Andrew Harries is the executive director of the Young Actors Theatre in Islington, which educates and encourages young people to get involved in community theatre of all genres. Their most recent production, “Islington: The Opera”, ran during half term and was their first commissioned piece. We talked about the production as well as the wider work the YAT does within the community.
Where did the idea for Islington the Opera come from?
It’s something we talked about two or three years ago and there were various ideas swirling around. We liked the idea of doing something original that we’ve commissioned, having a flavour of the locale and getting the people performing to have some input into the content too. The audacity of doing an opera in an environment like this was appealing and the challenge of doing it was something we knew we could pull off. Then the idea of using Grimaldi as a key central figure to the whole project, since he’s buried just up the road, so that was the final piece of the jigsaw that brought it all together.
It’s not every day you see an opera put on by young people.
If young people have any experience of it at all, it’s usually some recording they’ve caught on TV by mistake whilst flicking channels. There are lots of schemes to get people into the opera houses in London with cheap tickets and outreach work, but it still has all sorts of negative connotations of elitism and boredom about it, which we wanted to confront and break down. I find the form hugely fun, as a director, because there’s no rules. For me that was really exciting and I wanted to convey that to the cast and young performers.
Do you think the young cast really gained a better appreciation of opera through the production?
It was a struggle because a lot of the early rehearsals were spent sitting around a piano bashing notes and learning harmonies. It feels like a real slog and it’s very hard for even me, especially for a young person who’s never been involved in opera before, to see how that can end up being something exciting and different on stage. Thankfully it clicked in the end, when they heard all of the elements coming together: costume, staging, special effects, lighting, the full band, they realised what we had been working towards.
How old were the kids involved in the production?
Our youngest cast member was 7 and the oldest was 23. It was a broad range which is another great thing about what we do here, working on a piece that has been commissioned by us. We were able to say the kind of people and ages we want to be working on it, so the writer was able to work with that to an extent. This was the first production commissioned by us, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.
What kind of shows do you normally put on here?
Our previous show was Evita, before that was a restoration comedy, Man of Mode, so because we’re about education here, we try and throw as many different formats and styles at people so they have a really wide range of knowledge and experience in theatre.
You’ve produced a lot of work by Frederico García Lorca, both here and in other theatres – why are you so inspired by his work?
They’re very poetic and theatrical. There’s an other-worldliness about them in how different Spanish culture is from British culture, but there’s a lot of themes that are very universal too.
How has local theatre changed since you’ve been here?
The theatre has been here in one form or another since 1972 and I’ve been here for 9 years. I think local theatres were very popular and successful, in the glory days of funding in the 70s and early 80s, that was very much something people were doing, but now that’s dropped off. Community theatres like us don’t often have the luxury of being able to commission something that often, because it’s obviously all about money.
How many kids do you work with here?
We have a membership of 700-800 kids who come here regularly, mostly from the local area but some come from further afield because we have an agency and we represent about ¼ of those kids, and that’s worth travelling for. Anyone can join, there’s no audition, but when we’re doing a specific show we hold auditions for the roles, but we try and make sure that the wider community knows that productions are happening and they’re welcome to come along. One of the reasons we offer such a diverse programme is because we want to make sure we’re offering something there’s probably no way every kid here is going to have a chance to do otherwise.
What’s coming up next for the theatre?
We have a few little shows over the summer: cabaret evenings, end of term shows, a play readings, musical theatre evenings. Our next big production will be family-orientated pantomime, but with a twist – including some local stuff, some topical things and some surprising elements that people will enjoy and be astonished by.