A Ripon group treading the boards

Last year's performance of The Wiz. (S)
Last year's performance of The Wiz. (S)

In the first of our new monthly feature, Charity Focus, Gazette reporter Laura Connor speaks to the Ripon Youth Theatre project:

Where can you find a medical scientist, occupational therapist, human resources director and more than 50 school children singing and dancing together in one room?

Look no further than Water Skellgate, where Ripon Youth Theatre (RYT) meets twice-weekly at the Ripon Amateur Operatic Society hall to rehearse its latest production.

Run entirely by adult volunteers who all juggle professional careers with the running of the charity, RYT gathers school kids from Ripon, Grewelthorpe and West Tanfield – ranging from the age of seven to 18 – who get the chance to practise their theatrical passion outside the classroom.

“It helps to bring out their confidence,” says director and choreographer Phill Ruddy, 39, who works as a legal and compliance manager when he’s not busy leaping around a stage or mentoring a shy youngster preparing to sing in front of his peers for the first time.

“It gives them a sense of purpose and brings out a common goal which helps build a team dynamic,” he says.

“A few of them have never had any theatrical experience. The social aspect is really important to us so we want to make sure it’s affordable and open for all.”

Members of the theatre club pay a nominal termly fee to ensure “no-one is excluded because of their circumstances”.

And Phill sees this inclusive approach as a contributory factor to the club’s membership hike – RYT’s has almost doubled its size in two years, from 30 to nearly 60 members.

“It’s because we offer something different and interesting and we don’t exclude people,” says Phill.

The youth club was born in 2010 after leaders of Ripon’s popular operatic society decided the group’s younger members needed a club of their own where they could rehearse and perform separate productions in addition to joining adults in the main shows.

Following last year’s performance of the Wizard of Oz-inspired rock musical The Wiz over three nights at Ripon Grammar School, the group was awarded several accolades at the prestigious Wharfedale Theatre Awards. These included best debut performance for a new group, best actress, best choreographer and five individual performance awards for cast members.

Members have also gone on to perform in professional productions including Boiling Frog at Harrogate Theatre and Oliver! at Leeds Grand Theatre.

But the thrill of performance is not the only enticement attracting young people to the club.

“It gives kids the opportunities they wouldn’t have at school,” says Louise Blakeburn, scientist by day and assistant director and choreographer for RYT by night.

“It gives them some work experience as they are able to help with advertising and programming.

“We give a lot of Duke of Edinburgh references and the club also helps university applications, as kids can show they have gone out and done this rather than sitting in front of the computer all day.”

Louise, 29, says the mix of adults and children working together at the club also helps to build members’ confidence – for both adult volunteers and young singers, dancers and actors alike.

“I never come away in a bad mood,” grins Louise. “You see the children develop from young kids to young adults and it’s really quite emotional. We’re such a great, tight-knit group. It’s a nice community.

“It’s a big commitment but it’s worth it.”

Phill is equally zealous about giving up his free time for the club.

“If I had to give anything up, the last thing would be the youth group,” he says.

Despite the volunteers’ enthusiasm for all things theatrical, they try to take as much of a back seat as possible. RYT has its own member-run committee where youngsters decide how the group is run and what productions they want to stage.

“We try to keep it as much as a democracy as possible,” says Phill.

“It means the kids are far more likely to communicate with their peers if they have their own committee. We see our roles as being about guidance .”

When asked how far they have to exert the same authority as teachers would in a classroom, Phill and Louise laugh.

“There is no mention of discipline because we have never had any problems with behaviour,” says Louise.

And the next production chosen by the kids is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which they are currently busy rehearsing ready for a performance in early March.

Normally members meet on a Saturday when the adult volunteers teach singing, dancing, acting and self-confidence – but rehearsals step up to twice-a-week in the run up to a show.

“We are multi-disciplinary so the stuff we pick has to work for everyone,” explains Phill.

“So this year we ruled out Little Shop of Horrors because there wasn’t enough for the chorus to do. In Les Misérables there is no-one leaping about so there wouldn’t be much for the dancers.”

And Louise thinks the variety of skills required for their performances encourages the kids throughout rehearsals and when in the spotlight on the big night.

“Something that really drives them is that the shows having something for everyone to do,” she says.

Now the group hopes to keep attracting crowds to their productions, boost membership and move into more prestigious venues such as Harrogate Theatre.

“If the adults group can do it,” asks Phill, “then why can’t we?”

lJoseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat takes place at Holy Trinity Church, Ripon, on Friday, March 1, at 7pm, and Saturday, March 2, at 2pm (matinee performance) and 7pm. Tickets are available from Alan’s Gallery, on Kirkgate, in Ripon or at Pomp and Circumstance on Commercial Street, in Harrogate, priced £8. New members can join the waiting list by contacting Louise at louise.chase@btinternet.com