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‘Youth theatre gives young people a voice and the courage to use it’

April 29th, 2024 11:00 AM

By Helen Riddell

‘Youth theatre gives young people a voice and the courage to use it’ Image
Some of the cast of Castletownbere Youth eatre, at rehearsals: Standing – Graham Shanahan, Emma Murphy, Iya Harrington, Mela Spencer and Isabelle Sugrue. Kneeling: Ava O’Sullivan and Shane O’Sullivan. (Photos: Anne Marie Cronin)

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Five years ago, two women formed what would become Castletownbere Youth Theatre, with help from West Cork Arts Centre. It has since gone from strength to strength, empowering young people and giving them a range of skills, writes HELEN RIDDELL.

CASTLETOWNBERE Youth Theatre, which launched in 2019, has now become a vital social hub for young people on the Beara peninsula, giving them a space to explore and develop new skills.

The group was founded by Shirley Cahill and Maria O’Sullivan who both come from a theatrical background. Shirley studied speech and drama at the London College of Music, and Maria has been involved with Glengarriff Theatre Group since its it foundation in 2000. Shirley explained that they had always wanted to bring theatre skills to the youth of Beara, one of Ireland’s most westerly and remote peninsulas.

‘Myself and Maria had many conversations about setting up a youth theatre group in Beara. Growing up in an area not having a direct, personal or immersive link with the theatre, reduces opportunities and makes it harder to access the arts.’

The two women initiated more formal discussions with Youth Theatre Ireland, the national development organisation for youth theatre, who gave start-up finance, and together with support from the Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre, Castletownbere Youth Theatre was formed for young people aged 12 to 18.

It was a long, but worthwhile process, said Shirley.

‘It didn’t happen overnight, but we knew there was an identified need to create connections locally and beyond in the arts for young people, and the support of our voluntary committee has been vital in our activities.’

The group launched with a series of taster workshops in 2019, but were forced to pause due to the pandemic, restarting again in 2021, in what was a very different world.

‘We were facilitating the same demographic, but in a vastly different social climate where mental health and wellness and social and personal development were very much to the forefront,’ recalled Shirley. ‘Our first performance, Isolation was to a socially-distanced and masked audience.’

The 23-strong group meets during term-time and covers a variety of themes in the weekly workshops including circus, Shakespeare, musical theatre, movement, and theatre sports.

Following parental requests they now have a junior group for children aged 10 plus. Shirley feels that any young person has the ability to participate.

‘Anyone can do performance, it’s so open and connects you to other people, you find a common ground. While performing on stage is the final outcome, the process can be more beneficial.

‘Everyone has some kind of baggage and things going on in their lives, but when they come into the room they drop all that and they’re present in the moment. There is a learning process, but we have great fun. As a group, they’re very connected to each other, but at the same time they are very open and welcoming to new members joining them.’

The group put on yearly performances open to the wider community, and have recently become affiliated with Youth Theatre Ireland, which Shirley hopes will lead them on to bigger and better things. ‘Youth Theatre Ireland has vast connections and offers performance and development opportunities which would not otherwise be available,’ she explained.

Co-facilitator Maria O’Sullivan said the group gives young people a head start. ‘Youth theatre gives young people a voice and the courage to use that voice. It provides a space for them to learn without judgement, and for them to explore and try things. They make connections that they’ll have for life.’

Local parents are also championing the benefits of the group. Paul Harrington’s 13-year-old daughter Iya is a member and he says it has given her skills which will serve her in the future.

‘Socially it’s very good, Iya has met children from different schools, she’s learning a lot of new skills, public speaking, and performing in public, it’s built her confidence. There’s a great concept of team work, Shirley and Maria are hugely dedicated to it and the children have a lot of their own creative input.’

Cindy Van Nulck credits the group with helping her son Graham mentally, emotionally, and physically. ‘All through national school Graham tried to fit in with his peers, but was judged as being too loud, and he found it hard to be liked. As a parent that’s heart-breaking to experience.

‘We discovered that he has a type of ADHD, so he joined Castletownbere Youth Theatre two years ago and since then he’s a different person. He feels he fits in, nobody judges him, he can be loud or quiet, but ultimately he can be himself. All credit goes to Maria and Shirley – I can’t praise them higher.’

Elaine Martin Sullivan’s 11-year-old daughter Sadie thoroughly enjoys the group. ‘It’s really given Sadie more confidence. Creativity and play is so important, as children get older that creativity can be lost, the youth theatre supports that creativity. In the run-up to a performance they’re very busy, but that, too, gives them a sense of responsibility.’

Shirley feels the group provides a crucial outlet for young people in Beara.
‘It addresses a variety of needs, education in performing arts; an alternative recreational activity, it is accessible to all in Beara, including the most marginalised members of our community.

‘Youth theatre is empowering and supports young people’s capacity to build resilience and increase coping skills. I hope that when they grow up, they can look back and think “I’m glad I did that”.’

Castletownbere Youth Theatre meet on Wednesday evenings at Scoil an Chroí Ró-Naofa, Castletownbere.

The group’s next performance will take place in May with details to be announced

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