As the National Theatre Connections 2015 programme gets under way, I’ve been reflecting on last year’s festival and the sheer brilliance of it. Methuen Drama is proud to have published the Connections volumes for the past five years, in tandem with this inspiring programme – a core part of the National Theatre’s education scheme and which is enjoying its twentieth anniversary.
The numbers, to some extent, speak for themselves. Last year saw 230 companies taking part, which equated to 5,000 young people and 25,000 audience members. This, in itself, is impressive, especially when you consider that the numbers increase each year. It couldn’t be done without the dedicated and talented team of Anthony Banks, Rob Watt, and their colleagues at the National who initiate and oversee all operations throughout the year. In the programme’s web-like existence, the ten commissioned plays reach far corners of the British Isles via 26 professional ‘partner’ theatres, and ten selected companies have the experience of performing in one of the world’s most prestigious venues – the National Theatre.
Early on in the process, the Directors’ Weekend involves over 200 committed, passionate drama teachers and youth theatre leaders congregating at the National Theatre Studio to brainstorm with the writers of the ten Connections plays and come up with ideas for their groups’ performances. The openness of all of the playwrights in discussing and essentially handing over their work to numerous companies, as well as the curiosity and focus of the groups’ leaders, I found inspiring. Not only were these teachers giving up their weekend and, in some cases, travelling significant distances, but they were engaging with the material in a way that went beyond what they needed to do simply to put on a production. Furthermore, the subject matter they were grappling with was often very complex and sensitive in its nature – for example, Evan Placey’s exploration of transgender teenagers in his play Pronoun, and Sabrina Mahfouz’s investigation of the lack of freedom of speech in contemporary Egypt in A Shop Selling Speech.
What this points to is that a large number of teachers and drama group leaders recognise the importance of having high-quality, stimulating dramatic material available for young people. This is why Methuen Drama are currently making publishing in this area a priority.
To my mind, youth theatre is an essential opportunity for anyone growing up. It defined my own world and future in the most significant way. At the same time, our country's leaders are continually devaluing its importance in a child's education in a way that astonishes me. Many professional theatres offer fantastic youth theatre programmes – far too many to name – but do so in the face of constant erosion in funding and ideological commitment from the government.
Access to opportunities to perform theatre and engage with playwriting is critical, not just in creating the next generation of actors, but as a vital tool in the building of confidence, teamwork and empathy, in addition to individuals’ understanding of important issues. Lyn Gardner of the Guardian puts it brilliantly when she says, “Theatre . . . fires the imagination: it gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too. We should value children’s theatre and take it seriously, and that means treating it with the respect that we would any work of art including reviewing and critiquing it.”
One of the most unforgettable moments of the National Theatre Connections Festival 2014 was the company from Cockburn School, Leeds, performing Matt Hartley’s play, Horizon, at the National Theatre. One of the lead boys had some of the best comic timing I’ve ever seen on stage and, in spite of the audience being in stitches, he remained admirably understated throughout. He was one of many talented actors in that cast in particular, and it was enormously moving to have the play served up to us by such raw, yet terrific, talent. I saw that the playwright later tweeted congratulations to that particular actor. What better way to fuel a young person’s confidence than to have this sort of experience and this sort of feedback from the writer of your play?
It’s not just the young people that benefit from these experiences. A joyful Jim Cartwright came tearing down the auditorium steps after the final production of his 2012 Connections play, Mobile Phone Show, and spontaneously went into a break-dance – it seemed to me, on the sheer adrenaline of witnessing an enormous company of electric young performers.
I don’t mean to romanticise youth theatre or to imply that it’s something that every young person should want to engage in. I ran a youth theatre group at Warwick Arts Centre for a year where I battled against the alpha-male of the group routinely farting to impress the girls, and where the Haribo purchased at the break meant the children were so high they were bouncing off the walls. But by choosing interesting material to work with, as well as treating the group as professional actors rather than children, I discovered a side of them I hadn’t previously seen, and even farting Ben was taken in – at least temporarily.
The key to engagement with young people, to my mind, is largely in the selected material, and this is why I rate the Connections programme so highly. Not only are the practical considerations fully taken into account – large casts are needed; the roles should ideally be flexible; the language fairly clean; and the play not too long – but the playwrights never assume the teenagers can’t handle difficult subject matter or dramaturgical challenges. Catherine Johnson’s A Letter to Lacey is a perfect example since it explores a young woman in an abusive relationship. Another example is Deborah Bruce’s ingenious play Same, where a good proportion of the play is set in a nursing home, requiring early-teen actors to play elderly people. In the production I saw at the National Theatre, the young actors’ characterisation was extraordinarily truthful.
Indeed, some of the richest and most empathetic performances I have seen have been from teenage, non-professional actors, who have relished the opportunity to engage with drama that doesn’t patronise, dumb down or overlook real issues. I recall playwright Roy Williams commenting during a panel discussion that when he sets out to write a play for young people, he sets out as he would with any play, not really taking into account any special considerations. This, surely, is what has led to Williams being so popular a playwright among young people in particular, alongside his ability to bring “the experience of black urban youth onto the stage” (Observer).
It could also be why work by playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill, Simon Stephens, Philip Ridley, and Edward Bond is so in demand with young people. In quite exquisite ways, these writers delve into issues of isolation, identity and personal struggle – all crucial factors in growing up – and allow young people to realise their own experiences through drama.
Of course, how gritty the content can be is a hotly contested issue among teachers and parents, as was demonstrated by the mother who complained earlier this year about her fourteen-year-old daughter having to study Vivienne Franzmann’s play Mogadishu in spite of the “400 swear words”. While I personally celebrate today’s young people’s astounding maturity when it comes to uncomfortable language and content, I recognise that this is not everyone’s view.
For this reason, as well as for the purposes of assisting teachers and youth theatre leaders in selecting the most fitting material, titles in Methuen Drama’s Plays for Young People series will be ‘banded’ according to suggested age groups. In addition, most plays or anthologies will be published alongside an introduction from the playwright, offering up suggestions for staging, and considerations to bear in mind. We are aiming to bring the best playwrights closer to young people, who deserve to have access to their work. We hope that the series will prove to be a valuable resource for all teachers and youth drama leaders also committed to this vision.
Soon to be publishing in the Methuen Drama’s Plays for Young People series:
- Pigeon English – adaptation by Gbolahan Obisesan, based on the novel by Stephen Kelman
- Philip Ridley Plays for Young People
- National Theatre Connections Monologues for Young Actors
- National Theatre Connections 2015
You can find out more about the National Theatre Connections Festival on their website.