Meet the young actors born without silver spoons on social inclusion drama course

National Youth Theatre

National Youth Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Bridget Galton talks to a participant and a director of social inclusion theatre course, Playing Up.

National Youth Theatre

National Youth Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Much has been made of the privilege of our current stage and screen stars – and the prohibitive cost of theatre training.

But the 18-25s who meet thrice weekly at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre are far from being born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

Aimed at NEETs (not in education, employment or training) Playing Up is a nine-month long acting course that reaches the young people other National Youth Theatre projects don’t reach.

Based on need not talent, students are referred by parole officers and social workers and have experienced abuse, homelessness, mental health problems, addiction and prison, says NYT associate director Anna Niland.


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“These young people have been at risk and faced challenges that made them drop out of education. Some have been in care, some have depression, but working together we create a closeknit group, a bit of a family.”

Since it started seven years ago, 150 young people have completed the course – the equivalent of a Higher Education Diploma or two A -levels – with 86 per cent progressing to employment or training such as drama school, university or professional acting jobs. “It’s an intense course that’s been really successful, with a huge amount of progression which in that demographic is extraordinary.

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“They learn transferable skills; trust, building a community, working together in a way they have never managed to do before.

“By the time they finish they are self sufficient and have the confidence to stand on their own two feet in a bigger group.”

Originally from Glasgow and of Iranian heritage, Aref Akbari is among 25 students who started this year. The 20 who stayed the full length of the course perform their end of year show at the Arcola, watched by the National Theatre’s casting director.

“I moved to London at 17 to get away from an abusive environment and make a better life,” the 24-year-old explains.

“I thought I had family problems but the world can be a harsh place and family was not my only problem. I became rebellious, self destructive and used to get into trouble.”

After finding himself homeless when his landlord evicted him, he now lives in a hostel where his case worker put him in touch with the NYT. “I always wanted to be an actor since I was a kid. Then at 18 I watched The Godfather and it’s difficult to put into words but it felt like real life. I just wanted to be like Al Pacino.

“I was also interested in psychology, how you had to behave a certain way to survive and how people can switch their behaviour.”

Now hoping to audition for East 15 drama school, he cannot praise Playing Up highly enough.

“It’s very technical, educational. We’ve done so many great modules –audition technique, naturalism. I learned so much it’s been an inspiration. I have depression and anxiety but here I have had a lot of support and understanding from my teachers and the other students.

“There’s a great sense of understanding each other, it’s not too judgmental so I felt comfortable.

“My teachers have helped me to overcome my emotional difficulties – I honestly don’t think I would have finished a course anywhere else. The only reason I survived to the end is because of their moral support.”

NYT commissions two writers every year to create new pieces that showcase the students in a positive way.

This year, Ripple by Monsay Whitney features a young person who wants to commit suicide, and Besieged by Aisha Zia is an abstract work about both the hidden, internal war in daily life and more conventional conflicts.

Niland says the ethos of the course, which is funded by City and Islington College, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and Henry Smith Charity is to instil discipline and professionalism.

“Talk to any actor and discipline is a huge part of the job. This is not like school, it’s a professional theatre rehearsal room doing work to a really high standard.

“We expect them to be in on time and leave their s**t at the door because this is a space for work and we’re not happy with anything other than best practice.”

In addition to boosting social inclusion and diversity within the acting profession Playing Up is the catalyst for huge change within the performers themselves.

“Drama is absolutely brilliant at giving people the opportunity to work out who they are by observing other people and characters,” says Niland.

“You have to think about the way you behave, your relationship with other people. It’s not drama therapy but it is an opportunity to play – these students might have missed the early years of play and can go back to who they are without all the f**k up bits in the middle.

“It’s the chance to be someone other than yourself and understand the make up of a person.”

She has seen the transformation for herself. “The end of year pieces are always really relevant. There’s a vibrant, edgy, raw energy and it’s so moving to see them do incredible work and to see how much it means to them. You can see these huge journeys, from how they were at the beginning to becoming active citizens who want to participate in life. It’s life changing.”

Ripple and Besieged are performed at The Arcola on June 29, 30, and July 1 and 2.

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