Day two of the National Theatre Connections Festival Directors Weekend is arguably the most exciting. Those taking part get to meet their partner theatres, and workshop ideas for their plays all day with professional directors and the playwrights. It is this day that I think demonstrates best the unique opportunities that Connections, a “nationwide celebration of young theatre talent”, offers.

Jim Cartwright jokes that if he had a penny for every person that told him Road changed their lives by getting them an audition then he’d be a very rich man. I spend my morning in the workshop for his Connections play, Mobile Phone Show, thinking this could achieve something similar for the young people involved. On the morning of day two, under the guidance of professional director Phillip Breen, the 60 or so directors in the room workshop ideas. They explore the possibilities of working with technology –  phones spell out the lyrics to Yellow Submarine, and stories are told through a combination of all the different media that a phone can play. The breadth of imagination on show here is mind-blowing. As Cartwright points out, “The imagination’s limitless with what you can do with a mobile phone – and making theatrical events out of it. I tried to leave this play open so they can enter it with their own imaginations. It’s not my show, it’s our show: it’s me and the young people and the youth leaders all coming together to make this piece of theatre.”  That sense of sharing pervades this particular workshop; there are so many ideas flying around the room that Cartwright’s claim that  he has “no idea what’s going to happen – every one of these shows is going to be completely unique” seems apt. For Chris Graham and Emily Landells  (Barbara Priestman Academy), who work with autistic students, the workshop has been particularly useful. “The morning’s given us lots of ideas of how we would use technology, because obviously some of our students have special needs, so by using technology we can bring in less abled students in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”

Walking into the workshop for Lenny Henry’s play, Soundclash, immediately reveals how varied the programme of plays is. Where Breen was inspiring a large group with all sorts of ideas, Henry is accompanied by a director (Paulette Randall), a movement director (Simeon Qsyea) and an MC (Anthony Anaxagorou) in a workshop which is essentially educative. This marriage of creative professionals reflects Randall’s approach, grounded in a belief that the young people need to understand “what those words feel like in here [mouth] but also what they feel like in here [body]”, and that the rehearsal process is about play, especially for children. Henry’s play is about, “what the Caribbean’s done for us. They gave us hip hop and that’s a big deal. They’re tiny islands and yet linguistically are everywhere; Caribbean culture has become a world thing.” I love getting to listen in on this workshop, hearing them break down language I’m familiar with and actually learning about the Caribbean roots of the slang I use. Listening to adults rapping and hip hop dancing is brilliant fun but highlights that with Henry’s play, “it doesn’t matter where you come from. Not everybody can rap, not everybody can dance, but you can try and it’s all in the trying, isn’t it?” It is clear that the workshop will pay dividends to the young people involved, and underpinning it all is Randall’s directing ethos – “directing is about sharing, nurturing, loving, scaring and about being brave enough to give whatever is required from you to your cast”. And of course, Henry’s workshop is hilarious, so much so I can’t help but get involved – and from sampling the workshop, I can tell Henry has thought about engaging young people actively on so many levels.

More than anything, Henry wants his play to be relevant to the young people performing it. “The first time I ever saw a play written for people like me was a play called Scrape Off The Black by Tundi Ikoli at the Royal Court. I thought, this is written for me, and I felt so honoured to be in a theatre listening to this stuff, for someone to be using language I used and talking about music I liked. It really landed on me. I thought, if I can do something like that, that would be a really wonderful thing to do.” Similarly, Cartwright thinks “it’s a mistake to say I’m writing for youth, because they think it’s going to be patronising. Often with schools you get kids churning out the same old stuff, but you want some plays that are relevant to young people.”

The plays for the Connections Festival are uniquely written for a focused target audience, and provide the opportunity to look beyond the text and engage with the writer themselves. “It’s so rare to have someone whose writing in front of you so you can ask questions like why does this person say this?” appreciates Martyn Horner-Glister (Lincoln Young Company). The workshops themselves are most definitely “quite intense”, say Graham and Landells, but notably “it helps us as much as the students, as we get to try out the ideas we could use with them”. Horner-Glister uses the example that in his company’s play, I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here by Stacey Gregg, “there’s a lot of physical contact. There’s blood and kissing and groping and when you’re working with young people they’re going to have a tendency to not want to do it or giggle. So in our workshop we looked at building up to the idea of a kiss or grope or whatever you start off with little games, which slowly build up their closeness until eventually everyone’s comfortable. If everybody does the same exercise in a workshop for a couple of weeks, it gets to a point where you’re nose to nose and personal boundaries aren’t an issue any more.”

The writers’ workshops break down barriers that would ordinarily pose challenges for these directors: through conversations with the writer, by developing rehearsal ideas with directors, and most of all, between adult and child. Watching the exercises and plays they have to look forward to, I can’t wait to get the young person’s perspective on the Connections experience.

The National Theatre Connections Directors’ Weekend took place on 9 – 11 November 2012. The plays will be performed in 2013.

Image credit: NT Connections