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Mary McCluskey - Twenty Years at Scottish Youth Theatre

When Mary McCluskey visited New York's Tartan Week with Scottish Youth
Theatre in 2008, all concerned got more than they'd bargained for. It
was set to be the first time First Minister Alex Salmond and his
parliamentary team had seen the organisation McCluskey has been
artistic director of for almost twenty years perform there, and he
arrived early while rehearsals were still ongoing.

Given the Minister's unexpected presence, proceedings were put on hold
to enable SYT's guest to chat with the company. Rather than a cosy Q
and A session, however, the SNP leader was challenged on the state of
drama school training in Scotland, both in terms of funding and
facilities. The next generation of theatre workers then explained how
difficult some of them were finding it to raise funds for drama school
and were being forced to look at institutions south of the border.

Somewhat chastened, Salmond responded with aplomb, even promising to
help one of them to find funding. This was no glib promise of a
professional politician, however. With Salmond's support, the young
lady in question was able to attend drama school, and has now completed
her course to take up her first professional job. That this is as
choreographer on SYT's next production makes McCluskey's tartan Week
story even more poetic.

“I was very proud of those young people that day,” she says, beaming.
“They had the confidence to challenge him and really gave him a hard
time, and he was great with them as well, really responding to what
they were saying. He could've gone away and thought nothing else about
it, but the fact that he kept his word and delivered was really

As high spots go during McCluskey's two decade long tenure, it's up
there with the day she found out that SYT had won the tender to take up
residence in Glasgow's old Sheriff Court building, which has been the
company's home for the last five years. It's the young people
themselves that are McCluskey's personal success stories, and there'll
no doubt be plenty more during what the smattering of posters placed
around the airy, colour-coded SYT building describe as 'A Summer of

This headline isn't referring to the prospective nightmare of dealing
with several hundred young people for the next few weeks, but is in
fact referencing the two plays about to go into rehearsal. The first of
these, Prom Night of the Living Dead, is the European premiere of Brad
Fraser's musical companion piece to his earlier psycho-sexual thriller,
Wolf Boy.

Born Bad?, meanwhile, is the UK premiere of Sarah Argent's play first
commissioned by SYT in 2002 to take to the Rainbow International
Theatre Festival in St Petersburg, where it won the Jury Prize for
Direction and Pedagogy. Since then, the play's look at the nature
versus nurture debate.

“Young people seem to have an interest in all things supernatural and
horror related things at the moment,” McCluskey observes of her first
choice of play. “It seems to be in vogue with things like Twilight,
Harry Potter and True Blood, going all the way back to Buffy The
Vampire Slayer. I'd read Wolf Boy, and that led me to Prom Night. It's
dark, but it's a celebration of difference, where it's cool to be a
werewolf, and where it's alright to be gay or fat and to just be who
you are.”

As for Born Bad?, this was commissioned by SYT twelve years ago, and
has undergone several stages of long-term script development as well as
the St Petersburg production. It's telling too of the SYT ethos that
director of the current production of Born Bad?, Fraser MacLeod, was a
member of the senior youth theatre involved in the original devising
process of the play.

This is an attitude that similarly runs through Prom Night of the
Living Dead, which will feature a newly commissioned musical score by
SYT graduate Ross Brown, who recently worked on the Visible
Fictions/Scottish Opera co-production, Clockwork, with work at the Tron
Theatre forthcoming.

“That's the great thing that matters to me,” says McCluskey, “having
been here forever, seeing all these young people progress through the
years as they go off to uni, then come back because they're loyal to
the company and its ethos, and giving back what we've given them now
they're making a living out of it.”

Only the other day, actor Douglas Henshall was on Radio Four's Loose
Ends programme singing the praises of SYT as a catalyst for where is
today following a stint on the summer festival in 1985. Grooming young
would-be actors for stardom, however, isn't what SYT is about.

“About eighty per cent of the young people who come through SYT won't
work in the industry,” McCluskey points out, “but they get just as much
out of the experience.”

Originally from the east end of Glasgow, McCluskey moved to America as
a child, where she discovered her love for drama. It was here she
directed her first play, Chekhov's the Marriage Proposal, aged a
precocious sixteen. Back in Glasgow McCluskey taught for three years
prior to going to drama school. Prior to that she actually worked for
SYT in 1979 as a member of residential staff on the summer school, then
based at Jordanhill. McCluskey went on to run the Dolphin Arts centre
for a decade, where she honed her directing skills prior to freelancing
for SYT and other companies. In 1989 she became an associate director
of SYT, then worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company for three years
before being invited to apply for her current post with. The youth
theatre sector has seen tremendous changes in the intervening years,
both in how it is perceived by it's more allegedly grown-up peers and
in the work produced.

“There are so many fantastic youth theatres operating in Scotland now,”
McCluskey points out, and the setting up of Promote YT as an umbrella
organisation and an advocate for youth theatre has made as huge
difference. The half a dozen people behind that have been struggling
away in youth theatre for years and not getting the professional
recognition they deserve. Because it is a special skill and not
everyone can do it. There was a period where we were patronised by our
big brothers and sisters in the so-called legitimate theatre, but there
are so many young companies out there now doing cutting edge work
that's just as exciting as so-called grown-up work.”

Beyond SYT, McCluskey's horizons have broadened in the last few years
with Theatre Jezebel, the company she set up with director/designer
Kenny Miller and here sister and Tron Theatre Executive Director Anne
McCluskey. Thus far Jezebel has produced Autobahn, American writer Neil
LaBute's compendium of short car-set plays, and Doubt: A Parable, by
another American writer, John Patrick Shanley.

“We all had these lists of our favourite plays that are never done,”
says McCluskey of the company's roots, “so instead of sitting moaning
about it we decided to do something about it.”

With SYT going from strength to strength, McCluskey shows no signs of
jumping ship.

“Sometimes in my darker moments I wonder if I should still be running a
youth theatre after twenty years,” she admits, “but then I think about
all the young people who come through SYT, and that keeps me young.
That's why I keep going.”

Prom Night of the Living Dead, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, August 2nd-6th;
Born Bad?, Brian Cox Studio@SYT, August 1st-6th.

The Herald, June 28th 2011



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