The National Theatre Connections Directors’ Weekend, which I attended this month, signals the start of what will be a year-long process of bringing plays from page to stage. Connections is a festival which commissions ten new plays written for 13- to 19-year-olds and offers participating schools and youth theatres support from the National Theatre and its partner theatres. The whole thing culminates in a performance at a professional theatre, and with the opportunity to perform at the National Theatre itself. This weekend opened my eyes to what Connections provides both for young performers and for the directors involved.

The three days were packed full of workshops which I dashed to and from in an effort to check out what was on offer. Friday’s programme offered practical and production-based workshops, catering for individual needs. I began with “Getting the most out of young actors”, led by director Lucy Kirbald. The focus of this workshop was on the approach to communication when working with young people. Kirbald foresaw potential problems a young actor might encounter, and highlighted that tackling those issues early on in the rehearsal process through a series of accessible exercises – which she provided – would pay off at later stages of the production. For example, if a child had issues with projection, when they had to move from the rehearsal room to the performance space the director could refer them back to an earlier voice exercise rather than panic them with the technicalities of projection which they might find difficult to understand. Kirbald’s exercise for this was to imagine, as a group, your words travelling down a washing line to a point on the wall, as you first over-enunciate the consonants and then speak normally. Following this the group moved further and further back so they had to put more energy into their projection and the combined diction, engagement and volume proved it to be a quickly effective exercise that children would find easy to follow. Other exercises included extending this to think about the text by attaching a verb or feeling to the line, so A might have to deliver their line as if they were “stroking” or “punching” B.  “Getting the most out of young actors” is about making performance techniques accessible, something Michaela Carberry (of Boden’s Youth Theatre) identifies with: “When I was being taught, a lot of things were said like ‘add more energy to it!’ but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone, you don’t know what you need to do.”

There is a whole range of backgrounds in the room. Her Connections production will mark Carberry’s directing debut. “I found it really weird straight away because the workshop was from a director’s point of view and I’ve always approached stuff with an actor’s hat on.” I absolutely understand what Carberry means. It’s surreal to hear the directors chat about the recurring problems they encounter working with young people from their perspective: until now having to miss rehearsals, unreliability, projection, physical contact etc. were just actors’ problems to me. I’d never thought of the impact they would have on my director. But the difference in experience doesn’t mean that other directors aren’t getting just as much out of the workshops as Carberry. Martyn Horner-Glister (Lincoln Young Company) started directing when he was 19 and says: “I didn’t have a clue. I taught myself to direct. I think you’re learning all the time. I think everybody should be as you don’t want your ideas to stagnate and to keep putting on the same vision again and again – you want to keep moving forward and learning new things.”

My next workshop was “Nuts and bolts”, more of a forum-like session with director Rob Hastie and NT stage manager Neil Mickel on the logistics of putting on a show. I’d be lying if I were to say I was just a voyeur over the weekend; as a young theatre maker I’m learning from everything. But “Nuts and bolts” makes me want run a mile from producing my first show, as the list of things that a director has to do – if they don’t have a stage manager – got longer and longer. “It’s all very daunting. Your single most precious resource is time. As teachers and youth group leaders you understand better than anyone how precious time is and how little time there seems to be,” sympathises Hastie. Teacher Hannah Azman (Woolwich Polytechnic School for Boys) agrees, “Come January, we’re going to be rehearsing GCSE plays and A-level plays and this, and we’ve got to teach and plan lessons. It will be a massive amount of work but it’s something that I think will benefit our kids.” Hastie and Mickel made the checklist look a little more friendly by breaking it down into planning (scheduling and deadlines), people (thinking about “wearing different hats” as both stage manager and director) and running an efficient rehearsal (maximizing the time in the rehearsal room). Hastie and Mickel were brilliant at talking tactics and you can imagine them running their rehearsals like a military operation, though that doesn’t stop them feeling that: “The key to all of this is fostering a sense of ensemble and encouraging the young people to think of themselves as a company.”

Looking back on all the student productions I’ve done, it’s amazing to consider how much work so few people have to achieve, and eveything that’s being learned this weekend is for the sake of the kids. “It’s all those little bits you can take back, and not go to the kids and say this is what I learned, but learn it again in the rehearsal space with them. I like the idea of having the kids involved as much as possible,” says Tom Fox (URock Youth Theatre). Working with kids is “unpredictable and often hysterical,” says Horner-Glister, “You don’t get that quite so much with adults because adults have the filter between brain and mouth, whereas kids just – ‘BLARGH!’ – whatever they want to say just comes out and they don’t care what other people think. They are more open and more willing to try things and experiment.” Fox agrees that the difference between working with kids and adults is that “They’re honest. It’s much easier to explore things with kids.” But I think Horner-Glister sums up the fun of the weekend and why the directors do what they do when he tells me that he loves working with young people, quite simply, “because I’ve never thought of myself as an adult.”

 

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

Image credit: NT Connections