Connections Book Cover 211112

On my final day at the National Theatre Connections Directors Weekend, I catch my third and final workshop (of seventeen that the NT offered), before having a few words with Connections producer Rob Watt on what the NT is looking for from the companies.

This final workshop is on voice, and is run by Zabarjad Salan. Although her vocal exercises are the ones she uses with drama school students and professionals, and are technically challenging, they feel very appropriate for transferring into a young person’s rehearsal environment. One of the exercises she offers warms up the mouth by humming in the style of various different appliances – the directors walk around, pretending to be a fridge or a dustbuster, altering their sounds appropriately. A resonance exercise continues the theme, made easier for young people to understand by likening the sounds made to a fridge or hoover. Salan has a variety of exercises which arget every facet of the voice, from throat, tongue and palette to resonance, weight, and articulation. Another favourite exercise of mine was saying fruit names whilst isolating different parts of the face: to get a taste of what that was like, try to say “pears” without moving your top lip, “prunes” without moving your bottom lip, or “kiwi” whilst sucking your cheeks in. As with many of the workshop’s exercises, it encourages the young people to think about the connection between the body and the voice, not see them as separate entities. Her exercises are vibrant, engaging and fun, and often tell stories – one of my favourites being the tongue twister about every anemone having an anemone enemy.

Connections offers workshops that can prepare the participants for anything – and that’s important, considering the variety in this season of plays. The Directors Weekend itself “is a pivotal moment in the cycle of Connections”, according to Watt, who is keen that the festival “gets it right, otherwise those young people across the country aren’t necessarily going to get the full impact of what we aspire for Connections to be.” He’s aiming high – “Although it’s a huge young person’s project, I’ve got to make sure those directors go away inspired and skilled, as they’re creating those shows.”

There is a perception of Connections as a competition, which Watt accepts as adding a healthy competitive element to the festival. However, he doesn’t believe in judging the shows and choosing a winner. Rather, the NT looks to “showcase the 230 companies with a balance of schools and youth theatres, a balance of large and small casts. We look for innovation in the way they’ve presented shows, we look for the stories of the youth companies. I don’t have a full list of criteria in front of me when I go see shows.” Without falling back on the cliché that it’s not about the winning, it’s certainly true that “they need to have the passion and heart. That’s what I’m really interested in, that I can see throughout the whole company that they believe in what they’re going. That will resonate through the show – it’s quite easy to tell the young people that know what they’re doing when they’re onstage.” Watt and I agree we would have relished the opportunity to perform at a professional theatre when we were younger, like every single one of the participating companies will. As Watt points out,“When those companies transfer to all those partner theatres, that’s where the magic happens.”

But it’s important to note that even if a company doesn’t transfer to the National, that’s not necessarily where it ends. “We’ve had a lot of returners, a lot of people have been doing Connections for years and years, which is great; there’s a sort of alumni there that support each other. We’ve just launched the Connections community, which enables everyone to help everyone else out there that’s taking part. The idea is that after this weekend, when they go back to their company, they still have to maintain that enthusiasm, so we’re trying to support that through the community. They can use the forum to talk, today we’re having a web chat, like a surgery where they can ask questions. The veterans may know some of the answers so it’s not like they have to come back to us or their partner theatre all the time. We’re happy to answer those questions but there may be more insight in asking people that have done Connections several times.”

Above all, the festival – appropriately – really is about the connections these directors made over this weekend and will continue to make throughout the process. I feel privileged to have met and learnt from so many youth directors over the weekend, and hope the young actors involved realise how lucky they are to have such inspiration behind them, making Connections happen.

The National Theatre Connections Directors’ Weekend took place between 9-11 November. The plays will be performed in 2013.