Showtime! Youth production of Guys and Dolls is in town
As a spectacular new youth production of Guys and Dolls hits the stage at the Grand Opera House this week, its talented young stars tell Audrey Watson how they've brought the classic musical to life in less than a fortnight.
Tourists passing Belfast's Grand Opera House this week might be forgiven for thinking that the city centre venue is in fact, a school – albeit one packed with very noisy, yet well-behaved children.
Hundreds of young people from all over Northern Ireland are currently beavering away to bring the story of New York's 1950s-era, high-rolling gamblers and their long-suffering girlfriends to life in a junior version of hit musical, Guys and Dolls.
These youngsters, who have taken over every inch of the ornately-beautiful theatre, are on a mission – they have to have the show up and running from scratch, after only two weeks of rehearsal.
Every available room is packed with groups of young people learning their lines, practising dance routines, assembling props, warming up their vocal chords and doing all that needs to be done to ensure everything is perfect for the opening performance this Thursday.
It is a school – of sorts. It's the Grand Opera House Summer Youth Project, which offers 250 young people, between the ages of 10–19, the opportunity to mount a professional production on its magnificent stage.
"Sometimes it's more like military manoeuvres and crowd control, than a stage production," laughs director Tony Finnegan. "But the kids are all fantastic."
"We only have 10 days to pull everything together as we started the Sunday before last, July 13, and open this week, so it's very full on. "It's the same process as for a normal production, only speeded up – a lot!
"The kids fall into two categories – the older ones (over 16s) are able to rehearse longer and I can work with them into the early evenings, but the younger ones have to be finished by 4pm.
"Everyone – even the props and set designers – does a vocal warm-up together, every morning at 10am, on the stage. I join in as well. It evokes a great sense of camaraderie and fun that stays with us throughout the day.
"I have an assistant and the musical director, Wilson Shields, and choreographer, Rebecca Leonard, also each have an assistant, so there are six of us, each working with one of six groups at one time.
"It's a good job the Opera House has so many rooms," he laughs.
"What's been amazing, though, is the discipline of the young people. They are so focused and determined and are working really hard."
Tony, who is originally from Newtownards, is usually based in Dublin where he runs his own theatre company, Festival Productions. He's used to working with large casts of children. But not on this scale and never before to a two-week deadline.
"I'm normally very structured and a bit OCD about directing, but I've had to let that go quite a bit for this," he laughs. "But it's a wonderful experience and lots of fun."
"What's great about this project is that as well as aspiring dancers and actors, there is also a crew of young people working behind the scenes with the technical and backstage crew, all developing new skills and learning how theatre works and comes together.
"Six young musicians are also joining the professional orchestra during the production.
"There are lots of drama summer schools all over Northern Ireland, but what sets this apart is that the participants are getting to perform and work in what I consider to be the best theatre in Ireland."
As the busy production nears its completion we spoke to some of the young people who are currently hard at work bringing the show to life.
'All the kids, younger and older, get along'
Sam Jordan (17), from Newtownards, plays suave, intelligent gambler, Sky Masterson. He has just finished his AS-levels in biology, chemistry, physics and maths at Campbell College, Belfast. He says:
"I've no idea where my interest in drama comes from. Up until first year, I'd never really thought about it at all.
Growing up, my mum and dad, who both work in banking, took me to the theatre the odd time, but it wasn't something we did a lot.
As I was at a new school, I just thought I would try something new and auditioned for the school play, which was Oliver, and ended up getting the lead role – which was a shock.
I really enjoyed it and when the Opera House Youth Project began four years ago, I applied and got the part of Dandy Dan in Bugsy Malone.
I was over the moon as I never thought I would be able to do anything like that. I've been in every summer project since. I love it.
It might seem strange when there is such a large cast, but all the older kids and all the younger ones get along.
Everyone finds a wee young one that they get along with particularly well and become friends with.
Next year, I am going to apply for drama school, but also for medicine.
It's a bit of a contrast, I know, but I'm really interested in doing both and whatever I choose career-wise, I'll always be involved in drama in some way."
'Being in the chorus is such good fun'
Catherine O'Reilly (10) is the youngest member of the cast. She attends Strandtown Primary School in Belfast and is part of the chorus. She says:
"When I was six, I started doing drama, because I really liked reading poems.
I did a drama exam last year and I am doing another one this year.
I want to be a scientist when I grow up, but I want to do some acting as a hobby. I love being in the chorus, but sometimes it's really hard to remember what to do.
My older sister, Miriam, who is 12, is taking part as well. She is in the chorus too.
Even though it's the summer holidays, I don't mind getting up early.
"This is my first time doing the summer project and it's really good fun. I've made lots of new friends."
'Theatre is much more than a hobby for me'
Kaitlyn Clarke from Belfast, plays Miss Adelaide, who has been engaged to Sky's rival, Nathan Detroit, for 14 years. The 18-year-old has just finished A-levels in music, theatre studies and English at Ballyclare High School. She says:
"I've always been into drama and started performing when I was 13. My first show was actually Guys & Dolls at The Mill in Newtownabbey. I played Adelaide in that as well.
My mum and dad and older sister are not into acting or theatre at all and they do wonder sometimes where my interest came from.
I did want to do musical theatre as a career and had an audition for Guildford School of Acting, but I didn't get in. In September, I'm hoping to go to Queen's University to study English and philosophy. But whatever I do as a career, I'll always be involved in theatre and acting in some way. It's much more than a hobby. It really does mean a lot to me.
I've taken part in the summer project before. Last year, I played the part of a Boylan sister in Annie. I think it's a really fantastic scheme and it allows you to get incredible experience. I just wish it had been around when I was much younger.
Working with a professional director such as Tony has been amazing. And as an amateur, to get an opportunity to perform on the stage of the Grand Opera House is just incredible.
My whole family – and anyone else my mum can persuade – will be coming along to watch the show."
'I love being backstage'
Chelsea-Leigh Purdy (19) from Belfast, is on a gap year before starting a course in film, television and sound at Belfast Metropolitan College. She is part of the technical crew. She says:
"As part of the technical crew, you have to help set up the lights, build the stage and find props – anything that needs to be done production-wise for the show, you have to do.
I've been taking part in the scheme since it started. The first two years, I was acting and then I decided to try for the technical crew. I really enjoy being backstage more than on-stage. No one else in my family is into drama, but I've always loved it.
Working backstage is really pressurised, especially during the performances. There can be hitches and things can go wrong, you really have to be on the ball. The show starts on Thursday and the technical crew will be working from 10am 'til 10pm. It's crazy, but it's fantastic experience for anyone who wants to pursue a theatre production career."
'It's all very rewarding'
Lauren Wilson (19), from Bangor, has just finished her first year at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, where she is studying media and production. She is one of the senior dancers and the oldest member of the cast. She says:
"I went to McMaster Stage School, in Bangor, and have always been singing, acting and dancing. When I finish university, I would like to work as an actress or television presenter. I have been in quite a few shows with the Upstage Downstage Theatre Group and when I was little, I did the Opera House pantomime.
I've been taking part in the summer project since it started and I really love it. Two of my friends are also involved and are working as chaperones, looking after the really young ones.
It's incredibly hard work and there's a lot of pressure, but I don't think you would be able to get such a rewarding experience anywhere else."
Timeless tale from the 1950s
It may be set in 1950s New York and the long-gone world of hotshot gamblers and their Broadway babes, but the enduring appeal of Guys and Dolls lies in the fact that it appeals to both males and females with its tough, but likeable characters. The show is a timeless chronicle of the clinches and the clashes involved when two people fall in love.
Drawn from two short stories by Damon Runyon, the story was made famous by the 1955 film version starring Marlon Brando as gambler and ladies' man Sky Masterson, who accepts a bet from his gambling rival, Nathan Detroit, that he can't get a local Salvation Army girl to accompany him on a dinner date.
Featuring rollicking numbers such as Luck Be A Lady and Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat, the first stage adaptation in 1950 was a huge success and many famous names, including Bob Hoskins, Robert Alda, Ewan McGregor, Julie Covington and Imelda Staunton, have been treading the boards in theatre productions of the musical ever since.
Giving young a taste of the arts
- The Grand Opera House Summer Youth Project began in 2011 with a Bugsy Malone production.
- It was the idea of former chief executive Michael Ockwell, who wanted to encourage the young people of Northern Ireland to engage with the arts, while giving them the opportunity to develop essential life skills such as teamwork, communication skills and enhanced self-confidence.
- Honk followed in 2012 and Annie in 2013. Registration for auditions for Guys and Dolls concluded in late January, with auditions held in early February.
- Of 450 young people that registered, 239 were cast and a further 11 joined the technical crew.
- Rehearsals started on Sunday, July 13, and will culminate in five public performances from this Thursday until Saturday. For details on the show and to book tickets, visit www.goh.co.uk