NYDS students

[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]

As the April school holidays approach, excitement is bubbling to boiling point amongst creative teens across the breadth of the country. National Youth Drama School/Taiohi Whakaari ā-Motu, or NYDS for short, is back, bringing with it an effusive celebration of theatrical education that promises to be a transformative experience for students and tutors alike. 

For eight intensive days, up to 275 rangatahi between 14 and 19 are offered the opportunity to workshop and experiment, perform and absorb, connect and create across a range of modalities, taught by the best in the industry. Staples such as Acting for Stage and Screen sit alongside offerings that ebb and flow with the zeitgeist, from Street Art to Performance Poetry to Drag. 

NYDS is the brainchild of veteran performer, director and drama teacher, Ken Keys. His contribution to youth theatre was recently recognised when he was shortlisted for the Senior New Zealander of the Year awards, not only for his work in founding NYDS. 

Ken Keys

Keys spearheaded the National School’s Shakespeare Production and the Young Shakespeare Company, who annually send twenty four selected young actors to represent Aotearoa at London’s Globe. He also founded Hawke’s Bay Youth Theatre (HaBYT) making space for local rangatahi to perform contemporary plays from their small black box theatre at Keirunga Gardens. 

Back in 1991 he was teaching English at Havelock North High School when the then fledgling NCEA subject of drama found its way to his portfolio. “I took up drama and that was it, after that I was a drama teacher forever. It was a transformation in my philosophy,” he recalls with fondness. “With drama you get a whole variety of kids you wouldn’t necessarily get in the more academic classes. It opened up a new angle to more holistic teaching.” 

Recognising the opportunity for innovation, and to make a life changing impact on young people, he conceived of the then Hawke’s Bay Youth Drama School. An enthusiastic member of the local opera, Keys reached out to his director at the time, Richard Campion ONZM, the acclaimed father of New Zealand Theatre (perhaps more recognisable to some as father of esteemed film director Jane Campion). 

Campion became the first Artistic Director, taking Stagecraft classes. He, in turn, used his contacts in the industry to fill out the rest of the curriculum. Bruno Lawrence, the ‘BL’ in Blerta, who had numerous appearances on the big and small screen under his belt in addition to heading up the anarchic travelling musical theatre troupe, took time out of being a rock star, rabble rouser and Waimārama hippie to teach Screen Acting. 

That first autumn of 1991 the experimental school threw open their doors, offering Improvisation, Stage Combat and Clowning in addition to Stage and Screen Acting. Campion’s wife, Judith, who was principal of Woodford House at the time, aided with enrollments. They needed to attract a minimum of 80 students to cover their costs. That first year they had 156. 

“Everywhere drama was beginning to spring up in schools they would send kids to us,” Keys recollects. 

A few years in, they made the shift to NYDS as we know it, establishing a charitable trust with a board under whose watchful eyes thousands of students have come together to learn and grow. 

Keys credits the success of the school to three major factors. Quality, community and continuity. 

The school prides itself in attracting leading industry professionals as tutors, many of whom are alumni, grateful to be able to give back. They also ensure their tutors are appropriately remunerated, that their work is valued. Tutors are trusted, and given the flexibility to work to their own and their students’ strengths, making their classes their own. 

This year prolific dramatist and arts feature writer, Sam Brooks, teaches playwriting. Veteran actor and educator at London’s Globe, Michael Fenner, takes Shakespearean acting. Accomplished actor and director, Sabrina Martin supports students to devise their own plays. Multi award winning playwright and actor, Tawhi Thomas teaches Advanced Acting. Eden Iris, a kiwi born musician recently returned from making waves in LA, teaches songwriting. In each case, real life practitioners lend their experience and wisdom to the next generation. 

Every NYDS student, past and present, takes on a kind of misty eyed smile when they talk of their experience. Many rangatahi come from deep in the regions where there is a dearth of the arts, where culture means rugby and speedway. Many feel alone and isolated, particularly when their passion is performance. Music and theatre are inherently collaborative, dependent on a creative community. At NYDS they find their people. 

One student describes themselves as ‘looking for an outlet where people finally understand what the heck you’re talking about … Everybody gets to share ideas, get things together. It’s like a big artsy dream world where all the resources you need are at your fingertips.’ The school makes space for like-minded rangatahi to come together and create, in the process forming deep, sometimes lifelong friendships and connections.

Ben Fagan

NYDS keeps people coming back, many well into adulthood. Current Artistic Director, Ben Fagan, was once a student. When Keys was his teacher at Havelock North High, he suggested the fourteen year old Fagan attend. As a last minute applicant he was assigned to Stand Up Comedy – something completely out of his comfort zone. Footage of young Fagan’s diatribe on lost socks still exists on YouTube, cataloguing the moment a star was born. 

He returned year after year, sampling various classes. Then, when he aged out as a student, he returned, first as a teaching assistant, then as Assistant Artistic Director under Ken Keys’ daughter, Claire, who held the top job from 2009 until last year. Fagan also took a turn as Chair of the Trust Board and did a stint tutoring Performance Poetry. This year is his first as Artistic Director, a role he takes on with the optimism and enthusiasm that are hallmarks of NYDS. 

The school has had such a profound impact on Fagan’s life he considers it, “a pivotal point in my performing arts career to be able to give back to other kids.” When he first dipped a toe into performance poetry over a decade ago, a NYDS friend made the professional video that helped him launch his career. Another associate offered him a performance spot at the world renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he met his partner, Sara Hirsch, an accomplished poet in her own right, who is this year’s poetry tutor. 

Together they created Motif Poetry/Ruri Tūtohu, supporting and developing poets and performance spaces across the motu. For artistic success, “your contacts are your superpower,” Fagan asserts, at NYDS you are “sitting alongside the who’s who of the New Zealand Arts Scene in ten years’ time.” He recalls ‘walking into theatres and arts festivals around the world and meeting people who went through NYDS.

Several other alumni turned tutors are vocal coach and actor, Tess Livingston, taking Voice for the Performer; filmmaker and producer, Miryam Jacobi, teaching Intro to Screen Acting; and international actor, musician and podcaster, Jamie Sharp, taking Directing.

This is the kind of devotion NYDS inspires – the continuity that contributes to legacy. Students return year after year, becoming ambassadors in their far flung regions, spreading lore of the NYDS experience. 

Like the rest of the Arts landscape, Covid dealt a blow, causing cancellations in 2020 and 2022. They went ahead in a diminished online capacity, as a means of connection for the kids that hang out all year for those eight precious days in April, but some of the momentum was lost. 

2023 was set to be a recovery year when the cyclone struck, a mere eight weeks before their doors were due to be thrown open to the nation’s rangatahi. Damage to the Havelock North High campus was minimal and so the board made the courageous move to go ahead. They hoped for a hundred students. In the end 130 attended, down from their previous peak, but something to grow from. This year they hope for 250 attendees.

The NYDS team fosters relationships with schools and offers scholarships. The availability of Secondary Tertiary Alignment Resource (STAR) funding removes barriers to access. 

NYDS week is intensive and immersive, with creative rangatahi spending almost every waking moment in each other’s company. On the Saturday after school’s out for the autumn holiday, young attendees will pour into the region. Some out of towners stay in Hereworth’s hostel across the road, while others are billetted with local families. The Opening Ceremony is a mixture of performance and introductions, a flurry of old friends reuniting and new friends being made. 

The following eight days begin with alternated vocal and physical warm ups, en masse, before dividing into individual classes. 

Full Day Workshops have a singular focus, with Advanced Acting, Directing and Songwriting requiring a degree of competence. Circus Skills, Playwriting and Technical Stream are open to all, though the latter is divided into beginner and advanced groups. Tech students have the expertise and facilities of Toitoi to learn the hands-on behind the curtain skills that are the backbone of professional performance spaces. Supported by tutors, they act as technicians for the rest of the school’s final Sharing of Work.

Students who wish to explore a range of performing arts are assigned to a Home Group, in which they will learn a particular skill for the bulk of the week, but with two afternoons of ‘Taster’ classes to discover something completely different. This year classes on offer are Dare to do Shakespeare; Dance It Out; Drag School; Improv Comedy – Naked and Scriptless; Musical Theatre; Off the Page – Poetry in Performance; Intro to Screen Acting; Stage Combat; Voice for the Performer; and Devised Theatre – Let’s Play!

Play is a hugely important part of the NYDS kaupapa. Fun is taken very seriously, with the knowledge that creativity is fuelled by experimentation, untainted by fear of failure. A talisman of this philosophy is the beloved rubber chicken, Chopsticks. Each day the whole school comes together to kōrero. The person who has done the most ridiculous thing that day is awarded Chopsticks. Artistic Director Ben Fagan describes it as ‘a celebration of failure. If you are going to learn you must be willing to fail.’ An apple a day is also awarded to a tutor for acts of kindness. Chosen by applause, each award embodies part of NYDS’ core kaupapa.

As well as these meetings there are lunchtime speakers and evening events. Tutor’s Night allows the staff to display their many and varied skills, while Student Night is auditioned, programmed and performed entirely by the students themselves. The week ends with Sharing of Work, carefully not labelled as a performance. The emphasis is on the process – what they have learned, rather than producing a polished product.

One of the great successes of NYDS is the way they consciously foster a warm, safe environment for rangatahi to be wholly themselves. From the beginning, the school built a foundation of acceptance that created space for kids to crack out of their shells and become their best, most authentic selves through the transformative magic of theatre. 

The inclusion of Drag School, under House of Drag winning drag king George Fowler, aka Hugo Grrl, gives a platform for gender diverse youth to safely and joyfully express themselves. Connecting with their peers under mentorship can be a lifeline for rangatahi who may otherwise feel alone in their experience, particularly at a time when their very existence is under attack by a government they didn’t vote for. 

Echoed in the many testimonials of legions of teens, and their whanau, over the past thirty three years is the special place NYDS holds in the hearts of its students, whether they go on to a career in the arts or not. In a society that struggles to provide coming of age experiences for our rangatahi, at their peril, NYDS offers a life changing opportunity to be challenged, to bond and to create. 


Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. So inspiring and welcome. Taking fun & play seriously. A place for people to be fully themselves. The creative act is a way of being. How I love you & what you are doing. A ❤️of gratitude from me

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *