Theatre’s double helix of drama and learning


From Christmas pantomimes to the musicals of the West End, theatre has long been part of our culture and national identity for children and parents alike. But what of young adults who crave something different to the delights of High School Musical? What kind of plays are written for them to keep them coming back to the theatre, or even to get them there in the first place?

First performed at the National Theatre in 2007, Dennis Kelly’s DNA deals with issues of conflict, peer pressure and guilt relevant to contemporary, younger audiences. Whilst its award-winning author is perhaps now best known for penning Matilda the Musical, his adolescent drama has gained recognition throughout England and the play is now a core-text on the GCSE English syllabus, studied by up to 400,000 students throughout the year. Now embarking on a national tour, Hull Truck Theatre’s new production is set to visit theatres up and down the country.

A coming-of-age story, DNA explores the ramifications of a serious accident committed by a group of 14-year-olds. Unable to confess to the truth, they cover up what they’ve done. As suspicion and distrust become rife within the group, will the teenagers be able to face up to their crime? With echoes of The Lord of the Flies, the play uses a young cast to introduce key questions concerning ethics and responsibility to the younger generation. Directed and designed by the National Theatre‘s Anthony Banks, Hull Truck’s production sets an original musical soundtrack against a contemporary urban backdrop to investigate how we react in the face of moral dilemmas.

For a play on the GCSE curriculum, Hull Truck’s national tour brings DNA to students and audiences across the UK in the form it was meant to be experienced: live on stage. Actress Leah Brotherhead is currently appearing in the production and notes, “plays are written to be performed. You’re not meant to be sitting in a classroom.” Witnessing the action breeds a deeper understanding of the text and its core themes, not to mention the better sense of character that is created through watching individual performances. On the road for a four-month tour, DNA will visit 19 cities from Plymouth to Crewe and, as Brotherhead adds, “I think a lot of teachers are really happy that it’s going on tour,” as the production becomes geographically accessible to students up and down the UK.

This isn’t just a new experience for young audiences; touring offers a whole range of challenges and benefits for the creative team. “We’re going to so many different venues, maybe places you wouldn’t normally visit and meeting new people all the time, constantly adjusting the set.” A team effort for the cast and crew creates “a really fun atmosphere, and it’s nice to work with a completely different group of people. It makes the work more interesting, too.”

Touring can also have a major impact on the production of a show itself. In adapting to new stages, venues and audiences, plays evolve along with their cast and crew. So while theatre can of course be entertaining, it is also an enlivening and enriching form of education, for audience and players alike. As a literary world is transformed into a reality on stage, young audiences can gain a greater grasp of a play and develop an appreciation for other aspects of the production, be they staging, lighting, sound, costume or design. With the Hull Truck’s focus on education, DNA is just one of many projects that seeks a younger cast and attracts a younger audience. Brotherhead sums this up: “you always want to encourage younger people to come and take an interest in the arts”.

Exposure to the arts at a young age can undoubtedly have an impact on young people’s attitudes and approaches to every day life. Projecting drama, whether realistic or fantastical, onto a stage and experiencing another world, separate from everyday existence, can be both comforting and inspirational. Why shouldn’t education be escapist? Watching and enjoying theatrical performances can encourage involvement: many actors start their career in local community or school productions. This was Brotherhead’s experience: “I never set out to become an actress as such. It just kind of happens when you’re surrounded by that atmosphere.” It becomes, however, an excellent outlet for creative energy, and a way to make friends and boost confidence for young people.

As well as being educational for the audience, every play acts as a learning curve for the cast involved. Portraying a variety of roles helps actors to pick out certain methods of acting, employ certain traits over others and make each character they play develop realistically with the unfolding story. For Brotherhead, stripping each new character back and starting with a blank canvas works best when getting to know a new role. “I think mostly when I start a play, I kind of start with me – how would I react? And then from that I find different things to add in. That fusion helps me to work out what would be best suited to the character.”

This is a process of comprehending each character’s purpose within a play. Is it to instigate action?  To react to others?  To reflect on circumstances?  With reference to DNA, Brotherhead remarks that the play doesn’t necessarily set out to create separate, individual characters, or to mimic people in reality. Rather, the play considers “what kind of human being you are. [It is] a question of ‘what would you do in that situation?’ I don’t think it’s particularly got a moral message. It’s more inspirational than that. My character, if anything, is more of the conscience of the play: the character that reflects.” Brotherhead’s character allows and encourages the audience too to reflect on what has happened and why the young people in the play find themselves in such extreme circumstances.

Contemporary drama has a knack for hitting the topical-relevancy mark when it comes to themes and content. Whilst the incident that happens in DNA is extreme, it is not unrealistic and the teenagers’ reactions tap into human nature itself. With DNA, Kelly has created a piece of theatre that offers young audiences the chance to investigate and question what their own decision might be if faced with a similar dilemma. With a range of recognisable characters and a dynamic staging that makes the play’s setting relevant to any urban environment, DNA captures the spirit of a touring production. Exposing the play to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, all audiences are encouraged to be entertained but not to ignore the play’s grounding in reality. As Brotherhead  remarks, DNA makes you question, “Where do you fit?  What’s your place?” And there’s nothing idle about that kind of escapism.

DNA is currently on tour across the UK until 25 May 2012. For more information and booking details, visit Hull Truck Theatre’s website.

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