CONNECTIONS: A day discovering exciting new plays for youth

After our travels in Cornwall and Devon, we’ve enjoyed coming back to London. Amongst other things, I’ve been making some connections with people who are working in the field of theatre for youth.

Since 1995, The National Theatre has been commissioning plays for youth age 13 – 19. Over the last 16 years, they have collected a canon of plays by professional writers that provide young people from diverse backgrounds with meaningful ways to explore theatre and their world. At The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, I have produced 5 of these plays with Canadian teens and I wanted to see how the plays are used with British youth.

“Connections” is the annual theatre festival in which U.K. schools and theatre groups present premiere productions of the new plays. As part of the process, directors attend a weekend workshop to meet with the playwrights and facilitating directors. I was thrilled to be invited to attend the 2012 Connections Directors Workshop as an international delegate.

There are ten new plays for 2012 Connections and over 100 directors were attending the workshops. Because I was not focusing on any one play in particular, I got to observe a variety of different writers at work with facilitating directors, all exploring different tasks and approaches to the texts. It was a fabulous day for me. I love creative process.

I arrived at the National Theatre Studio near Waterloo station, but wasn’t really sure where to go. I felt a bit at a loss until I met Edward Bromberg from Riksteatern, the national theatre in Sweden (http://www.riksteatern.se/). Edward was also attending as an international delegate, and he took me under his wing.

We started with “Journey to X”, by Nancy Harris: “A tale about friendship, a journey and the risks that teenagers take when plunged into an adult world.”* The facilitating director Charlotte Gwinner led the group in a discussion of the themes of the play, examining the world and rhythms of the play, while the playwright was able to answer essential questions and open up the dramaturgical process.

From “Journey to X” we went to “Socialism is Great”, by Anders Lustgarten: “The propaganda of the East meets the propaganda of the West in Anders Lustgarten’s play about love, work and power.”* The facilitating director in this workshop, Angus Jackson, worked with the whole group to examine blocking choices and the underlying motivation of the characters, asking the writer for clarification as they went along.

During the lunch break, I met up with my UK contact from the National, Anthony Bank, who was the facilitating director for “Prince of Denmark”,by Michael Lesslie”: “Set a decade before the action of Shakespeare’s play, Michael Lesslie’s imagined prequel follows the teenage Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes as they rage against the roles handed down by their parents.”* Their morning had been spent in a voice workshop, exploring the use of iambic pentameter. After lunch, fight director Alison De Burgh led us through a basic sword-fighting workshop, always mindful of safety and methods suitable for young people.

Sword Fighting workshop, with Alison De Burgh

In “Generation Next”, by Meera Syal”: “two young British Punjabis are about to get married. Three times. Through three different generations. Exploring notions of identity and culture with a comic eye, Meera Syal addresses a shrinking world and our growing desire to move towards something or somewhere we think is better.”* A play very specifically for a cast of Asian actors, Meera Syal was there with facilitating director Iqbal Khan working with only one director and his cast of young actors. They discussed personal cultural biographies as they developed an understanding of the historical context of the play.

My last stop of the day was “Alice by Heart”, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik: “How do we leave childhood behind? How do we close the book? A fresh new rock-musical take on Alice in Wonderland, from the creators of Spring Awakening”.* Writer Steven Sater (yes, he wrote Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals) and musical director David Shrubsole had obviously spent a busy day guiding, teaching and answering questions.

National Youth Musical Theatre Students, workshopping "Alice by Heart"

The room was filled with directors and about 12 actors from the National Youth Musical Theatre program. It was the end of the day and the facilitating director Timothy Sheader was focusing on transitions and design. Steven Sater answered questions about the writer’s process using a pre-existing text (“Alice in Wonderland”) as a springboard for an exploration of underlying themes.

By the end of the day, I had seen bits and pieces of 5 of the 10 new plays. I had met with teachers and directors who were passionately excited about producing these new works with their students, and who clearly relished the opportunity to ask questions of the writers and facilitating directors. It was a rare opportunity.

As the workshops ended, Edward invited me to go with Maria Lewenhaupt, his producer from Sweden, as well as delegates from theatres in Norway and Denmark, to see “Shalom Baby” a new drama-comedy at the Theatre Royal Stratford. A wonderfully layered piece, it is a play where the same characters are explored in 1930s Germany and in contemporary Brooklyn. American rap poems were juxtaposed with poignant forbidden love in Germany. It’s a moving and accessible exploration of xenophobia and contemporary blocks to happiness.

It was a long day, a great day. A day of more questions than answers. Just what I needed to kick start new thoughts.

*NB: all quotes from the National Theatre web site: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/65630/connections-plays-2012/plays-2012.html

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her new book, The Pact, (Red Deer Press) was released in the fall of 2016. It has been listed on the 2017 USBBY OUTSTANDING INTERNATIONAL BOOKS LIST; selected for the 2017 ILA YOUNG ADULTS’ READERS CHOICES LIST; Nominated for 2017 SNOW WILLOW AWARD; and listed in the CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS & TEENS, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s