As she prepares to take part in the National Theatre’s Connections festival again, AYT caught up with young playwright Anya Reiss…
How did you get started as a writer? What part did the education system play in your decision to write professionally?
I started writing having done a half term under-18s course at the Royal Court. The Royal Court was my education in writing and my local drama club at Theatre Peckham was my theatrical education. Actual education was pretty rubbish in terms of me becoming a writer. I had a couple of good English teachers who managed to muster up some enthusiasm in me for some things, particularly plays, but I hated the way opinion and taste weren’t even on the checklist when it came to learning about literature. Not that I like it when everything is geared towards ‘what the kids think’ but for it to be totally absent, not just for the pupils but from the teachers as well… I lost a bit of respect for a teacher if they treated Adam Bede the same as Tennessee Williams and wouldn’t offer an opinion on either. In school it was all about metaphors and grammar and what this critic had said about it, what the book or play had to say barely mattered. But that’s the fault of the system; as I make quite clear in my Connections play I am not a big fan of the education system.
What does it mean to be asked to write a play for NT Connections? What does the project offer playwrights/actors/directors etc?
All I wanted when I was younger was just to be allowed to act, that’s why drama at school barely played a part for me. I was so frustrated that I was a chorus member or it was a musical or I was playing a 50-year-old man in The Crucible, or we sat around discussing drama forms. I just wanted to act a part and test my strengths. That’s why I think Connections is so great and I was so pleased to write a play for it. It’s new writing not just for young actors, but only for young actors, in a real professional atmosphere as well, where you go to a proper theatre to perform. By the end of doing a Connections play I think a lot of kids will have figured out if they want to be actors or not, and to have had the chance to maybe write the play that made someone make that decision is very exciting.
What is the biggest threat to new writing today?
Obviously the arts suffer when there isn’t enough money but I don’t know if that’s the biggest threat. I think the education in this country doesn’t do enough to make theatre seem like viable career and relevant, like it’s a way to actually spend an evening. Not only does it not do enough it doesn’t even give the room to those teachers who would like to open this world up to kids. I went to a very ‘nice’ school round the corner from the Royal Court with a nice mother who would take me to the theatre about four times a year and I was a drama junkie, but I still managed to walk into a Royal Court Young Writers Programme at 17 never having seen or read or even heard of a piece of new writing in my life. That’s the biggest threat to new writing and the theatre itself; I was like that and I’m straight As, from London, white and middle class. I’m theatre fodder – seriously, what hope is there for anyone else or anything different?
What advice would you give a young playwright who’s just starting out?
To always finish what you start and never be embarrassed to show people your work, and to make sure that those people are absolutely relentless and brutal in their criticism of it.
The National Theatre Connections Festival, an annual festival of new plays for young performers, will run from 3–8 July. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/connections for more information and to book tickets.