Have you ever dreamed of performing on one of the three stages at the National Theatre? Did you think that you would have to train at drama school and buy into the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ conspiracy? Did you just not think about it because you thought it would never be possible? Well all that can change because Rob Watt, Youth Programme Manger at the National Theatre, is on a mission to get as many young people as possible through the doors of the National and onto its stages, in order to change people’s expectation of youth theatre and pave the way for the theatregoers of tomorrow.

The National Theatre’s Connections programme started 17 years ago and is now one of the largest, and most diverse and exciting, youth theatre schemes in the country. “We’ve created a back catalogue of 130 plays… we’ve had them on main stages here, they go on and be professional shows. For me, there is something about a quality back catalogue of brilliant plays that people can go and access. DNA, which was written by Dennis Kelly who wrote Matilda [the musical], is now on the GCSE syllabus, which started its life as a Connections show, so there is something about that resonating with young people and there is something historical there as well.”

Each year 5,000 young people take part and put on, with the help of their teachers and/or youth theatre leaders, brand new plays written specifically for young people. This year the writers include Meera Syal, Craig Higginson, Hilary Bell and Rory Mallarky, and have an international flavour as a nod to the Cultural Olympiad. Watt describes questioning, “how is it that plays and stories from the world have resonance with the young people across the British Isles? And actually they inevitably do because the themes will still be the same and teenage angst is still the same whatever country you’re in, and that political and sociological angst that people have will still resonate, and it’s done that.” It is very important to Watt that the writing is in the right language and set in the right world; it needs to click with young people in order that they may do the writing justice and vice versa, that the writers will do justice to the young people of today and give them a great story to perform. The writers are told “write your next play but write it for young people”. Some writers have perfectly clear ideas about what they want to write about, and then have a first draft reading with a group of young people so that the writer can get a sense of what does and does not work, other writers have no idea what they want to write about and so visit a group of young people to find out what matters to them and work out their story that way. What is most important is that the writing has to be tested by young people, so that they feel it is within their world, and secondly that it does not become censored by the teachers or youth theatre leaders. If the kids say it’s alright, then it’s alright by the National Theatre.

Each year ten new plays are written and published, and in the spring of that year are performed across the country in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Out of the 200 groups that take part, ten are chosen to bring their production to London and perform at the National Theatre. The show is treated like any other show at the National; the set is moved in, fitted and touched up, the actors have their dressing rooms and they play to a paying audience. Having so many young people around doing something they have enjoyed for years or are experiencing for the first time gives the National an atmosphere that does not always happen with their regular audiences. Because there are always other shows going on at the same time some audience members might not be expecting the youthful buzz that hums throughout the building for the five days that the productions are being showcased – but that is part of the excitement and a way of bringing new audience members to the Connections shows: through curiosity.

However, Connections is not a competition and getting to take your production to London is not a prize to be won. Watt has spent much of his time “working with young people who are either on the fringes of society or don’t get on with education very well, don’t get on with the world very well, and how theatre might have a role within their lives to explore other people’s stories and to explore their stories. I think Connections can do that really well. We’ve had quite a lot of success stories… the Lyric Hammersmith worked with a pupil referral unit, Bridge Academy, this year and did The Grandfathers, which is one of this year’s portfolio and did it absolutely amazingly… just watching it on stage it was just like any other show in terms of its professionalism and its impact, but what I also knew was that the journey these young people had made was one which was quite exceptional for them.”

There is a journey for everyone involved, though. This year, Artistic Director of the National Nicholas Hytner returned to his own school, which is now taking part in the festival for the first time. A sign of the new directions the National is taking with its youth participation work, and a statement, too, that theatre by and for young people is more than worthy to be judged alongside any other production in the country. For Watt, “it’s not necessarily just about the National Youth Theatre doing amazing pieces of theatre, which is great and wonderful, and I respect and love that. But where my passion lies is working with young people who don’t even understand or know that they are theatre makers and accessing them with these great pieces of writing and then giving them the chance to perform in a theatre that’s probably 20 miles away from them, that they don’t realise, and get that experience and get that buzz. You know as much as I do, I assume, that theatre, good theatre, has a hugely profound and positive effect on young people and I get that from every young person I’ve met throughout the Connections festival this year, as I did last. You can see that there is some change that has happened within them. So I think telling these Connections stories, it just gives them something really plausible to talk about… something to focus on, something to really get their teeth into, something different to their school musical, something different to their devising that they’ve done before. It challenges.” Given the range and extent of young companies taking part in the festival this year, we are clearly ready to take on the challenge. If you’re not involved yourself, visit the National this week to watch our generation rise to the occasion.

The festival runs at the National Theatre from 20 to 25 June and includes performances of all ten Connections 2012 plays. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Connections website.

Applications for Connections 2013 are also currently open, so if you and your youth group would like to be involved, visit the Take Part section of the website. Plays for 2013 include pieces from Lenny Henry, Anya Reiss, Lucinda Cox, Howard Brenton and Stacey Gregg. Applications close 1 July so get in while you still can!

Image credit: National Theatre Connections