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Skylines: Redefining the world for young audiences

Posted on 08 October 2012 by Catherine Noonan

Theatre Centre is a company committed to serving the younger generations – for almost 60 years it has been commissioning new writing and touring theatre for young audiences. But now, Artistic Director Natalie Wilson is expanding its focus beyond commissions, which present “quite small gateways because you can only take in one or two writers at a time”. The solution to expanding? Skylines, Theatre Centre’s new free-of-charge professional development programme, which aims to bring together writers from across the country who are interested in writing for young audiences. Skylines will use workshops and online content to encourage the playwrights to “consider, investigate and explore younger audiences”, developing their writing “to make sure that younger audiences are still being served by the best, most talented writers this country has”.

Evidently, Skylines’ aims are as much focused on creating opportunities for playwrights as serving the best writing to their target demographic. As Wilson highlights, “I think this is very much the first [initiative] that’s looking at developing writers – not necessarily just the writing – that’s opening the doors to a mass of writers that wouldn’t necessarily at this point in their career be able to access the more developed programmes.”

Because, as Wilson explains, great theatre requires great writers: “When we tour a show, which is really at the heart of what Theatre Centre does, we are very committed to creating the theatre experiences for audiences, but to do that we need writers to be committed too […] There’s a clear pathway, a thread of continuum, between the Skylines project and our touring shows.”

And if the writing of those involved in Skylines makes it onto Theatre Centre’s touring schedule, their work may end up being shown in schools – but definitely not in a “dry and didactic” manner. As Wilson asserts, “the theatre element should come first. Good theatre, whatever age you are, is always a learning experience. And I think unless you’ve got good theatre – the art – within the work, the learning won’t be as enriched as it could be. Obviously by going into a school community, a school context, we have to push the learning element of the work because that’s what the school is there to do, but I think in order for the theatre to be a learning experience it has to have great art at the heart of it.”

So will Skylines be encouraging their writers to take a different approach to theatre – what is unique about the ‘great art at the heart’ of children’s theatre? “There’s lots of fundamental similarities [between writing for adults and writing for children], but when you write for young audiences I think you’re writing within different contexts; you’re not necessarily writing for a theatre context. You also have to really work with your audience to understand them in a way that I don’t think writing for adult audiences necessarily has to do. Adult audiences, if they’re interested, will make choices about going to see theatre, whereas a young audience is often watching theatre without having made the choice. Therefore it’s the writer’s responsibility to really understand the context, the language, and the concerns of their audience to make sure that it speaks to them.”

And in order for their writers to be able to understand the language of young people, Skylines is utilising all its resources – including digital ones. An integral part the initiative is the creation of an online community, allowing participants to remain connected to the project and access exclusive content wherever they are based in the UK. “I didn’t want to have a writing group located in one place,” Wilson explains. “By having an online community, we can work with writing groups across regions, and bring them together as separate entities into a community on our digital platform […] It’s a big experiment for us and we’ve worked quite hard – we’ve done a lot of consultation with writers about what works, what doesn’t work, what kind of content they want, how they might use it and how we can keep presenting an incentive for them to use it.”

It’s clear that Skylines has the needs of young people at its heart, encouraging playwrights to develop their writing for younger audiences and utilise online resources in order to remain constantly connected to the project. As Wilson states: “I’m a great believer that new writing can be responsive to the world around us and the world around young people, which is changing and needs redefining. I think writers are very well placed to investigate that in collaboration with young people, and I think that sort of relevance and responsiveness that new writing can have must be very compelling and engaging for a young audience.”

And as someone involved in A Younger Theatre – also a platform and resource for young audiences – I can’t help but agree.

Skylines will be using workshops and an online platform to develop the writing of playwrights for young audiences, culminating in a public writer’s conference in June 2013. The programme will be delivered in conjunction with five regional partners: the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, New Writing South, The Royal Exchange and The University of East Anglia. For more information, see the website or Twitter.

Image of Natalie Wilson by Camilla Greenwell.

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Behind the Scenes: Promenade Theatre

Posted on 20 June 2012 by Annie Gouk

As a genre, promenade theatre is extremely versatile. With no formal stage, and the audience and actors occupying the same space, it allows for experimentations with both new and old plays, and explores what the theatrical experience can entail for an audience. In moving the audience around throughout the performance, promenade theatre also pushes boundaries of setting in a way that can’t be achieved in regular theatre. So in what different ways can this form be used? Sue McCormick, the director of demi-paradise’s recent production of Much Ado About Nothing and Peter Higgin, director of PunchDrunk’s enrichment program, give us a taster of this diverse form of performance.

As a company, Lancaster-based demi-paradise performs promenade productions of Shakespeare’s classics. Like much promenade theatre, its work is site-specific, meaning it is only performed in a particular location. In this case, all the plays are performed in the magnificent Lancaster castle, a setting McCormick says is both “a blessing and a curse”. One advantage is that during the promenade through the castle the audience gets to experience “hundreds of years of history. It’s breathing history in the stone.” Naturally, this also has aesthetic benefits, as “the fact that we’re doing classic plays, with often historical settings, is obviously much enhanced by the settings of the castle… there’s that atmosphere in there which contributes to the theatricality.” Despite this, there are also challenges to using the castle. As McCormick explains, “practically it can be quite difficult”. Of course, the castle was not designed for theatre performances, so it can be an acoustic and sightline “nightmare… it’s limited as to the plays you can do in there”. Any modern play, or even modern dress in a classical play, would be dwarfed by the grandeur of the castle’s stately rooms, which are very big and imposing. However, this isn’t a problem if you’re careful in choosing what show to perform there. As she puts it, “if you do the right pieces in there I think you start with a massive advantage… for all the difficulties of using the space, the benefits you reap are worth the disadvantages.”

An immersive theatre group, PunchDrunk’s use of the promenade theatre format is radically different to demi-paradise’s. As Higgin explains, “we specialise in putting audiences in the centre of our work and at the centre of their own experience”. Not only do the audience move with the performance, they are actually part of it, and the company aims “to give you a tingle down the back of your spine, to challenge your senses, and to lift you out of being a passive audience member and to make you an active agent in seeking out a theatrical experience.” While its productions aren’t site-specific, they are site sympathetic, and the company seeks out locations that work for each particular production. As Higgin explains it, they work at “transforming or creating sites and buildings, and actually worlds”. Again, this poses some challenges for the company, and it is difficult “finding a space which is open for long enough and is accessible, and that has the right kind of infrastructure to allow us to do work.” Another difference that separates PucnhDrunk from demi-paradise is the size of its productions. While the set up of Lancaster castle only allows for audiences of up to 60, PunchDrunk works on a larger scale, and “you have to take into account that you could have up to 300 different audience members at some of our shows, so you have to make an experience that can satisfy all of them”.

The company’s latest show, The Crash of the Elysium, is also a far cry from demi-paradise’s classic Shakespeare. Based on the TV series Doctor Who, the production was originally conceived for the 2011 Manchester International Festival. Higgin describes it as “an adventure promenade piece” which is aimed at children, and he finds that the medium of immersive theatre is one that appeals particularly to younger viewers. A show that is engaging and stimulating, Higgin feels that for The Crash of the Elysium “the biggest thing is about being active and being in control of your own destiny, of your own evening – not being passive, that really appeals to kids”. Not that the show is for children only, as “what we want is to create a project which adults will be jealous of children going to”, something that won’t be difficult considering the large Doctor Who fan base. As Higgin puts it: “Doctor Who is one of those things that’s young or old, that people are enthralled by”. To accommodate older viewers, the production has an ‘after dark’ showing, which is “less nurturing and pushing the boundaries slightly more”. While describing what happens in the show, Higgin cautioned that he would prefer the details not to be printed, as “our work is unexpected, and kind of works best when the audience don’t really know what they’re going to see”. However, in keeping with the scary nature of any Doctor Who narrative, he does explain that “we actually tread a delicate sort of line between fear and excitement – it has to balance on a knife edge… there’s something important about being scared, about going through the process of overcoming fear.”

The fact that PunchDrunk’s newest show is a modern one allows for some advantages, especially as “one of our biggest challenges as a company is to keep one step ahead of our audience, because we’re essentially always trying to make the unexpected, and trying to do something bigger and better and different than we have before”. Having a modern play makes creating the unexpected that bit easier. But the company also puts on productions of classic works, for example in Sleep No More, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Higgin also finds benefits in working with these older texts, as “often the way we tell stories is non-linear and it’s about experience as opposed to linear story telling, so it helps, although it’s not essential, to have a knowledge of the story we’re telling”. However, they still try to bring the unexpected to the performance, and “often we try and subvert what people think is going to happen”. McCormick also finds there are advantages for promenade theatre with working in the medium of Shakespeare, as “there’s so much fluidity… originally when they were done they were pretty much continuous – and I think that really helps with the promenade feel. You can jump in and out of the play almost at any point.”

As a theatrical experience, promenade productions seem to be something audience members thoroughly enjoy. As McCormick says, “people LOVE them”. Getting the audience to react in this way is part of PunchDrunk’s mission, as with the productions the company puts on “it’s about personal experience. It’s about work which is sensory, and it’s about work that engages you viscerally and makes you feel punch-drunk.” In promenade theatre, this experience seems to be largely achieved by breaking down the separation between audience and actors.  As Higgin says, “there isn’t that divide… they’re right there with you”. While this is literally the case with PunchDrunk, the audience interacting with the actors and becoming part of the performance, this also happens to a degree in demi-paradise. In some of the smaller settings in the castle, the actors often have to get up close and personal with the audience, and in Much Ado About Nothing they’re almost sitting on top of them in some scenes. Because of this, “there’s a real interaction between actor and audience, and a lot of audiences have said roughly the same thing to me, which is you feel more like a participant than an audience member. It’s almost like you’re taking part rather than just watching.” This intimate, personal experience  is one of promenade theatre’s true strengths. As McCormick sums up, “I think that’s one of the most powerful things that we do in the castle is that lack of barrier between performer and audience”.

For more information about demi-paradise, visit their website here.

Crash of the Elysium is presented by the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 8 July. For tickets and more information, visit the 2012 Crash site.

Image credit: PunchDrunk’s Crash of the Elysium

Annie Gouk

Annie Gouk

Annie, 20, is in her third year studying English Literature at Lancaster University. Also the features editor for the university newspaper, SCAN, her interest in journalism is matched by a passion for theatre. Luckily for her, a module in Shakespeare means the chance to see regular performances, while writing for AYT combines her two loves.

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Review: Sabbat

Posted on 17 June 2012 by Annie Gouk

400 years after the infamous Lancashire witch trials, and three years after its original performance, The Dukes has revived Richard Shannon’s gripping play Sabbat. A moving tale of fear, loss and persecution, the play deals with the story behind the witch trials, exploring the events that led to the hanging of 10 men and women from Pendle.

With a cast of just four members, the story focuses on local magistrate Roger Nowell (Robert Alvert), his young wife Judith Nowell (Hannah Emanuel) and two of the accused witches: poor and desperate Jennet Preston (Nisa Cole) and the well-off widow Alice Nutter (Christine Mackie). With such a small cast, it is easy to become immersed in the human stories behind their relationships. With Miriam Nabarro’s sparse set design of woodchip flooring (the bark bringing a smell of earth and the outdoors to the performance) and a stark slab as a stage, there are no distractions from the intense script and powerful acting.

While the performance perhaps starts off slowly, it gradually picks up, building the tension between the characters and creating a pervading atmosphere of fear. This culminates at the end of the play, a high point being Alice’s defiant speech in refusing to confess to witchcraft. Shannon’s writing here sincerely exposes the atrocities and injustices dealt with by those persecuted for their beliefs, and is performed with passion by Mackie.

The devastating effect of the trials is fully explored in the penultimate scene, with Jennet and Alice in prison before their execution. Cole and Mackie’s portrayal of the breakdown of the women’s hope, and even sanity, brought some of the audience to tears. The poignant moment is furthered by the haunting music of John Biddle, whose chilling compositions for voice were both raw and beautiful.

One of the play’s successes is in the relationships it portrays. The marriage of Roger and Judith Nowell is particularly convincing, as we see the devastating loss of their stillborn son. Robert Alvert successfully brings sympathy to the character of the magistrate, a loving and dutiful husband who finds an outlet for his grief in persecuting those he does not understand. Hannah Emanuel acts well alongside him, as a woman struggling to stay true to her duty as a wife, while also keeping her own beliefs and independence.

As the outcast of the play, Nisa Cole’s portrayal of a young and perhaps deluded woman, epitomises the issues surrounding witchcraft at the time. Turning to witchcraft in search of power denied her because of her class, Jennet goes on to implicate others and exaggerate events in order to escape execution herself. Cole accomplishes treading the delicate line between an understandable and mistreated character, and one who is responsible for the persecution of the innocent. Ultimately it is her fear, along with the fear and anger of Roger Nowell, that leads to the death of so many.

A truly remarkable and moving play, Sabbat brings to life the history of the Lancashire witch trials. With an outstanding script, compelling acting, and wonderful direction by Amy Leach, this is definitely a must-see.

Sabbat plays at The Dukes, Lancaster until Saturday 21 July. For tickets and more information, click here.

Annie Gouk

Annie Gouk

Annie, 20, is in her third year studying English Literature at Lancaster University. Also the features editor for the university newspaper, SCAN, her interest in journalism is matched by a passion for theatre. Luckily for her, a module in Shakespeare means the chance to see regular performances, while writing for AYT combines her two loves.

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Under 25s TakeOver York

Posted on 26 May 2012 by Abigail Lewis

Every year, the York Theatre Royal allows a group of artsy folk under the age of 25 to run the building themselves, programming a month of theatre. Now in its fourth year, TakeOver Festival offers its young team a voice in the theatrical world. The aim is to connect with audiences of all ages in the York community, particularly the young community, by showcasing the diverse and exceptional talents of under 25s.

TakeOver 2012’s Artistic Director, Andra Catincescu, had a specific ethos in mind for this year’s festival: “I felt that it was very important to address the relationship between young people and their communities, and society at large. Considering what’s been happening this year with the riots, I really felt that young people are going through interesting times at the moment. I wanted to address that because it’s directly relevant to TakeOver. We’re really becoming part of the community here and introducing a new cultural input to a city.” Catincescu is keen to emphasise that although TakeOver is organised by young people, its target demographic is an audience of any age. “We want to build upon the relationship that the York Theatre Royal already has with its community and provide something for everyone. There is a lot of diversity in the programme. We wanted classics, entertainment and lots of good writing, and that’s resulted in an exciting mixture.”

The role of Artistic Director has been stimulating but challenging for Catincescu, who speaks cheerfully about her responsibilities. “It starts with setting out aims for the festival, and a vision as to what sort of work one would ideally like to programme. The next phase is spending anything between three weeks and a couple of months just doing research, to see what shows and companies will be touring at the time. Based on that, you come up with lists and try to see how things might fit together, deciding which shows Takeover might commission as resident productions and which productions will be directed by members of the team. We started in October and we finished programming by Christmas. After that, the Artistic Director stays involved with the festival and development of the whole project, while the rest of the team takes over the administration. I also chose to produce As You Like It in the main house and I’ve been working on that since January.” This has been the most challenging and stimulating aspect of her role, marking “a fantastic learning curve for everyone involved. I absolutely love my cast and I’ve been blessed with a wonderful team. It’s been exhilarating. I never expected an opportunity to direct in the main house of a theatre I admired.”

“Programming was a rollercoaster ride too,” she continues. “This year was different for us because we had Forward Theatre Project in residency. We had eight proposals from teams, each made up of one young professional playwright, one director, and one designer. Each team suggested projects that they could develop with young people in York and then produce for TakeOver. We chose Scarberia, which really stood out because it was the most ambitious and challenging proposal. In terms of the research and development process it sounded like the most exciting project for all the young people involved.”

Scarberia playwright Evan Placey once wanted to take another role on the stage. “I went to a performing arts school and I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then the teacher hated my acting! I always knew I loved theatre but actually acting wasn’t the right way. I did a Masters in Playwriting in London and that’s how it went.” For TakeOver, Placey has evoked his Canadian roots and penned a “thriller mystery” that links Scarborough, Yorkshire, to Scarborough, Ontario. When two teenaged boys in Scarborough, Yorkshire find the body of a dead woman on the beach, the story only gets more surreal when they discover she is from another Scarborough on the other side of the Atlantic. There, two boys with similar names are clearly involved with a woman who has gone missing. What happened to this woman, and what will happen to the two friendships? Who knows what, and what aren’t they saying?

“It’s a murder mystery but it’s equally a coming of age story,” says Placey. “It’s about the age of 16, and transitioning into adulthood, and whether you can keep your friends over that transition.” He tries not to write a concrete message into his plays, preferring to “focus on provoking questions, and let the audience draw a message from that. There are themes about gang youth culture, and big issues around loyalty, and what happens to concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when you start to question the code you’ve been living by. There’s something of a modern Romeo and Juliet in there too, some questions about who and how you are allowed to love.”

The Scarberia team, including Placey and Producer Charlotte Bennett, worked with groups of young people in both Scarborough towns to infuse the production with an authentic feeling. “I didn’t know the story when we started,” continues Placey. “I just knew I wanted to write a thriller and connect these two cities. So we worked with young people on both sides of the Atlantic to get their ideas about their cities, upbringing, friendships, love and so on. We set up some penpals between the Scarboroughs and kept track of how those dialogues progressed. It came up really early on that these young people wished something big and interesting would happen where they lived. That’s what inspired me; I wanted to write something intriguing and challenging that would bring young people to the theatre.”

Bennett’s overall vision and aim as producer is “to reach as many young people as possible. It’s been commissioned and inspired by young people at every level, and we want to reach a wide audience but particularly young people, in York and beyond. Next year we are doing a Canadian production of the play in Toronto. We felt we worked with them as much as we worked with young people here, so it’s important that they get to have that experience of seeing a play they inspired. We want to do a UK tour, to give the show a further light and to reach even more people. It might resonate in different ways with every audience.” Her praise of Placey’s writing is emphatic. “It really jumps off the page because it was created and inspired by work with young people. The language feels very accessible to the young actors.” The connection is particularly strong since Scarberia has a cast of only three, says Placey. “Two boys play the English and the Canadian boys, and then there’s a girl who is a character in her own right. That can be quite challenging because we switch constantly in quite an abstract way, so we have to find the characterisation ways to flicker between those two worlds, and still really believe it.”

Catincescu certainly believes in the impact the TakeOver Festival can have on the lives of those who participate: “It can absolutely make a difference. Our Associate Director, who’s in charge of community work and programming workshops for young people, he started out on the TakeOver board in the first year of the festival. In the second year, he had a show produced, which is now subsidised by one of the companies resident at York Theatre Royal. The show’s going on tour and is going to have a run in Edinburgh this summer. He’s definitely started a career here. Charlotte Bennett was Artistic Director in the first year, which led to her working in London and then starting Forward Theatre Project. TakeOver can be a network of young professionals giving people their first professional opportunities. Hopefully it will lead to a national network of young theatre professionals. The TakeOver alumni who have been involved in past years always drop in and mentor the current TakeOver team, which is an excellent networking opportunity.”

The York Theatre Royal has also started numerous youth theatre groups and a young actor’s company, which Catincescu believes has established a genuine link between the building and the community. Since many of the people involved in TakeOver came out of the youth programme, she sees youth theatre as the first step for theatrically minded young people. “I really think it makes a difference. Every year the festival grows and grows, and we must have about 30 or 40 young people on board this year. Some of them are hoping to go into the arts world professionally, and youth theatre gave them the opportunity to do Arts Awards and gain UCAS credits for university applications. Working with TakeOver is the equivalent of an internship, which is so important nowadays. Students worry a lot about their grades at university, but personally I think initiative and experience is more important. That’s how TakeOver is reaching out to young people.”

Find out more about what’s on offer at the TakeOver Festival 2012 here, with events continuing until 9 June. Scarberia runs until Saturday 2 June.

Tickets and information for all productions are also available on the site, including information about the limited number of FREE Under 25s tickets for every production. You can also call the Box Office on 01904 623 568 to book.

Image credit: Scarberia by Forward Theatre Project

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