Leading youth theatre company gains charitable status to guarantee its long-term future
Sarah Morgan Jones
One of the best known and longest running youth theatres in Wales has announced that it has gained charitable status in order to guarantee its future
West Glamorgan Youth Theatre has launched the careers of many household names, such as Michael Sheen and Russell T Davies.
It has taken the bold step in a bid to continue providing top quality drama education and training to young people across the county, in an increasingly difficult financial climate for the arts.
Initially set up as an educational organisation, WGYTC received the bulk of its funding from local councils, but as national and local budgets tightened, difficult decisions about council funding priorities meant the company gradually lost elements of local government support.
The company is not alone in feeling the effects of the funding squeeze over recent years. In 2018 the National Campaign for the Arts’ Arts Index survey found that public funding for the arts per head of population had fallen by 35% since 2008, with local government investment decreasing by 43%.
In the end, the situation became unsustainable, and the ongoing discussions about applying for charitable status became a priority.
Actors Matthew Rees and Lee Mengo, who began their theatre careers as students of WGYTC, now work for the company as tutors and directors. Matthew reflected on the decision to become a charity.
“It is not an easy process to become a charity. In a way it presented us with an identity crisis. We had to have a good look at ourselves and our processes and ask ‘Who are we? Are we charitable?’
“We realised that from day one we had been charitable in that we had always aimed to include, to offer accessible experience and training, to help young people at a what can be a difficult time in their lives.
“Financial circumstances were never a barrier for the young people who wanted to be involved. We would always find a way to support them into the company.
“It has been very useful to look at ourselves in this way. We have always had to maintain a high level of accountability as an educational organisation, so we are used to and welcome high levels of scrutiny.
“What this has allowed us to do is really examine our principals and our core values and understand how we can carry that on into the future. We are a charitable organisation with education at its heart.”
The company was formed in 1975 by Godfrey Evans, the man described by WGYTC alumni Michael Sheen as extraordinary and inspirational.
As county drama advisor for West Glamorgan, he was responsible for the theatre company, West Glamorgan Dance, which ignited the career of Catherine Zeta Jones, and the county’s youth orchestra.
Now in his 80th year, Evans is considered “still a powerhouse” at the heart of the company.
Matthew said, “Even now, Godfrey still attends all the courses, he still puts in the hours, and we still keep to the to structures that he set out right back in 1975.”
Being a drama education organisation ticked many boxes. As well as enabling young people to have a purposeful experience with industry professionals as part of their schooling, it also offered drama teachers 2 weeks residential staff development, improving their practice.
Explaining the impact the company has on the lives of students, they point to the wide variety of occupations their alumni have taken on, as a sign of gaining all rounds skills and confidence which set them up for life.
As well as plenty of theatre and film professionals – actors, designers, directors, technicians – there are also many other professions including doctors, teachers, architects and solicitors.
Lee said, “When I started at 13, like many kids, I felt like I didn’t fit in, but I soon met people from all over the county. I got so much confidence from my time back then.”
“School doesn’t suit everyone, and the company finds ways of re-engaging with those young people too. Using mentoring and peer support makes a big difference to how people learn and support each other.”
“Seeing someone grow from when they join the company at 13 and then end up mentoring their younger colleagues at 18 or 19 is just wonderful.
Ask any of them and they’ll say, ‘yes we did a production, but we also had quiz nights, talent nights and skills workshops.’ It’s massively inclusive, a safe place to express themselves. The word company is very important – everyone is equally important.
“Apart from last year with the pandemic, we always had a residential course, and that was so valuable for the young people to be themselves, work as part of a team and gain independence as people.”
During the pandemic the company created an online production called “The Party” inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. Sets, scripts, costumes, and technology were delivered to company member’s houses – one mother turned her attic into a teashop to support her child’s involvement.
Lee said, “Parents have been so integral to our success. Even now we have messages on the fundraising page saying what a difference the company made to their child. But everyone involved makes such a difference.”
Further embracing opportunities to use technology, the company set up a website which allowed 200-300 of their supporters to tune in and view the final product.
Coming out of the pandemic, the company has staged a production of Macbeth which was performed without an audience at the Taliesin Arts Centre at Swansea University. The production was filmed live and will be shown in the near future.
To mark the change, members of the artistic board are setting out on a sponsored walk from Oxwich Bay to the company’s former residential base, Dan-y-Coed in West Cross on Sunday 5th September.
With the 15-mile walk, they hope to give a boost to their fundraising campaign by tipping it over the £10,000 target.
With the funds raised the company will extend its outreach program, continue enabling young people to engage in industry standard education and courses, and support talented dancers in the community youth dance project to attend classes.
Reflecting on the fact that Dan-y-Coed is now no longer the company home, Matthew said,
“We may not have our own physical doors anymore, but our doors are always open. The Company is our home.”