Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Chichester Festival Theatre - A Partner Theatre's Perspective of Connections

By Luna Russell

Chichester Festival Theatre has been a partner theatre in NT Connections for several years and one of the most exciting parts of the festival is seeing the work of young people being performed on a professional stage. The opportunity to work with a team of technical theatre professionals, bringing the best lighting and sound to their performance gives the companies a real boast and their performance rises to a new level.

More and more companies are encouraging their young people to get involved in the backstage areas too and our technical team welcome the opportunity to work with them, explaining how the equipment works and how to make their show look and sound fantastic, operating the lighting and sound boards and gaining tricks of the trade to take back to school or their youth theatre.

It’s great to see the support that the companies give to each other during their performance day at the theatre, they are all going through the same experience and can empathise with the rollercoaster of emotions from nerves to euphoria, wishing each other good luck and celebrating their successes together.

The most exciting days are when teachers and youth theatre leaders throw themselves into the learning experience too, happy to step out of their comfort zone and learn new skills gained from working with theatre professionals.  Their excitement to get back to the classroom with a new way of running a rehearsal and planning a successful production means that this isn’t just another project; it’s an opportunity for everyone to look at new ways of creating theatre.

To apply to take part in Connections 2014 click here

Monday, 24 June 2013

What I learnt from being in Youth Theatre

By Sabrina Mahfouz

I went to a youth theatre and sang songs, mainly from Bugsy Malone. I was rubbish. I never got picked for any leads and when I occasionally did get a decent part, I was too shy to own the stage like those much shinier and straighter-haired girls seemed to do and so I stayed in the shadows. But I stayed.

And I learnt. About how far some people will go to get applause; about what shade of tights to wear on stage to make your legs look longer; about the importance of knowing your left foot from your right foot. But seeing as I work in theatre now, I know that I also learnt about the power of storytelling; of performing words to an audience and transporting them to another place; of the importance of theatre to comment on who we are, where we are and what we could be.

I would never have admitted it or perhaps even been conscious of it at the time, but I learnt how to speak louder when it was needed and to stay silent when the lines weren’t mine (my friends may disagree). I learnt that even if there is a spotlight on you, you still have to work extremely hard to light up the stage. You may like to think that an audience can collectively lie, but they can’t. You know when they’re with you and they know when what they’re seeing and hearing is something true.

I was never that good at speaking other people’s words on stage, but attempting to do it is without doubt what got me writing and subsequently performing my own words – so thank you, Bugsy Malone. Thank you, youth theatre.

To take part in Connections 2014 click here

To see Sabrina talk about her Connections 2014 play ‘A Shop Selling Speech’ click here

Monday, 17 June 2013

A Connections 2014 writer's perspective

by Dafydd James

So, one of the reasons I agreed to do National Theatre Connections is that I'm not young anymore. I've got grey hair, or at least, flecked: a definite badger quality to my mane.  And I find myself enjoying trips to John Lewis and comparing sofas. It's a sorry state of affairs and I think as a writer you need to try, at least, to keep a youthful sense of play. Not spend your Saturdays testing the quality of bounce on a settee. 

I've worked quite a bit with young people. I generally find their response to my work the most useful: articulate, honest, politicised, yet devoid of personal agenda.  They often bring to my creative practice an insightful, queerer perspective of the world.

In researching my topic I worked with two extraordinary groups: drama students at Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni (Rhymney Valley Comprehensive School) and the young people at Mess up the Mess Theatre Company. After the inevitable theatre games where I desperately tried to convince them that I was worthy of their time whilst pretending to be a chicken, we discussed various topics, ranging from what they were most scared of to how it was to grow up bi-lingual.

Their answers were extraordinary: honest, hilarious, revealing and touching. In fact, everything I would like my writing to be. I might as well give up now, I thought; but I couldn't, I had to write a play.

So it got me thinking (à la Carrie Bradshaw): they reminded me that growing up as a Welsh speaker I have had access to an extremely rich cultural heritage. Some of it seems awe-inspiring and incredibly profound: its literature, its music, for example. Some of it appears just plain bonkers, invented by a man on laudanum. Every year in an Eisteddfod we award a chair to an exceptionally gifted Welsh poet  (awe-inspiring/profound). Surrounded by people dressed as druids and flower girls, he/she sits in the chair, over-seen by an Arch-druid brandishing a sword (bonkers). I think it's rather wonderful. Of course I do – it's über-camp and I love a man in a frock – and actually, this distinction of profundity vs. bonkers(ness) entirely depends on your perspective on things: they are not necessarily mutually exclusive or oppositional phenomena. When that Arch-druid waves his sword above the poet's head, why can't he be a little bit of both?

The fight to retain these traditions, however, often feels oppositional. Growing up in a marginalised culture I frequently felt like I was celebrating what makes us different in opposition to a dominant culture, in order to prevent us from becoming subsumed, diminished or worse, disappear altogether. There is a danger to such oppositional thinking, however. I became interested in the tension between promoting difference as a positive act, and the darker extreme of this: the tipping point between nationalism and a more authoritarian regime.

So here was my theme. I wrote a play about a group of young people who are chosen to sing the village anthem at the Mayday festivities. They rehearse together in a paddock on a glorious summer's day, only to discover they've been chosen for a far darker purpose. It sounds terribly bleak, and it is. But hopefully, it's very funny too. Up to a point, before it tips. Plus everyone gets to sing, so that's OK; and there's a boy in a Stegosaurus costume, which should hopefully ease the pain.

Now, before I have the Arch-druid at my door waving his sword around, let me be absolutely explicit: Welsh-language culture is diverse, multi-vocal and, mostly, something I celebrate; so I haven't written this play to suggest that it's authoritarian. Rather, Heritage is about how individuals, in any culture, have the potential to manipulate tradition for fascist gain. A Morris dance, Ceilidh or Michael Flatley could be lethal in the wrong hands, you know what I mean? It's about the nuances of power within a group and how we often desire our own submission. It's about questioning the way we protect our differences.

In Wales we have two national theatres: Theatre Genedlaethol Cymru and National Theatre Wales, who both interrogate and produce 'Welsh' work in the Welsh and English language, respectively, though their linguistic communities overlap. I have written for the two companies: 'Llwyth' and 'The Village Social' both investigate the idea of cultural boundaries. It seems significant that I'm writing about similar themes for the Royal National Theatre because the act itself perhaps embodies my ongoing artistic concern – to probe cultural categories – through 'performing' as a writer for these different 'National' theatres. Hopefully these performances open out the dialogue to interrogate what and how such 'national' boundaries come to signify. I really hope that groups in Wales are as inspired as I was to participate in Connections, so that we can all collectively continue to perform across these boundaries, make connections, celebrate and recognise our differences in critically inclusive ways.

Finally, and importantly, Heritage is as much about being young as it is about nationalism: what it is to try and find your own place in the world when you're born into a specific cultural heritage. The dinosaur boy in my play comes to a sticky end. The boy I knew in school who was obsessed with dinosaurs grew up to become a wonderful paleontologist. He stuck to his (peaceful) guns, and created a successful future through interrogating the past. I think there's a metaphor here somewhere; and it's a hopeful one.

To apply to take part in Connections 2014 click here

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Not a load of Guff!

By Mhairi Gilbert - PACE Director -The Guffin

NT Connections 2013 thus far - has been great ...so great in fact we find ourselves PACE bound for the big metropolis.

"Mr Brenton" called and we listened...

I suppose I've always had a slight creative connection to him - way back in my RSAMD training days my year group was once close to performing " Thirteenth Night" another oh-so clever piece of his writing; and when I saw the play choices this year (a host of great writers and plays for us to pick from) my eye was immediately drawn to the words - "The Guffin" and my drama school days 'almost' playwright - Howard Brenton.

It seemed artistically- we were destined to meet after all...

I won't lie- The connections process from 'page to stage' has been - challenging (but in a good way). It’s not always easy to find a play that fits your young, talented and in my case "Scottish accented” cast - perhaps something edgy - something unknown- something of a part for everyone and somewhere right to play it - all things I had to consider before committing to the text that would occupy us for our Connections debut year.

Ticking all the right boxes was never my strong suit but this time round I think I did it.

From the moment I found myself at the Directors' Weekend workshop back in November- with NT director Nadia and Howard himself and all the other interesting Guffin directors I met- I sort of knew I might be in with an artistic shout.

I just really liked this play from the start - I maybe didn't wholly get it but it certainly got my imagination working and that - for me - is always a great sign.

The Directors' Weekend (play workshop) process that the National run at the start of your Connections year is so useful for touching base with your creative drama instincts - the same questions came into my head as were explored both in the morning and afternoon sessions with the playwright and both Nadia and Howard kept asking us - in unusual and inspiring ways...

...What is the Guffin? How do you play it?

And in the end - what to your young cast- is it all about?

This is the baffling creative question I took back with me to Scotland - what is the Guffin all about? 

I knew the Guffin was a device to drive action forward but how it would appear was always going to be this particular Scottish director's challenge.

In the NT sessions nothing was ever fixed on that front - but not in a negative way - more of a positive incentive - that creatively speaking - "the Guffin" like the world - could be our Oyster!

Now oysters are clearly an acquired taste and convincing my cast to artistically try them was going to be tough but if it was to be a PACE Connections year to remember - we needed to taste something just a little bit different in terms of our approach - less production value more process - less show on the outside more meaning through the words ...and so our Connections adventure began and right from the read through my cast knew this wouldn't be easy but it certainly had the potential to be " out of this world".

January and February this year were months where we pushed the creative envelope with - workshops and discussions - rehearsals full of improvisation and wordplay - necessary cast laughter and moments of text frustration and on occasion ...the odd tear...

But isn't that what drama's all about? The full spectrum of human emotions all wrapped up in the fun of your dramatic play...

I can say truthfully we did it all with this one - and what was so fulfilling was we created it - together. We connected. Lights, Sound, Action ...we were a team.

Even down to our choice of delivery for our Home Venue performance. If our Guffin was perhaps a look at being human - then we needed 'to be seen' in doing it - from all sides with nowhere to hide - and that for PACE meant playing it "in the round” or rather 'in the square' for our Wynd Theatre church space!

Our Connections "actors" loved this - the intimacy and inclusion factor of the audience as part of the action driving them on to greater things...

We knew from the start our Partner Theatre - The Edinburgh Lyceum - may not give us the same ideal performance set up - but we figured we wanted to do it our way - at least on home ground.

When Anthony - our NT director - came to see the piece he seemed genuinely taken with our staging  and intrigued by our interpretation of the characters and text the cast were of course elated and ultimately relieved to have found their method of solving "the Guffin riddle " in little but a framed creative 'empty space'.

From my experience of involvement in Connections 2013- I would say that this is an amazing nationwide theatre festival for young people up - one which really levels the playing fields between all who take part - there is no geographic factor - no status - no competition element to get in the way - just the voice of great plays to unite talented youth in a common theatrical pursuit.

When we found out we had been invited to take part at the National's- The Shed this summer I think it made me feel very proud at being close to Howard Brenton's Guffin Voice - very often in Theatre you can feel cut off from things because of where you live and work and although we may just be a Youth Theatre from Paisley - we know we are the passionate heart of a creative organisation that believes anything is possible if you work hard enough.

We inspire so our young people aspire ...and being able to perform "our Guffin" on the National Theatre's “red " stage is just proof that if you follow your artistic vision through in anything-  then Connections can really work for you.

I'd like to thank everyone who has helped me realise this vision both at the National and at PACE and I would also like to extend my best wishes to the other Guffin Casts and directors who were with me on this creative journey. If you are anything like us you will know how something as simple as a ball can change everything - even down to who you are.

We hope be part of Connections 2014 next year - and I look forward to meeting other Connections Directors and companies in the near future.

Here's to great Summer Festival 2013!
To buy tickets for The Guffin or any other Connections 2013 play click here
To apply to take part in Connections 2014 click here