Flashback to 2009: York Theatre Royal was given a grant by the Arts Council through its free ticket for young people scheme A Night Less Ordinary. Rather than just hand out tickets the-then artistic director Damian Cruden had another idea for spending the money – let young people take over the theatre.
TakeOver 09 was born. A group of young people, aged between 11 and 26, were recruited to programme, market, manage and perform at the festival. That TakeOver was the first of its kind in the country, using a model that has since been adopted by theatres nationwide.
Damian explained at the time: “We need young people to understand how important theatre is, and the best way to do that is to let them have ownership of the building, let them run it and give them the chance to put on work here.
“What I hope we’re able to achieve with TakeOver 09 is to make many more young people understand more deeply why theatre matters and is a vital part of their community, and why they have a vital role to play in it.”
The first TakeOver delivered a season of drama, comedy and special events that included a new comedy A Five-Star Werewolf, innovative productions of Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard, York’s Edinburgh Festival award-winning company Belt Up and York Young Actors Company in Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
Billed as a festival “by young people, with young people, for everyone”, its remit was to “provide young people with the opportunity to work in a professional environment with the support of Theatre Royal staff on every aspect of the theatre’s work, from the budgeting to backstage, from marketing to catering.”
York Theatre Royal Executive Director Tom Bird says: “TakeOver is one of the most important schemes for young people anywhere in the UK arts sector. It is brilliant because it is bold and clear. The young people run the theatre. They are mentored, not managed, and have freedom to do whatever they like with their theatre.
“We are so proud that TakeOver has had a part in the early careers of so many people who are now in leadership roles across this industry and others. What a decade! Here’s to many more.”
Many of the young people who worked on TakeOver have gone on to work in a variety of roles in the theatre industry. Charlotte Bennett, co-artistic director with Sam Freeman of the first TakeOver, has recently been appointed co-artistic director of new writing company Paines Plough.
The festival had a transformative effect on her career, she explains. “It taught me early on about the responsibility of being an Artistic Director; that it is not your playground to do as you wish with but that you are there to always serve your community and audiences by creating and programming incredible art that will connect with each and every one of them.
“This was drilled into me brilliantly by Damian Cruden as my mentor on the project and who I managed to persuade to mentor me long after the festival had finished.
“Being part of TakeOver meant we were given total autonomy over running the building and it was terrifying – but ultimately the most powerful thing about it. It meant we learnt that it was okay to ‘fail’ and accept that we were learning as we went along.
“I remember a painful conversation with a producer from Out of Joint Theatre Company who I spoke to about bringing a show in and he said ‘that will cost you a guarantee of…’ and I just held my hands up and said ‘I don’t know what these words mean I am learning on a project and don’t understand!’ And he was so brilliantly supportive and lovely and walked me through it all.
“It was moments like this that made me realise this industry can be generous and that it was okay not to have all the answers – and we ultimately learnt this because we were in an environment where we were essentially out of our depth and given space to make mistakes.
“It was also the most amount of fun I think I have ever had in my career; I remember one day starting with ironing t-shirts, then running around York flying, creating a new cafe menu with our 12 year old Catering Manager, running to rehearse a play and then sitting looking at figures that made my head hurt.
“But most of all TakeOver taught me about the importance of teamwork and collaboration and introduced me to an amazing group of people. Ten years on I have now just joined Paines Plough as their new Co-Artistic Director with Katie Posner, who I first met during my TakeOver experience. So thank you TakeOver for not just the memories but the legacy!”
Sam Freeman was the theatre’s Marketing Officer when co-Artistic Director of the original TakeOver which he recalls as “terrifying, brilliant and mad all at the same time”.
He adds: “It’s worth considering what a beautifully bonkers, brave and bold idea Damian (Cruden) and Dan (Bates) came up with – to support, completely and without compromise, a group of inexperienced young people, with a sizeable budget, in running a major theatre as we wanted to, filled with the shows we wanted to see – it put change in the hands of future generations.
“It kick started my confidence to lead teams, gave me a belief that creativity and artistic leadership didn’t have to be limited to people who described themselves as creatives, helped me to try and always think outside the box, and to search for opportunity and experimentation.
“Most of all though I made friends for life – friends who’ve scaled great heights in the theatre industry, friends who make me laugh, who I can count on when times are rough, and I feel proud of what they’ve done now, but also of what we did together.
“That first year was hard, but it was also essential, I think that it may have changed my life.”
Maisie Pearson, Communications & Development Assistant at York Theatre Royal, was General Manager of TakeOver 2017. “Being part of TakeOver has opened so many doors for me. It is the reason why I have worked in the theatre industry ever since. The people you meet, the skills you learn and the experiences you encounter equip you thoroughly for securing your first job in theatre. I’m very proud to have been part of it.”
Rodolfo Barradas, part of TakeOver 2014 and now Marketing Manager at York Theatre Royal, says: “It’s really quite incredible that a theatre building lets a group of young people run the place in a way like no other organisation I know and it’s an incomparable hands-on experience of the reality of working in theatre: the highs and lows, the challenges, the fun bits and the generosity of everyone involved.
“Institutions and their buildings can be scary things, but with TakeOver suddenly you are being taken seriously, your voice is heard and the answer from York Theatre Royal is often yes, let’s try and make that happen, lead the way and we’ll be here to catch you if you call.”
Current Artistic Director, Rachel Flannagan says “My TakeOver experience so far has been a genuine pleasure. I feel so proud of what the team have created and being a small part of York Theatre Royal has felt so good. It’s going to be such a nice week where we finally get to see the results of our hard work and hopefully it will have a real celebratory feel.”
“I knew TakeOver was an important project and an incredible opportunity even before I properly started my role, but now that I’ve actually been amongst it for some time, I really understand how invaluable this experience is. For an industry that can often appear so contained and hard to crack it is a great opportunity to teach young people about the ins and outs of theatre first hand. I am proud to be part of the festival’s ten-year legacy and hopefully there will be many more TakeOver’s to come.”
TakeOver is celebrating its 10th birthday this year. That’s 10 years of York Theatre Royal giving young people an amazing opportunity to really get their hands stuck into different areas of the theatre industry. So, we’re celebrating the achievements of TakeOver by creating an eventful and fun week for the audiences of York.
This year’s theme is focusing on the environment and the increasing need to take action and keep the conversation going with regards to climate change. We’ve decided to really make being green our ethos and so though not every show is to do with the environment, the process of bringing this festival has been green conscious. It’s important that in a world where we are able to make and enjoy art, we are also preserving the planet so that others can do the same in the future.