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Review: National Theatre Connections: I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here

Posted on 07 July 2013 by Daniel Harrison

I'm Spilling My Heart Out Here

Connections at the National Theatre is undoubtedly a great and useful idea. With the risk of ‘drama’ becoming a dirty word within secondary schools, and the future of youth theatres far from certain, the National can be seen to be performing a vital service, seeking out and nurturing the next generation of acting, writing and directing talent from across the country. It is inevitable then, that a Connections season will be a mixed bag, as performers and writers still find their feet within the industry, and that, on this occasion, I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here, which I saw last night, proved to be a little frustrating and underwhelming.

Stacey Gregg’s piece is the story of a group of secondary school students, desperate to rid themselves of virginity (or at least pretend to), whose lives revolve around booze and fireworks in the park, and salacious gossip about the goings-on of Creepy Martin, who runs the local cafe. So far, so predictable. Things start to get interesting 25 minutes in, when new boy Sean appears strikingly familiar to a dead ex-pupil, and whose heart transplant breeds suspicion rather than empathy.

Gregg picks up on teenage themes in a naturalistic, although not necessarily new or refreshing, way. Lines such as “you want his meat in your sandwich” left me bored and a little irritated, and made the piece at times  feel like a bawdy BBC3 comedy pilot rather than an engaging piece of theatre. Elsewhere, the writing does come across as insightful or witty; the trick to growing up is apparently “getting better at lying”, whilst being a good lesbian should involve “following Clare Balding on social media”. It’s a pity that the script felt that it had to work hard to deliver these lines, we as an audience had to trawl quite diligently to find them.

The struggles of being ‘out’ as a teenager still at school did make for an interesting diversion. Gregg writes fluently on an issue where ‘G-A-Y’ can be spelt out on stage by Karen, but she cannot muster the will to actually say it. “Don’t you want to be normal?” the lesbian Wilson is asked, and she is touchingly heartfelt in her revelation that she willed with all her might to be a boy when growing up. I would have liked to have seen this elaborated on throughout the piece. Indeed, having this as the central theme would have made I’m Spilling My Heart…, for me at least, a lot more engaging and thoughtful.

The nine-strong cast (which, incidentally, in itself is problematic; characters came and went without any real resonance) stem from the Lincoln Young Company at the Lincoln School of Performing Arts. They’re clearly having a great time on stage. Special mention to Christina Ellinas for her gutsy yet fragile turn as Wilson.

Unlike audiences normally associated with National-branded productions, those who took their seats within the blistering hot Shed were proud parents and beaming siblings. Many may not see theatre as necessarily a pastime of choice. The standing ovation an hour later suggested that they loved what they saw. So who am I to judge?

I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here was part of National Theatre Connections, which ends 8 July.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Feature: Interview with Anya Reiss

Posted on 03 July 2013 by Eleanor Turney

As she prepares to take part in the National Theatre’s Connections festival again, AYT caught up with young playwright Anya Reiss

Anya

How did you get started as a writer? What part did the education system play in your decision to write professionally?
I started writing having done a half term under-18s course at the Royal Court. The Royal Court was my education in writing and my local drama club at Theatre Peckham was my theatrical education. Actual education was pretty rubbish in terms of me becoming a writer. I had a couple of good English teachers who managed to muster up some enthusiasm in me for some things, particularly plays, but I hated the way opinion and taste weren’t even on the checklist when it came to learning about literature. Not that I like it when everything is geared towards ‘what the kids think’ but for it to be totally absent, not just for the pupils but from the teachers as well… I lost a bit of respect for a teacher if they treated Adam Bede the same as Tennessee Williams and wouldn’t offer an opinion on either. In school it was all about metaphors and grammar and what this critic had said about it, what the book or play had to say barely mattered. But that’s the fault of the system; as I make quite clear in my Connections play I am not a big fan of the education system.

What does it mean to be asked to write a play for NT Connections? What does the project offer playwrights/actors/directors etc?
All I wanted when I was younger was just to be allowed to act, that’s why drama at school barely played a part for me. I was so frustrated that I was a chorus member or it was a musical or I was playing a 50-year-old man in The Crucible, or we sat around discussing drama forms. I just wanted to act a part and test my strengths. That’s why I think Connections is so great and I was so pleased to write a play for it. It’s new writing not just for young actors, but only for young actors, in a real professional atmosphere as well, where you go to a proper theatre to perform. By the end of doing a Connections play I think a lot of kids will have figured out if they want to be actors or not, and to have had the chance to maybe write the play that made someone make that decision is very exciting.

What is the biggest threat to new writing today?
Obviously the arts suffer when there isn’t enough money but I don’t know if that’s the biggest threat. I think the education in this country doesn’t do enough to make theatre seem like viable career and relevant, like it’s a way to actually spend an evening. Not only does it not do enough it doesn’t even give the room to those teachers who would like to open this world up to kids. I went to a very ‘nice’ school round the corner from the Royal Court with a nice mother who would take me to the theatre about four times a year and I was a drama junkie, but I still managed to walk into a Royal Court Young Writers Programme at 17 never having seen or read or even heard of a piece of new writing in my life. That’s the biggest threat to new writing and the theatre itself; I was like that and I’m straight As, from London, white and middle class. I’m theatre fodder – seriously, what hope is there for anyone else or anything different?

What advice would you give a young playwright who’s just starting out?
To always finish what you start and never be embarrassed to show people your work, and to make sure that those people are absolutely relentless and brutal in their criticism of it.

The National Theatre Connections Festival, an annual festival of new plays for young performers, will run from 3–8 July. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/connections for more information and to book tickets.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Michael Lesslie’s prince: Hamlet for our generation

Posted on 24 June 2012 by Veronica Aloess

Throughout my meeting with Michael Lesslie, I’m struck by his animated personality. At 28 years old, Lesslie’s writing has already been nominated for a range of awards, including a BAFTA, and he is now developing two new plays, two TV series and three feature film scripts. He’s not up to much at the moment, then. It’s a little ironic that someone so young has been intrinsic in giving a company of young actors, only a few years his juniors, the chance to perform at the National Theatre in his play Prince of Denmark, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But this is a reflection of his obviously generous character; very quickly I feel like we’re on the same page, and most definitely learnt more in an hour with him than in a year at university.

At university, Lesslie was taken under the wing of Patrick Marber, all because he simply took the initiative to make himself known to the playwright when he visited; Lesslie is adamant that “he really did give me a career, I owe him so much”. Marber’s advice to him was to “direct great plays, because it really teaches you to get inside them”. Lesslie is keen, but is yet to add a directing credit to his already impressive CV; instead he likens this to his acting experiences (apparently he was a terrible actor, but I get the impression his personality would definitely hold its own). “One of the things which helped Prince of Denmark was that I did play Hamlet at school. I tore the ligaments in my ankle the week before, I was a lame Hamlet. But my headmaster wrote a note to me saying ‘long after your ankle’s healed, the memory of the lines will live on’. Once you’ve learnt Shakespeare it’s in your head, it’s amazing how the rhythms stay with you.”

It seems Lesslie was blessed with teachers passionate about drama, as well as full of absolutely golden quotes for a writer’s essential arsenal of anecdotes. He remembers the influence that reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had on him, and his first taste of Shakespeare. But then at university, he studied all of Pinter’s plays to death until “I just hit a wall. I could say the pauses and silences do this. Great. But the magic was in seeing it and how they work.” He knocks such dry approaches, especially to Shakespeare. “I’m not an authority on this, but in terms of my gut reaction, I think there is an unfair stigma against it as being hard and boring, and actually it’s the most exciting drama ever if you stage it right… People going out and saying kids have to read Shakespeare is as damaging as saying Shakespeare’s really difficult. It’s good for you, not the people telling you to read it.” He recommends students would find it more engaging to “read it out loud as the character”.

Prince of Denmark is a stepping stone for young people into Shakespeare, which steers clear of ‘fake-speare’ expression or an unjustified update. “I know how Laertes speaks, it’s in Hamlet. I couldn’t make him say ‘Wassup!’, it’d be ridiculous.” Lesslie initially questioned whether a prequel “was possible without being terrible,” until re-reading Hamlet and remembering there are ideas with which everyone still identifies and which make it so popular today. “Everyone sees themselves like Hamlet, like the protagonists of their own life. Aware that we know what’s going to happen to these characters, by calling attention to the fact in the very act of writing a prequel, the main point is, I feel like someone in control of my life. But am I in control? Or am I an actor in someone else’s tragedy? In the way the play is set up, there’s a sense that they could act in such a way that I was toying with the idea, what if Hamlet dies at the end of this?”

What’s refreshing about Lesslie is that he thinks “there is no difference between writing for adults and young people. I loathe things that patronise.” Reading Prince of Denmark, I’m struck by how it’s just as challenging as any other play, in no way patronising. Despite his rapid success, Lesslie evidently has both feet firmly on the ground and significantly echoes Marber’s kindness in the wealth of counsel he shares with me. “I’m not the best writer in the world by a million leagues, but just the fact that it’s actually what I do day in day out means I’ll have some advice. But I guarantee you will get contradictory advice too. It’s about finding the way that works best for you: what you want to say and how you want to do it. Writing is an incredibly selfish thing, what people want is you as a writer on the page.”

And the advice Lesslie gives rings true for me, and I’m sure for most young writers: “Write as much as possible and don’t worry about it. Don’t get precious and feel a need to perfect it, just get it out there or else you’ll cripple yourself because you never start. There’s nothing like writing an imperfect play to teach you how to write a perfect one.” Lesslie seems to churn out scripts at lightning speed; his ability to look forwards  is an example to young people wanting to get ahead in an increasingly competitive industry. “There’s nothing like biting the bullet. You’re never going to get perfection in a moment; a line only works in a scene once the scene’s finished, playwriting is as much about context as articulation.”

Considering everything he’s working on at the moment, Lesslie also feels “collaboration is the most incredible thing in the world”. As both a successful playwright and screenwriter, he compares his experiences working with directors in these mediums, and the idea of directing himself. “With a film, you see it in a certain way; you’ve only got one shot. With theatre, you’ve got hopefully endless reiterations of your play for years to come. Inevitably that means you collaborate with directors and make it something that wasn’t just the idea in your head. Sharing it with someone else will just make it richer.”

Prince of Denmark shares Hamlet’s world with young people by making the characters teenagers who have as much at stake in the decisions they make as teenagers today. “There is something in the characters with which everyone can identify: if someone’s in love, if someone wants something. But I think there’s a common approach to Shakespeare like it’s something unreachable. When we did Prince of Denmark at the National the first time [as part of the Discover season in March 2011, performed by members of the National Youth Theatre], we got really young audiences, and they loved it – there was silence, and people were really attentive. We’d been concerned that the language was going to be too challenging or too difficult but it wasn’t at all.” Lesslie’s play not only captures the essence of Hamlet, but of the Connections Festival itself: the breaking of boundaries and breaching of stigmas.

Michael Lesslie’s play Prince of Denmark will be performed at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, on Monday 25 June at 7.00pm by Calderdale Theatre School, West Yorkshire. For tickets and more information, click here.

Image credit: Prince of Denmark, March 2011 by Simon Annand

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She is co-founder of Don't Make Me Angry Productions which is dedicated to original writing and innovative performance.

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New Connections at the National

Posted on 19 June 2012 by Nadia Newstead

Have you ever dreamed of performing on one of the three stages at the National Theatre? Did you think that you would have to train at drama school and buy into the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ conspiracy? Did you just not think about it because you thought it would never be possible? Well all that can change because Rob Watt, Youth Programme Manger at the National Theatre, is on a mission to get as many young people as possible through the doors of the National and onto its stages, in order to change people’s expectation of youth theatre and pave the way for the theatregoers of tomorrow.

The National Theatre’s Connections programme started 17 years ago and is now one of the largest, and most diverse and exciting, youth theatre schemes in the country. “We’ve created a back catalogue of 130 plays… we’ve had them on main stages here, they go on and be professional shows. For me, there is something about a quality back catalogue of brilliant plays that people can go and access. DNA, which was written by Dennis Kelly who wrote Matilda [the musical], is now on the GCSE syllabus, which started its life as a Connections show, so there is something about that resonating with young people and there is something historical there as well.”

Each year 5,000 young people take part and put on, with the help of their teachers and/or youth theatre leaders, brand new plays written specifically for young people. This year the writers include Meera Syal, Craig Higginson, Hilary Bell and Rory Mallarky, and have an international flavour as a nod to the Cultural Olympiad. Watt describes questioning, “how is it that plays and stories from the world have resonance with the young people across the British Isles? And actually they inevitably do because the themes will still be the same and teenage angst is still the same whatever country you’re in, and that political and sociological angst that people have will still resonate, and it’s done that.” It is very important to Watt that the writing is in the right language and set in the right world; it needs to click with young people in order that they may do the writing justice and vice versa, that the writers will do justice to the young people of today and give them a great story to perform. The writers are told “write your next play but write it for young people”. Some writers have perfectly clear ideas about what they want to write about, and then have a first draft reading with a group of young people so that the writer can get a sense of what does and does not work, other writers have no idea what they want to write about and so visit a group of young people to find out what matters to them and work out their story that way. What is most important is that the writing has to be tested by young people, so that they feel it is within their world, and secondly that it does not become censored by the teachers or youth theatre leaders. If the kids say it’s alright, then it’s alright by the National Theatre.

Each year ten new plays are written and published, and in the spring of that year are performed across the country in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Out of the 200 groups that take part, ten are chosen to bring their production to London and perform at the National Theatre. The show is treated like any other show at the National; the set is moved in, fitted and touched up, the actors have their dressing rooms and they play to a paying audience. Having so many young people around doing something they have enjoyed for years or are experiencing for the first time gives the National an atmosphere that does not always happen with their regular audiences. Because there are always other shows going on at the same time some audience members might not be expecting the youthful buzz that hums throughout the building for the five days that the productions are being showcased – but that is part of the excitement and a way of bringing new audience members to the Connections shows: through curiosity.

However, Connections is not a competition and getting to take your production to London is not a prize to be won. Watt has spent much of his time “working with young people who are either on the fringes of society or don’t get on with education very well, don’t get on with the world very well, and how theatre might have a role within their lives to explore other people’s stories and to explore their stories. I think Connections can do that really well. We’ve had quite a lot of success stories… the Lyric Hammersmith worked with a pupil referral unit, Bridge Academy, this year and did The Grandfathers, which is one of this year’s portfolio and did it absolutely amazingly… just watching it on stage it was just like any other show in terms of its professionalism and its impact, but what I also knew was that the journey these young people had made was one which was quite exceptional for them.”

There is a journey for everyone involved, though. This year, Artistic Director of the National Nicholas Hytner returned to his own school, which is now taking part in the festival for the first time. A sign of the new directions the National is taking with its youth participation work, and a statement, too, that theatre by and for young people is more than worthy to be judged alongside any other production in the country. For Watt, “it’s not necessarily just about the National Youth Theatre doing amazing pieces of theatre, which is great and wonderful, and I respect and love that. But where my passion lies is working with young people who don’t even understand or know that they are theatre makers and accessing them with these great pieces of writing and then giving them the chance to perform in a theatre that’s probably 20 miles away from them, that they don’t realise, and get that experience and get that buzz. You know as much as I do, I assume, that theatre, good theatre, has a hugely profound and positive effect on young people and I get that from every young person I’ve met throughout the Connections festival this year, as I did last. You can see that there is some change that has happened within them. So I think telling these Connections stories, it just gives them something really plausible to talk about… something to focus on, something to really get their teeth into, something different to their school musical, something different to their devising that they’ve done before. It challenges.” Given the range and extent of young companies taking part in the festival this year, we are clearly ready to take on the challenge. If you’re not involved yourself, visit the National this week to watch our generation rise to the occasion.

The festival runs at the National Theatre from 20 to 25 June and includes performances of all ten Connections 2012 plays. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Connections website.

Applications for Connections 2013 are also currently open, so if you and your youth group would like to be involved, visit the Take Part section of the website. Plays for 2013 include pieces from Lenny Henry, Anya Reiss, Lucinda Cox, Howard Brenton and Stacey Gregg. Applications close 1 July so get in while you still can!

Image credit: National Theatre Connections

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