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Interesting stage for young actors

by
08 December 2023

Rachel Farmer visits a youth theatre company that began in a church and celebrates its 15th anniversary

Intermission Youth Theatre

Young actors rehearse for Intermission’s Taming Who?

Young actors rehearse for Intermission’s Taming Who?

PLAYING the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello turned out to be a key that unlocked a new beginning for a disillusioned ex-offender, Darren Raymond, when he stepped into St Saviour’s, Knightsbridge, in London, almost 20 years ago.

Now artistic director for Intermission Youth Theatre (IYT), Mr Raymond is helping to give other disadvantaged young people an opportunity to transform their lives. Over the past 15 years, the youth theatre has been working with young people in schools and communities in London, and has seen people from different nationalities and faiths take part in its programme of drama workshops and whole-person support.

The programme emerged from St Saviour’s theatre church, which was set up by two former professional actors, the Rt Revd Rob Gillion and his wife, Janine. They designed it as a safe, reflective, and creative space for the arts. It was here that Intermission Youth Theatre was born.

Bishop Gillion, who was an evangelism adviser for the Bishop of Kensington, established Intermission in 2008. In 2014, he moved to be Bishop of Riverina, New South Wales, in Australia, where he served for four years. After returning to the UK, he was appointed to his current post, as Vicar of Christ Church, Streatham, in 2020, and was also commissioned as an associate Bishop for the Arts. He continues to work with Intermission as its patron and founder.

Mr Raymond credits Bishop Gillion with his own transformation in 2004: “I’d grown up going to church, but I had a troubled upbringing,” he says. “I ended up in prison, and I was asking questions about faith. It was Rob who reignited my belief in human beings and in God.”

After a chance meeting at a prison poetry session, where he spoke to Bishop Gillion, Mr Raymond was surprised to meet the clergyman again at St Saviour’s, when he began rehearsals for a touring Shakespeare play in which he had won a part, after working with the London Shakespeare Workout Prison Project.

In playing Othello, Mr Raymond found a character whom he could associate himself with. “He was someone, like me; a black man searching for identity, looking for love and belonging,” he says. “I was able to see parts of myself in that character. That’s what really got me engaged with Shakespeare. I think God used Shakespeare as a vehicle to bring me closer to him.”

 

FOUR years after taking his first role as Othello, Mr Raymond wanted other young people to have the opportunity to be mentored and encouraged, and to discover the confidence to break free from whatever was holding them back.

Bishop and Mrs Gillion were also inspired by the talent of Mr Raymond and other young people coming to the theatre church, and, in 2008, they launched IYT, opening their doors to young people on the edge and offering them a safe place to flourish and be part of a caring community. Mr Raymond was appointed its artistic director.

“I’ve seen a lot of transformation over the 15 years I’ve been doing this work, and it’s incredible: each year, you feel the stories surely will stop, but they don’t. Young people keep coming,” he says.

Darren Raymond, artistic director of Intermission, with its founders, Bishop and Mrs GillionAs a project that grew out of a church, IYT has, Mr Raymond says, a spiritual thread running through its programmes. “Intermission was the church’s response to what young people were going through at the time, and those values and principles of Christianity sit at the core of what we do. It’s not about forcing our views on the students — but being a witness to Christ, and hoping that brings them closer. For us, it’s not about filling seats in a particular parish, it’s about feeding young people with the Holy Spirit, and allowing them to go out and be the best versions of themselves.”

Bishop Gillion says: “Intermission started as a fresh expression of church, and it has grown and developed, and is still as alive as ever today.” As the project began meeting in a church, the participants often looked around and asked questions. “They began to ask what it was all about and why we were doing it, and why we cared about them.” The questions created opportunities to talk about and show God’s love.

IYT grew out of the Intermission Church space created by the Gillions. “I wanted to try and combine my passion for the arts and the theatre with the church,” he says. “I thought, let’s see if we can create a church which welcomes the artist — a space for them to come and share their faith through their art.”

He sought to create a safe space, or haven, for artists. The name, Intermission, suggests a space for stepping back and thinking about what is going on, as well as an opportunity for creativity and energy through theatre and worship.

Mr Raymond’s first experience of Intermission challenged his perceptions of church, and helped him rekindle and develop his Christian faith. “St Saviour’s was a church where I felt safe, where my views and opinions mattered, and I felt welcomed — all the things I’m not sure I felt, growing up; and this was different, and Rob was a different kind of priest.”

Performing and working alongside Bishop Gillion helped Mr Raymond to explore faith issues, while also learning the craft of acting. He says: “Rob and I used to talk about theological issues and acting, and he explained to me that Jesus did it better than anybody, because he stepped into other people’s shoes and understood what they felt. I think that’s my responsibility as an artist.”

Many involved in IYT have gone on to study at drama schools and performed with national theatre companies, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in TV, commercials, and films.

 

SHAKESPEARE has remained the base for most Intermission Youth productions. The themes in his plays remain as relevant as they always were, Mr Raymond says. “It’s all the things we are dealing with today, from knife crime, gang warfare, postcode rivalry, rage, jealousy, betrayal.”

Talking about Intermission’s first Shakespeare play, Wasted, he says: “Julius Caesar is the ultimate knife-crime play. We see a lot of that in inner-city London, and young people recognise these characters: they’ll play out who their Caesar was today, and who their Brutus was today.”

Writing a production is also something that the IYT students are involved in. As they improvise around the themes, Mr Raymond uses their creativity to help to write the script and put Shakespeare’s stories into a modern context. Many of the plays, he says, combine the language of urban street culture with Shakespeare’s prose.

Their two latest plays have emerged from issues that the young people raised and want to highlight. This year’s student production, described as a “mash-up” of several different Shakespeare plays, is Excluded. It looks at issues concerning education, transporting Shakespeare’s most iconic characters into a classroom setting.

The main play being performed by IYT graduates, including professional actors, is Taming Who? The production, which marks ITY’s 15th anniversary, has also been running at the Arcola in November and December. Although it is a comedy, Mr Raymond says, it has elements of tragedy, and explores gender, identity, and coming of age, through the lens of London youth culture.

 

“A LOT of the success people see is young people coming and going on to work in the industry, which is a success, and we’re very proud that we can give those skills to young people,” he says. “But there are also young people that come here that have fallen out of education, and they go back into education. That’s as great a win as anything to me, or they go back into their community and make a positive contribution.”

IYT offers a three-year programme, although its graduates still remain part of the community, and return to pass on what they have learned to others, and offer support. “One young person came here in year one of the programme, and they had no time for God and said he didn’t exist. In year two, he blamed God for everything — acknowledging God existed at least was a step forward. Then, in year three, that person was leading the prayers that we run at the end of our time together,” Mr Raymond says.

“For me, it’s seeing people discover themselves, value themselves, and realise their worth and their relationship with somebody bigger than themselves.”

 

IN 2013, IYT launched a community programme, taking the project outside the theatre church to work with schools, pupil-referral units, youth-offender teams, and young-offender institutions. Since then, they’ve engaged with thousands of young people around the UK. The team is made up of IYT graduates and current members, who lead drama, theatre games, and peer-to-peer conversations and workshops.

One IYT graduate, Sara Mokonen, said that her time on the programme had been life-changing. Ms Mokonen, now 30, grew up in west London. During some difficult years as a teenager and a young adult, she turned her back on the Church.

Ashley SmithRehearsals for Taming Who?

“My experience in my teenage years was quite dark: I could have done with IYT a long time ago. I wanted to act when I was younger, and there was a point in my early twenties when I felt like I was having a midlife crisis: I was left feeling lost. I wanted to do things with a purpose.

“I made a commitment to myself that I would do things that fulfilled me and brought me joy. I had no idea how to get into the acting world, but I had a friend who was involved with IYT, and he suggested I apply.

“In the interview, I remember I broke down, because at that moment I couldn’t believe what was happening. For such a long time, I had felt I was seeking a community to be part of, I was seeking a place to be myself — a safe place that recognised my talents and gifts and accepts young people. Then, all of a sudden, all these doors were opening. . . All of a sudden, God was presenting me with opportunities.”

Ms Mokonen says: “Every session we end with prayer, and that got me back into the habit of praying. And surrounding myself with people that share my faith made me feel part of a community that shared the same space as me. IYT is like a family. It’s free, which is unheard of, and it brings together people from similar backgrounds. I was really hoping they would accept me, and I was over the moon when they did.

“My first year was incredible. I was always quite reserved and shy, but being on stage was transformational. We went to the RSC, and Darren put me on stage. In the third year of the programme, I had my first professional debut.”

Ms Mokonen now acts professionally on stage, screen, and television. She has had parts in the West End show The Jungle, and appeared in the BBC’s Casualty series. In the forthcoming production of IYT graduates, she is playing Katherine in Taming Who?

“When I look back, in terms of the journey and progress, I had set myself a mammoth goal that was impossible. I just started out in faith, naïvely. I was able to do everything with incredible help and nurture from IYT. Darren is genuinely like my family. I feel so blessed to have been one of the ones to be taken on.”

 

IYT moved out of its St Saviour’s base in 2019, which had provided a performance venue, rehearsal-studio space, kitchen, and gathering space. It now shares a space at the Arcola Theatre, where they are unable to deliver the full Intermission experience.

Bishop and Mrs Gillion and Mr Raymond are hoping to find a new permanent home for the project, and are looking for support, finance, and the right location. Supported by the architects Foster + Partners architects, and the Mayor of London, the plan for a new space has been designed in co-operation with IYT students and graduates.

“We would like to have a base so that we can be a theatre church again,” Bishop Gillion says. “This opportunity to be together in their own space is missing.” He believes that the new “home” would enable many more marginalised young people to benefit from a safe place where they could be empowered to go out and change the world.

Read Peter Graystone’s review of Taming Who? here

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