Education: Personally Speaking

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The Independent Online
"THEATRE IS irrelevant to anyone under 20. Discuss." Imagine you are aged 14-18. You have the Net, satellite, cable, a Nintendo 64, a Playstation, a mini-disc system. Why on earth would you go to the theatre other than to see a play on your English syllabus, or because your parents have dragged you to a "Bernard Shaw" or a "Shakespeare" or a "Priestley" under the delusion it is good for your teenage soul?

Beyond panto, a young person's first taste of extra-curricular theatre is often at school, where they will be invited to watch visiting actors dramatise why anything from drugs, promiscuity, racism, sexism, child abuse, pollution and an over-reluctance on other people telling you what to think are "bad" or "more complex issues than you thought". This is called Theatre in Education, and its function is to educate young minds in issues of the day using theatrical techniques. Some of it is very good, some of it less so, but none of it is in business to show young audiences such a cracking time that come 3.30pm, they run to the box office of the nearest theatre clamouring to book a seat in the stalls. Theatre in Education's principle remit is not to serve as a feeder or taster for the established theatre, and nor should it be. If those in fringe or commercial theatre can't develop and maintain their own audiences, they're simply in the wrong game.

As a playwright whose first two plays have been produced at the Royal Court and Hampstead I know that if I want someone to leave the warmth of their home, head into a cold night and see my work, then - without being craven - I am obligated to make that effort worth their while. Failure to do so means they simply won't come and I will deserve to sit in an empty auditorium twiddling my theatrical thumbs, wondering why no one's asking me to write plays any more.

It is a myth that theatre is de facto worth seeing merely because it isn't television. A bad live experience leaves a much nastier taste than the boring night in front of the box. More expensive, too.

So... how to make theatre young people will want to see. Last year, I was asked if I would write a play for young people aged 14 upwards, as part of Hampstead Theatre's second "Arts for Everyone" season. It was the first time I'd been asked to write with a particular audience in mind, and I wasn't sure how to go about it. Usually an idea develops in one's head over time until it is sufficiently strong that you want to write it. The age of the audience who will eventually watch the finished article is just about the farthest thing from your mind. But now it had to be the nearest.

Eventually I came up with NO EXP. REQ'D, a play about two young people over-eager to go to work in the late Nineties, armed only with ambitious dreams and a rose-tinted view about the adult world they are jumping into.

Because the age-group for which I was asked to write is approaching adulthood and looking ahead rather than behind, I decided the play would only work as one for young adults rather than for older children. Conscious that teenagers watch far more television and films than go to the theatre, I wanted those who came to receive an experience only exhilarating live theatre can provide. Integral to this was writing a gripping, contemporary story that made no concessions to the received ideas many young people have of theatre. I was eager to show that theatre can not only match, but exceed both the linguistic muscularity and dramatic possibilities offered by the mass media, based as theatre uniquely is, on the unmediated relationship between live audience and live performance.

Consequently, the play's language is neither "sanitised" for good taste, nor the action censoriously restrained to avoid undue offence. The humour is hardly what you'd find on a kid's lolly stick, but earthy, dark and fast. The situation is real, and the story based on a true one.

In short, I have tried to write a contemporary play about a couple of young characters in a contemporary predicament with which a young adult audience soon to take their own steps from childhood to adulthood could empathise and identify. It is not panto. It is not Theatre in Education. It is not a morality tale nor a cautionary one, but one with a beginning, middle and end, from which the audience is invited to draw its own conclusions. Is theatre relevant to anyone under 20? Bring them to Hampstead, and let us show you - and how.

Simon Block

`NO EXP. REQ'D' by Simon Block opens at Hampstead Theatre on 9 March. Box office 0171-722 9301