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NYT: Associate Director, Anna Niland Interview: “Even though we don’t sit and talk about politics, the rehearsal room is full of reactions to the world outside.”

Anna Niland is the Associate Director of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain (NYT). “I started at NYT 8 years ago and set up the ‘Playing Up’ course with director Peter Collins. I now oversee NYT courses, direct some of the shows like Pigeon English in the West End last year and oversee the NYT REP Company. It is pretty hectic as a role – but I love it,” says Niland, with a grin.

We are talking in a rehearsal room at Arcola Theatre, east London, where she is putting the finishing touches to the Playing Up company’s annual creation, Three, follows three sisters who fight to keep track of reality as their world is turned upside down following their father’s release from prison. It features participants between the ages of 19 – 24 years old and not in full time education, employment or training. Rather terrifically, the project has an 85% success rate of moving young people into higher education, further training or employment.

On my way to the theatre I notice some curious graffiti, on a door opposite the venue that reads: ‘Fuck Teresa May’. Did she feel any post-election tension with young people when they were making work, I ask. “It does come into the room, because also these young people sign on and they have to pay for their hostels or other accommodation. It’s really difficult to work with job centres that don’t believe that attending an arts course like this for fifteen hours a week is essential,” she pauses. “We come across these barriers all the time. Fundamental housing problems, benefits being cut and sanctions. Even though we don’t sit and talk about politics, the rehearsal room is full of reactions to the world outside.”

What can participants expect if they sign up for a project like this? Playing Up starts in October and finishes in July – it’s a course dedicated to young people who are not in education or training. It’s about getting young people who have dropped out of education for one reason or another back into the system,” says Niland. “Each year the course culminates with the staging of one or two new plays at a professional venue. We have been developing this play since December with the writer Sophie Ellerby and the characters are developed for and with the company.”

Schemes such as Playing Up’ certainly make the case for subsidy. But if more money was used at the grassroots, how many more great artists might we produce and why don’t more theatre’s learning departments follow suit? “I’d love for us to work with more organisations… I think the slight stumbling block for a lot of theatres is that it is expensive and there’s a lot of paper work because it is accredited. You have to work with an educational body,” she says. “We have to fundraise about £180,000 per year. We start with 25 young people and despite intensive pastoral support we often finish with less than that, because of the variety of challenges the type of young people we’re working with face. It’s a very time and staff-intensive programme. It is a massively important part of what we do so that we engage with outreach over a long-term really strategically, alongside all the bursaries we give to access our other activity.”

Three is a new commission in the year that NYT marks 50 years of commissioning new work for young people, the East End season culminates in a performance of their first commission in 1967, Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger. The ambition to do something different is what has spurred her on. “I would like to say that this kind of work is quite rare and I wish it wasn’t, because this is literally changing lives. Some of these young people are moving on to our NYT REP Company, LAMDA and Guildhall,” she smiles. “So, I would say never underestimate young people who have had challenges in their lives.”

There are plenty of opportunities to participate with schemes ranging from summer schools to 6 day masterclasses. “There’s lots of different ways to get involved with NYT,” she explains. “One of the ways is to do Playing Up which is a longer route in if you are not in employment, education or training and we offer bursaries so it’s all free. The other route is to come to an audition day because you don’t know until you’ve been. No financial barriers should ever stand in the way of becoming a member. We also do short courses, week long masterclasses,” she says.

From January 2018 NYT will be heading to over 40 arts venues & schools across the UK to meet undiscovered young people to join the celebrated company of talented individuals. “I would say come along and see some of our work. NYT isn’t about producing professional actors; along the way it does and a lot of people do go into theatre. Also, the success rate of the technical courses and moving into the industry is high. Don’t be your own judge – if you’re interested in doing it, get involved with your local groups. Get experience with your local youth theatre, take a leap of faith – take a risk. Auditions are now open.”

Playing Up: Three opens at Arcola, London from 20 July until 22 July. Box office: 020-7503 1646

The NYT nationwide acting auditions and backstage interviews applications are currently open at http://www.nyt.org.uk/auditions