Jason Lower is the driving force behind one of the area’s most popular drama groups, the Oast Youth Theatre in Tonbridge. The director talks to Eileen Leahy about why the theatre is today such a draw for budding young actors
How long has the Oast Youth Theatre been around?
For over 40 years. For most of that time it was run by Ken Banister, who sadly passed away in 2014. He ran it for over 35 years and directed over 100 plays. I was a member while Ken was in charge and strive to meet the high standards he set, as well as adding some new things.
How many members do you have?
There are currently 50 children in the Oast Youth Theatre.
From what age can children get involved?
They can start with us from 13 years old and stay until they feel ‘too old’, although it is rare for anyone to be with us beyond the age of 19. We also have a group for eight-13 year olds called The Hoppers.
How many productions do you put on a year?
We have two dedicated youth slots at the Oast which can feature either one or two shows. This season we performed Pronoun and Bassett and next year we will be doing two full-length ones on alternating nights. We also do numerous festival shows, which are sometimes directed by youth members and are occasionally written by them, too.
Do you ever collaborate with other actors at the Oast?
Yes we take part in the big annual show which also includes members of the Hoppers and the adult groups. Last year, we did The Wind in the Willows for ten nights, with two casts. We used a total of 44 actors, aged between eight and 80.
What are you working on now?
Our next thing is The Laramie Project Cycle, which we are doing in two parts: The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. We have two separate casts, but they use the same set. Audiences can see one or both plays and they are very different.
Can you tell us about your involvement with the National Theatre’s Connections Programme?
It’s celebrating its 21st birthday in 2016 and gives 500 amateur companies and schools the opportunity to work with professionals and in famous theatres. We performed at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury last Saturday (May 14) and are hoping our performance of Bassett will mean we get selected to perform at the National Theatre.
Have you had any members that have gone on to become professional actors?
A few. Hannah Banister, daughter of Ken Banister (former youth theatre director) is a successful director in London working at The Old Vic and The Royal Court and she still helps us out with workshops. Former youth theatre members Gus Miller, Karl Niklas and Chris Wilkinson are also in the industry acting and directing.
Have you won any awards?
Not as a group although we are fairly new on the festival circuit. In October last year two of our members won awards at the Woking Drama Festival: Robbie Smith as Best Junior Player and Millie Smith as Best Supporting Actress, with Cameron Rout nominated for Best Junior Player. Robyn Bannister, a youth member who directed them, was also nominated for the Adjudicator’s Award.
How often do you rehearse?
During term time it’s twice a week, for two and a half hours, but this obviously increases as we get closer to curtain up. Over the summer, the rehearsals run all day. We also have workshops every other week which focus on theatre techniques, improvisation and script work.
Do people only act or do you encourage members to contribute to sets and costumes?
They can get involved in a variety of different things. One member, Ed, is 13 and designed our lighting for Pronoun and Bassett and will be doing so again for Laramie. Another member, Rachel, sourced over 60 costumes for our production of Mort and is now going on to study costume design at Nottingham Trent University.
What do you look for in new recruits?
Commitment and enthusiasm are the main requirements – we offer a lot of different opportunities and anyone can have a go at anything, so long as they commit to the time it takes and are keen to learn.
The Oast Youth Theatre group will next perform The Laramie Project Cycle. Part one runs on September 16, 17 (matinee), 21 and 23. Part two is on 17, 18 (matinee), 22 and 24.
For more information visit www.oasttheatre.com