As I sit on a Bakerloo line tube on the way to the National Theatre, I can’t help but feel slightly envious. Since the National Theatre is such a prominent theatre, it is no surprise that they have such a wide selection of education and learning opportunities for young people, and, in turn, such a vast reach. As part of the New Views programme, 74 schools and colleges across the UK were given access to an online course in playwriting, see National Theatre productions and take part in workshops led by professional playwrights. Over 300 participating students aged between 14 and 19 then submitted 30 minute plays. Ten have received a staged reading while the winning play, a three day long, fully staged run at the Dorfman Theatre.
Yes envious, but full of anticipation.
At school, if we weren’t studying An Inspector Calls or The Crucible (which didn’t particularly inspire any of the 14 year-olds in my class) we were given a ‘relevant’ play. These were usually about cyber-bulling or drug use or both and were performed harnessing the power of well-choreographed block motifs, slow motion, freeze frames and thinly disguised metaphors. Not a single one of the shortlisted pieces fall into these student play clichés. They talk about grief, survivor’s guilt, gender identity, poverty, sexual abuse and Alzheimer’s. Yes, these are plays written by young people but the themes they explore are no different to those older playwrights might explore. The only difference is that some of these issues are shared using the teenage voice, through teenage characters. The idea that young people can write about issues just as well as their older counterparts, isn’t a particularly revolutionary concept. Plenty of playwrights start young, Polly Stenham, who’s adaptation of Julie is currently playing the National Theatre itself, wrote her first play, That Face, when she was only 19 years old. In 1958, aged 20, Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey and it became a West End hit starring Angela Langsbury and Joan Plowright. Perhaps, if schools and clubs want to engage young people with theatre, they should look to their own students to create the material.
The piece that really resonates with me is the winning one, If We Were Older, by Alice Schofield. Two women lock eyes on the tube. Daisy thinks Maggie is staring at her and her girlfriend because she is uncomfortable with their homosexuality, but she couldn’t be further from the truth. Schofield’s play shows us the journey of both Maggie and Daisy as they try to navigate being teenage lesbians, fifty years apart. The poignancy of If We Were Older, is Maggie’s bittersweet joy at the present day acceptance of lesbians. Growing up in mid 20th-century England, she has to hide her sexuality. Now in her seventies, whilst happy that gay rights and equality have progressed so far since, she is sad that it couldn’t have been that way when she was younger. She has to resign herself to a lifetime of loneliness because she didn’t want her or the people she loved to get hurt. Despite the sadness of Maggie’s story the play ends on an optimistic note, with Maggie hopeful that she can find someone in 2018.
As a queer young person, I can relate to this on multiple levels. There have been many times when I’ve been out with partners or friends, seen older generations staring and it’s got my back up. Additionally, the chance to see accurate representation of my community onstage is very moving. When I think about plays with LGBT+ themes I think of Angels in America, The History Boys and The Laramie Project. I think of writers such as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Tennesse Williams. All brilliant, but all male. Though there are of course queer female writers their plays don’t reach similar popularity and they rarely feature in traditional plays and much less in musicals (I challenge you to name five musical theatre lesbian protagonists). Even when queer women are seen on stage, their stories are usually limited to coming out tales. If We Were Older is deeply refreshing. There is no big ‘questioning’ storyline, no big ‘coming out’ moment to parents, no dramatic deaths (a well known lesbian trope). It is a good, old-fashioned exploration of teenage love. It is just a ‘love story’, which is what is needed in order to completely normalise and obtain equality for queer people.
Being an aspiring playwright myself, I would have loved the opportunity to take part in a programme like New Views when I was still at school. While it’s true that most of us will have read (or at least attempted to) Shakespeare’s work in English classes and probably butchered scenes from The Crucible in drama lessons, learning how to actually write a play is forced to be an extra-curricular activity. Sadly with subjects such as music and drama being squeezed out of school curriculums in favour of more ‘traditional’ and academic subjects, it would be wildly optimistic to suppose that schools would start teaching playwriting lessons. Thus the education of young people in the arts falls to playwriting schemes like New Views, initiatives like Let’s Play which engage with primary school children and charities like the Andrew Lloyd-Webber Foundation which provides free music lessons for children in London. The result of these cuts will be an even more exaggerated class-divide within the arts, with the majority of those in the industry coming from middle class backgrounds.
It is undeniable that the New Views shortlisted writers will be at an advantage if they wish to pursue playwriting in the future. As I sat on the tube on the way home enviously contemplating this, I wondered where these playwrights would be in five, ten years time. Has the New Views programme created the next generation of great British playwrights? Or is this early success too much pressure? Will their future careers live up to this experience? One thing is for sure. The programme has shown the importance of schemes which both give young people access to theatre and find and cultivate talent, because if what I have seen is anything to go by, they have a lot of it.