The cast of Immune say you can’t compare the experience to any other. It’s totally different from other productions in which they’ve appeared. “It feels more professional. I’ve been in school productions and it’s not the same as Immune,” says Lisa. “It’s a new play and people here are genuinely interested in new writing and new theatre.”
‘Here’ is West Yorkshire Playhouse where Immune plays four performances in the Courtyard Theatre during the closing weekend of Open Season, the showcase of talent from youth, community and professional performers from Leeds and beyond.
The cast is drawn from the older end of the Playhouse’s thriving Youth Theatre, but the play in question isn’t any old play but a piece of new writing by Oladipo Agboluaje. It was commissioned by West Yorkshire Playhouse in partnership with Royal and Derngate & Plymouth Theatre Royal. Each venue is producing a version of a play that explores themes of identity, friendship, courage and mortality – and cast members have played a key role in that creation.
For Mae, this is her first production with the Youth Theatre after being with them a term. “I’ve been involved in theatre before and been seeing it for a long time. I’ve always been interested in it,” she says. “But the Playhouse is really amazing because there are so many connections you can make and you can be really involved with it.”
For Dan it’s the same two firsts – first term with Youth Theatre, first time in one of its productions. “I was in a youth theatre where I used to live, then moved to Leeds and started doing this,” he says.
Lisa has been part of the Youth Theatre for three years. “I was in the Open Season show in the first year and then this is my first big youth theatre production. I’d been in small school shows, heard about the Playhouse through a friend and First Floor as well, so I’ve been here quite a while,” she says.
Martha joined Playhouse Youth Theatre in September, and Immune marks her first show here. Previously she’d been involved in a few youth productions.
The four were among those who signed up for auditions although the Immune was “a completely different play” at that stage. They workshopped the piece, working on characters and scenes, and the production was finally cast around Easter time. “So we had quite a bit of time doing workshops, going through the play seeing what the different characters were and their backstories in relation to the play,” says Lisa.
Originally, five boys and 14 girls were cast by director Gemma Woffinden. As the play changed so some of the male roles were changed to female to accommodate the casting. “That worked really well. We do get on really well and it is like a big family. It’s a bit of a cliché but it is,” says Lisa.
Mae adds: “The play has certainly changed a lot since we first started it. One of the first things we did was go to the Royal and Derngate in Northampton and do workshops with the writer.”
So what is Agboluaje’s play about? The publicity suggests the following: “It’s an ordinary school day and tensions are running high. A group of teenagers struggle to see eye-to-eye in a rehearsal for what seems like the most important show of the year. Everybody has something to prove but when the final bell rings something far more significant awaits them.”
That doesn’t give away an awful lot. The setting is ‘a bit ambiguous’ according Dan says there are scenes in a school, a navy base, town centre, train station, a bit all over the place”. The characters are all in education but that’s as far as anyone goes with a description of the play while the staging is in the style of a graphic novel.
“It’s a very different concept to a lot of other plays, in style and everything. But it’s definitely an exciting play to work with,” says Lisa. “You will have to come and see it to decide what it’s like. It’s difficult to explain.”
The play is set in the present and the staging is in the style of a graphic novel. Having worked on developing the play, how close to the stage characters are the cast? “Most people are very similar to their characters,” suggests Martha.
Lisa agrees but with one proviso. “I know quite a few people are like their characters. I like to think I’m not – because my character is a very horrible person. But I understand my character very well through the work we did within the sessions before the play was cast. Even though I’m not like my character I understand her motivations and where she’s supposed to be.”
Youth Theatre members come to see shows regularly at the Playhouse, with recent productions The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The Rolling Stone getting the seal of approval. They’re also excited about the shows coming up in the autumn/winter season. Perhaps even more exciting is that as Youth Theatre members they get to see how the theatre works which for those, like Martha who’d like to go into acting, is great experience.
by Steve Pratt
Martha Mukungurutse, Lisa Skelton, Dan Scott and Mae Milburn are among the cast of Immune in the Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 23 – 25 July. Thurs – Sat 7.30pm, Sat mat 2.30pm. Tickets £7.50. Box office 0113 213 7700.