holloway Road development. “A home for our membership,” says Duggan, that means double the rehearsal spaces – further enhancing earning potential – and double the members they can work with at once. 2012 will suddenly seem a long time ago.

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