Stars of the future needed for a national treasure

It's Fame that did for them really. Trainee performers – or drama brats as they are unkindly known in some quarters – were not well served by Fame. Suddenly, it was easy to tire of kids singing and dancing around the corridors.

The truth is the leading lights of today were the "drama brats" of yesterday – so perhaps we should cut the ones of today a little slack. For many of today's top performers the first step on the path to stardom came courtesy of the National Youth Theatre.

The NYT was founded by Michael Croft, a teacher at Alleyn's Boys' School in London, who had been responsible for producing a number of school plays. When he left, he was approached by a number of pupils from the school to continue working together on productions in school holidays.

The first production of Henry V in 1956 created something of a stir. At the time, it was unusual for young actors to be performing Shakespeare and this innovative venture attracted the attention of a curious public. Among the first audiences were Richard Burton and Ralph Richardson, who was so taken by the achievement, he immediately agreed to become the company's first president.

The organisation evolved rapidly, Croft had created a vehicle by which young people from all different backgrounds could come together for a common purpose, and through the medium of the theatre, which in itself involves teamwork, discipline and focus, allowed them to improve their communication skills and self esteem as well as achieving their aspirations.

These "twin pillars" remain at the heart of its mission today. Michael Croft died in 1986 and was succeeded by Edward Wilson. Building on Croft's successful vision, Wilson took the company forward, increasing its range of activities and reinforcing its approach to technical production values.

Wilson also extended the organisation to more disadvantaged young people and started the first Outreach department in 1989, working initially with young offenders. Wilson also secured the organisation's current headquarters building in North London, which now houses its rehearsal rooms, scenery and costume workshops, sound studio and photographic dark room.

Aside from its the socially improving leanings, the NYT also remains a fabulous vehicle for young people who want to secure themselves a career in the business we call show.

No-one knows that better than Danny Kirrane. The 26-year-old from Huddersfield had no intention of joining NYT. As a student at Keighley's Greenhead College, he had acted in a couple of productions, and liked the idea of becoming an actor, but didn't know how to go about it. Luckily, Danny's gran did.

"One day she told me she had put me in for an audition at NYT," says Danny, to this day appearing a little shocked at her audacity. Fortunately, it wasn't just a case of familial pride – Danny clearly had talent, which was spotted by NYT at the West Yorkshire Playhouse audition when he was 17.

"You have to do two audition speeches, so I did something from Twelfth Night and another one – I can't really remember what that one was," he says. "I never used to get nervous, but I remember being pretty terrified at the time."

The nerves were clearly conquered – Danny was offered a part with NYT and soon found himself on stage in London.

"Kes was the first thing I was cast in," says Danny. "The great thing was that it's real on the job training. I was a teenager and I was performing on stage at the Lyric in London and at the Hackney Empire. You get real audiences paying real money to come see your production and the national newspapers review you, so it really is amazing."

Kes was followed by Much Ado About Nothing and Danny was spotted by an agent who put him on the books. The attention might have gone to his head, but in case acting didn't work out, Danny went to Leeds University where he completed a physics degree – all the while acting with NYT during his university holidays.

Danny says: "It isn't just about the acting, although I obviously loved that. Training with NYT taught me so much more – it gave me confidence and taught me about teamwork."

When his degree results arrived and he had earned a 2:1, many of Danny's professors were baffled as to why a clearly intelligent young man would pursue a career in something as notoriously fickle as acting. He had offers on the table from a number of agents and decided to give it a go.

It was a bold move, but it has paid off in spades. Since completing his physics degree and launching into the world of acting, Danny has travelled the country with Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, and appeared in TV shows Hustle, Skins and Casualty.

He also famously starred in the Visa World Cup 2010 advert "football evolution"' in which he plays an average Joe who gets up off the sofa, runs all the way to South Africa and scores the perfect goal for England.

In 2010 he took his biggest step toward stardom, appearing alongside Mackenzie Crook and one of Britain's finest stage actors Mark Rylance in the biggest theatre hit of last year, Jerusalem. The show was such a hit that this summer Danny will be spending five months in New York starring in the show on Broadway – traditionally a hunting ground for Hollywood executives looking for new film talent. Not bad for a boy whose grandma landed him an audition.

"It is weird sometimes to think about what's happened, but I really do owe it to NYT and the training I got there," he says. "I think what it did was give me the confidence to be myself, which was the most important thing. It sounds a bit naff, but being involved in theatre through that way, it creates a sort of magic that you can't really describe."

Suddenly drama brats seems a pretty harsh phrase.

nick.ahad@ypn.co.uk

The National Youth Theatre is coming to Leeds and Manchester to recruit for next year's company. The closing date for applications is January 7 and is open to anyone who will be aged between 14 and 21 on August 1, 2011. For more information and to apply online, visit www.ideastap.com/nytapply

Back to the top of the page