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Tolethorpe Youth Drama school, near Stamford, opens its door to new faces in its 22nd year





A popular drama school which has helped talented actors and directors into the world of theatre and film has places available as it begins its 22nd year.

Getting a place at Tolethorpe Youth Drama can often mean joining a waiting list and trusting your luck, but this year, places are available, particularly for older age groups.

Classes are held on term-time Saturdays at Tolethorpe Hall, home to the Stamford Shakespeare Company, where the new year begins this weekend (September 23).

TYD is open to children and young people aged from five to 22. Photo: Andrew Billington
TYD is open to children and young people aged from five to 22. Photo: Andrew Billington

For principal Mary Benzies, TYD has become a hidden gem which she would like to make a little less hidden.

“We’re surrounded by sheep and fields, and it’s the most unlikely place to have a theatre and these amazing workshops every Saturday,” she said.

“It’s a creative hub that has become a centre of excellence, I think, and we really want more people to know what’s going on there.”

Classes put on spring and summer productions involving all students. Photo: Sunny Hoyle
Classes put on spring and summer productions involving all students. Photo: Sunny Hoyle

Catering for ages from five to 22, it has three classes, all named after influential figures in the group’s development - Slade (school years 1-6), King (7-9), and Windsor (10-12), as well as Theatre Makers (ages 16-22).

“We have a strapline ‘together we create’ and that really underpins everything we do,” added Mary, who first joined the group as a tutor shortly after moving to the area in 2005.

“We spend a lot of time brainstorming, sharing ideas and getting them to really talk and find their voice.

“I know ‘find your voice’ sounds cliched, but actually that’s what they’re doing without even realising it.

Issues relating to young people are discussed and can be used in performances. Photo: Andrew Billington
Issues relating to young people are discussed and can be used in performances. Photo: Andrew Billington

“It’s really hard to describe the atmosphere unless you’re there. It's really special.”

It was set up in 2001 by Carol King who became involved with the Stamford Shakespeare Company after moving to Rutland from London.

Experienced in professional and youth theatre, Carol was approached to set up a drama school and became its guiding hand until retirement as principal in 2018 when she was made honorary president.

The group last year devised a play about mobile phones from a series of interviews they filmed. Photo: Andrew Billington
The group last year devised a play about mobile phones from a series of interviews they filmed. Photo: Andrew Billington

Mary is just the group’s second principal and was keen to build on the work done by Carol, who died in July.

“She was a really inspiring woman,” she recalls.

“I moved over from Ireland and met Carol and I just remember her enthusiasm for bringing high quality youth drama to children and young people. It was infectious.

“It was really important to us to carry on her legacy and what she had grown. It was this energy to create a place that was really all inclusive, highly creative and stretched young people to be the best they could be.

“Not just as performers, but as people. So that’s what we have aimed to do.”

Blue Stockings shows the plight of four young women fighting for their right to university education. Photo: Andrew Billington
Blue Stockings shows the plight of four young women fighting for their right to university education. Photo: Andrew Billington

Workshops build towards spring and summer productions and cover a diverse range of drama.

It includes, of course, works by the Bard, but also pieces that will appeal to its young performers.

“We try and do everything,” Mary explained.

Theatre Makers rehearse for Blue Stockings. Photo: Andrew Billington
Theatre Makers rehearse for Blue Stockings. Photo: Andrew Billington

“A lot of our plays highlight the issues that young people are going through.

“We also discuss issues that are really important to them, and the stories we tell in the performances are often just created from scratch. We always have young people at the centre of the stories.”

Industry experts are invited in to pass on their knowledge.

A Sky News television camera crew were among industry specialists invited in. Photo: Nick Farka
A Sky News television camera crew were among industry specialists invited in. Photo: Nick Farka

Recent guests have included TV and film actor Joel Beckett (The Office), Gary Avis, a leading character artist with the Royal Ballet, and a Sky News camera crew.

Mary is particularly pleased with the development of the Theatre Makers class for those hoping to pursue a performing arts career.

Audition dates for the next crop will be announced soon.

Theatre Makers rehearse on the stage at Tolethorpe. Photo: Nick Farka
Theatre Makers rehearse on the stage at Tolethorpe. Photo: Nick Farka

“We give them as close as you can get to a professional experience,” said Mary.

“It’s almost like a creative boot camp. They work with us for two weeks solid, from 10 to 4, every day, as you would if you were rehearsing for a professional production.”

The camp ends with a run at Tolethorpe in July, as part of the SSC’s summer programme.

The Theatre Makers put on a production of Blue Stockings at Tolethorpe Hall this summer. Photo: Andrew Billington
The Theatre Makers put on a production of Blue Stockings at Tolethorpe Hall this summer. Photo: Andrew Billington

Last year’s production, Blue Stockings, played to packed audiences.

TYD students have also trodden the boards at, among other venues, Stamford Corn Exchange Theatre, Stamford Schools, Stamford Arts Centre and Uppingham Theatre.

Whatever the individual ambitions, Mary believes there is more to learn than just the ability to act, direct or work backstage.

The show played to big audiences. Photo: Andrew Billington
The show played to big audiences. Photo: Andrew Billington

“I would say to parents it’s really a gift you’re giving to your children because they are learning so many life skills,” she said.

“They learn how to take on leadership roles, they can converse with each other, they can socialise.

“You’re giving them the tools to walk into a room of people and present to them.

“We do a lot of team building, there’s the discipline of a work ethic - there are so many skills for life that are taught.”

Students are encouraged to pick up a diverse range of skills, not just acting. Photo: Nick Farka
Students are encouraged to pick up a diverse range of skills, not just acting. Photo: Nick Farka

TYD alumni can be found working in leading establishments such as the Globe Theatre and the National Theatre, as well as television. Others have set up their own theatre companies.

But most importantly, many ‘graduates’ have regular work in an industry that can be notoriously competitive and fickle.

“There are lots of people we know who perhaps went in from an acting point of view, but ended up directing or working in other areas,” said Mary.

“We always teach them that it is such a precarious business so try and be as diverse as you possibly can.

“Learn as many different aspects and disciplines so you keep lots and lots of doors open; and be open to new possibilities.

“Whether they go into the performing arts or not, they look back at their years at TYD as something character-forming and a really important part of their lives.”



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