Child's Play III: the stage show Willingly to school

What do you get when you ask new playwrights to write for youth theatre? Swear words galore and delighted kids, of course. Nick Drake, a dramaturg for the BT National Connections festival, tells all
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The Independent Culture
March 1994: Suzy Graham-Adriani at the National Theatre and I began to commission a portfolio of new plays, each about an hour long, to offer to the 180 groups taking part in the BT National Connections festival. As a point of principle, the playwrights were free to write as they wanted, so the brief was simple; to bear in mind that the actors and audiences would be between about 11 and 19, that the plays would be performed all over the country, that resources would be scarce, and most importantly that none of these considerations should be limitations. Edward Bond wrote back, "If younger writers were free to write as they want we would all - writers, directors and actors - be challenged, informed and enthused by it." We hoped for work that would be imaginative, innovative, heretical and, above all, fun.

Judith Johnson's Stone Moon was set in a quarry, and demanded a large cast of women; Harwant Bains's Indian Summer was about a group of kite- flying kids and their friendship with a holy man with a sword through his mouth. Ken and Daisy Campbell's School Journey to the Centre of the Earth took a large group of young kids on a bus-trip stranger than anything Jules Verne ever imagined. Lucinda Coxon wanted to adapt The Ice Palace by the Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vasaas, and we asked Snoo Wilson to rewrite Mayakovsky's political farce The Bedbug.

December 94: The plays had to be ready to give to the youth theatre groups in December. Most of the groups had never tackled a new text before, let alone met a writer. So we organised a Sunday of workshops in December to introduce the groups' directors to the playwrights. We colonised the NT's Olivier theatre and the front-of-house galleries and foyers. Fiona Shaw led a workshop on Faith, Hope and Charity by Odon von Horvath; Ken Campbell collaborated with Toby Jones from Theatre de Complicite. It was a kind of theatrical Blind Date for 300 people representing an astonishing spectrum from Catholic girls' schools to Welsh youth theatre groups and inner-city, multi-ethnic companies.

Because the timetable was tight, the groups had chosen their plays from the portfolio on the basis of a story, writer's biography, and descriptions of casting requirements and staging possibilities. But this was the first occasion they had actually read the plays. There were teething problems: some directors realised the explicit language of a play such as Jan Maloney's The Minotaur was inappropriate because their headmasters would not approve. Others worried about creating an ice palace in a community hall with no props, or the Cretan labyrinth in the school gym. Some had assumed they would be free to adapt the text as they liked, but the writers stood their ground and maintained their words had to be respected. There were arguments, misunderstandings, and realisations, but by the end of the day, the spirit was optimistic, and in many cases inspired.

January 95: Rehearsals started in January. New theatre was conjured on a shoe-string: thrones were fashioned from scrap metal and a wood from the generous loans of a local garden centre. Indian Summer was rehearsed by both Asian and non-Asian companies, such as at Cookstown in Northern Ireland. A special-needs company radically transformed the play; in one of the kite-flying scenes they literally "flew" their most disabled cast- member in a cat's cradle of strings. Plays with a specific locale were adapted to very different parts of the country, so Richard Cameron's Almost Grown, set in his native West Yorkshire, was swiftly and confidently relocated to Belfast or Scotland or even multi-racial Lewisham, where the idiomatic language is equally as vivid.

March and April 95: During March and April, when each group performed the work in its own venue, the NT and regional theatres sent out assessors to attend a performance of every play. They were treated like visiting gods - partly because the assessors' reports would also be used to help determine which productions would be invited to perform in the regional showcases, and finally in the National's showcase.

The writers were also involved. Lucinda Coxon was struck by how open and articulate the actors were about the difficulties of working on The Ice Palace; "They were genuinely appreciative of the chance to work on something so slippery and ambiguous. Some of them asked me what the 'secret' was in the play; but they each had their own different answers."

All the actors say the greatest thrills are performing premires of brand new work written especially for them, and the chance to act on a proper stage in a prestigious theatre. The ability and confidence of the acting is astonishing. For Paul Godfrey, whose play A Bucket of Eels is part of the festival, this proves that young actors can tackle sophisticated new texts; "People say the strength of youth theatre is in movement and music, not text. This scheme has proved there's a phenomenal validity in this kind of work which is usually thought too difficult for kids." One young actor at the Cheltenham festival told me what a relief if was to do something really up-to-date rather than Aladdin or Annie: "I love the theatricality of Stone Moon, as much as the chance to say 'fuck' in the Bedbug on stage."

Belfast's two-week festival at the Lyric showcased every play in the repertoire at least once - School Journey and The Dark Tower by Ulster poet Louis MacNeice three times each. The middle weekend was turned into an extensive series of workshops covering everything from stage management to mask-work. The Lyric's David Grant created an event that gathered an enormous momentum. One actress commented: "This is really important because it coincides with the hope for a lasting peace." It became clear that this was also a turning-point for the identity of youth drama in the North as it seemed to discover a remarkable new boldness, confidence and sense of community.

Five more festivals will take place during the coming months (Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh, Leicester and London); altogether nearly 200 youth theatre groups will have performed the latest work by some of the best young writers in the country. Young actors' appetites for new plays have been whetted, and, as one put it, "we won't settle for Oliver! again".

n The best productions from BT National Connections will be showcased at the National Theatre, London, from 30 June to 5 July (0171-298 2252)