By Graham Chalmers
Everyone has to start somewhere but, when it comes to the great and good of the acting world, the chances are they started in youth theatre.
It tends to be the forgotten side of the thespian world but without it there would probably be, for example, no Maxine Peake (ex-Octagon Youth Theatre, Bolton) or Harrogate’s very own panto celebrity Tim Stedman (ex-Cheshire County Youth Theatre).
Harrogate Theatre has always taken its youth policy seriously, witness the launch last year of its own dedicated space for learning theatre skills called The Hive.
But if greater proof was needed of that commitment it comes in the shape of this year’s summer production by Harrogate Youth Theatre.
Running from August 6-8 in the main auditorium, the theatre is calling on all its big guns for its family production of Who Shot the Sheriff - A Tale of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
The writer is renowned York performance poet Henry Raby who was commissioned by Harrogate Theatre.
The director is the theatre’s own esteemed associate director Phil Lowe.
And the guest star is Harrogate Theatre acting legend Tim Stedman who has thrilled thousands of panto lovers at Harrogate Theatre over the past 15 incredible years.
Appearing for the first time in Harrogate Youth Theatre is Tim’s way of paying back all the support he had as a youngster - as well as it being fun to play the evil Sheriff of Nottingham!
Tim, who graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, said: “I lived and breathed Cheshire County Youth Theatre from the age of 14.
“I enjoyed seven action-packed summers full of drama, writing, improvisation, dance, mime, stage combat, not to forget two heartbreaking teenage romances!
“Harrogate is so lucky to have a theatre which values all age groups. Few venues have such a vibrant youth theatre.”
Writer Henry Raby, who some might remember from a previous visit to Knaresborough’s Release the Hounds literary festival, said it was the involvement of a young cast which persuaded him to take up Harrogate Theatre’s writing commission.
A youth theatre graduate himself, Henry said: “Young people bring a unique perspective that adults struggle to cling onto. Young people are always seeking a challenge, and youth theatre shows are always a display of keen energy. What makes them special is you’re not just seeing the next generation’s Lawrence Oliviers and Patrick Stewarts, but you’re also seeing actors who, for this summer, this production is the most important thing imaginable.“
Henry describes his new version of the classic Robin Hood tale more as a case of “merry kids than merry men.”
Infused with the energy of youth, this classic tale of people fighting against tyranny will retain the well-known plotline but add extra farce, slapstick and swordplay.
Henry said: “Because the cast are young themselves, they have the energy and bravery of young people. In the script, they are told they are dirty, rude and intolerable.
“But young people are especially good at recognising fairness, and I think re-imagining Robin Hood and his gang as teenagers makes their quest to stop the villainy of the Sheriff extra-exciting.”
Hannah Draper, head of education at Harrogate Theatre, plays a key role in the development of young talent with regular classes and workshops at The Hive.
From her time in her early days as a volunteer at York’s Theatre Royal, Hannah has always been well aware of the benefits of collaborating as widely as possible.
“The summer show is always an incredible collaboration between education and production. The scale of its ambition is the equivalent of the annual panto. It’s a great opportunity for fresh talent to learn from us and for our team to be challenged to create for their energy and enthusiasm.
“The launch of Hive last year has increased our numbers and the work we do with talented young people. I can’t wait to see how our first summer commission entertains families of all ages.”
Raby’s script will be in good hands with Phil Lowe, who also co-writes and directs the theatre’s highly-acclaimed annual Christmas pantomime.
It’s not his first time with Harrogate Youth Theatre. He also directed recent summer productions, The BFG and The Witches, both of them Roald Dahl adaptations.
The fact Who Shot the Sheriff - A Tale of Robin Hood and Maid Marian is all original says Harrogate wants to be on the leading edge of youth theatre.
Which is, perhaps, why popular favourite Tim Stedman will be appearing on stage for once in summer rather than winter.
Tim certainly hasn’t forgotten his youth theatre years.
“I can’t think of a course, a class or any other experience that had such an impact on my teenage years.
“It gave me confidence, a voice, a passion and drive - plus a feeling of acceptance.
“It taught me diplomacy, leadership, it allowed me to fail and I also learnt how crushing teenage romances can be!”
Who Shot The Sheriff runs at Harrogate Theatre from August 6-8.
For tickets, call 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk