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Devise and Conquer (Or, YTAS's National Festival of Youth Theatre)

I haven't written enough about devised work on this blog, as it's a practice that makes up the bulk of drama education here in the UK. In their 2012 survey, EdTA recommended devised theatre as a radical "untried method" for US high schools. Meanwhile, devised theatre makes up 20% of a student's final score on the GCSE in Drama in the UK. (The GCSEs are similar to the AP exams in the US. Except, as you might imagine from the fact that there's a GCSE in Drama, there's a lot of portfolio and performance-based assessment. Not so much bubbling in answer sheets.) Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in Youth Theatre Arts Scotland's National Festival of Youth Theatre (NFYT), a gathering of independent youth theatres from across the country. Not only did I get to attend workshops by expert facilitators, I also was able to see three productions a day representing some of the most cutting-edge devised work being created by young adults.

Like this awesomeness from Gaiety Young Company's Hide and Seek

First of all, I cannot overstate how different theatre education can be in the UK as opposed to the US. Most of the focus here is on extracurricular youth theatres that are either completely independent or that operate in conjunction with a professional theatre. In the US, if you aren't at a high school with a strong theatre department, you're usually out of luck for national festivals and competitions. Don't get me wrong: we have some fantastic festivals -- like EdTA's International Thespian Festival for high school students and iTheatrics' Junior Theatre Festival for middle school students. But these events are almost exclusively limited to school groups. In so many ways, the opportunities available to you as a high school theatre student are limited by your zip code. I was never going to be able to perform on the Thespian mainstage because there were no high schools in my area that were EdTA members. And it's not just (expensive) organizational memberships that can mess with a student's career track. When my high school wouldn't let me direct a production, I went out into the local professional theatre community to see if I could get an artistic internship. No such luck. They all wanted college students. Eventually, I just started my own theatre company because I realized that I needed to make my own opportunities.

That isn't the case in the UK. If your high school doesn't offer an artistic opportunity, there are plenty of independent youth theatres out in the community. Usually, you can join them for free or for a small membership fee (like $5 per week). That's because the UK funds the arts (and arts education) much better than the US does. (And somehow, they still manage to afford universal health care. Huh.) I've found programs in all of the cities that I've visited where students can gain experience as performers, designers, playwrights, directors, technicians, and even producers. The UK is doing some "next gen" theatre education work -- and the US would do well to take notice.

Post-show discussion for Hide and Seek

Theatre education in the UK also focuses heavily on theatre for social change. There are entire festivals (like the National Theatre of Scotland's Exchange Festival) dedicated to devised work by young adults -- and these devised works almost exclusively deal with pressing social and political issues. One of the best performances that I saw at NFYT, Gaiety Young Company's Hide and Seek, featured a scene where cast members invited the audience onstage to play Jenga, which (as they mentioned) had absolutely nothing to do with the precarious political situation in the UK, while "DJ May" dropped a beat for strong and stable government.

(Kind of like this.)

Compare this to high school theatre in the US. Last year, EdTA's Annual Play Survey listed the most popular high school plays as Almost, Maine, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Our Town. Keep in mind: these were the most popular plays being performed in 2016, a year when political strife was at record highs. There were so many current events that could have been addressed through either new devised works or reinterpretations of scripted works -- Black Lives Matter, the Russian collusion scandal, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the rise of Fake News, TRAP Laws, and (through some fluke of the Electoral College) the US electing the most unpopular president of all time. And yet, with all of these events impacting our nation for decades to come, our high school theatre departments are choosing Almost, Maine.

Buckle Up, Firefly Arts' production about refugees

You will not see Almost, Maine at NFYT. In fact, the only production that even comes close to being on EdTA's Annual Play Survey was a re-imagining of A Midsummer Night's Dream from SOPA Youth Company (a special guest troupe from Malta) that centered on global warming. The performances that I watched dealt with the refugee crisis (Firefly Arts' Buckle Up), drug addiction (East Lothian Youth Theatre's Unconscious), and LGBTQ rights (Regal Youth Company's 404). Even the more "conventional" works, like Centrestage Music Theatre's Lord of the Flies, bucked the rules of their predecessors. Centrestage's production envisioned a modern-day primary school classroom in lock-down, while a lethal flu epidemic (or maybe the zombie apocalypse?) rages outside. And the the entire show was done through dance/movement and pre-recorded voice-overs. Stunningly beautiful.


There were other incredible moments at NFYT as well. All of the youth theatre groups stayed at the Rozelle Park Campground in tents, despite the lousy Scottish summer weather. (It's the only negative thing I'll ever say about Scotland, a.k.a. my home away from home. As a native of the Great Lakes snow-belt, I never even noticed how bad the weather gets here until the bleak and rainy summer months.) There were nightly events designed to bring the students closer together, like a lip-sync battle and a traditional Scottish ceilidh (basically the Scottish equivalent of line-dancing). I wish that I could have visited the Rozelle Park Campground in-person, but I was subject to the whims of Scotrail's train schedule.

The main tent at Rozelle Park

We need to push harder for applied theatre methodologies in the US that encourage our students to think about civic engagement and social justice. I know, I know. "Social justice" has somehow become a dirty word in the Age of #MAGA. But maybe if we exchanged Almost, Maine for Definitely, Human Rights, we could start battling that stigma in the classroom.

Awards! Awards Everywhere! (Or, the UK's Awards System)

The UK loves awards even more than Texas.

Everywhere I've gone, I've seen posters listing requirements for awards, worksheets students can fill out to receive awards, advertisements for how programs can help students win awards, etc. Interestingly, most of them seem to be focused on personal improvement, as opposed to being "the best" at a particular skill. They help students identify areas of interest, learn how to teach themselves skills, research future opportunities, and plan and execute their own independent projects. I've long believed that the most important skill teachers can teach is autodidacticism. But how exactly does one teach that? I think that all of the awards in the UK (and the importance that teachers, admissions officers, and employers ascribe to them) go a long way towards teaching students how to be autodidacts.

The most well-known award seems to be the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. You can start working towards this award if you're between the ages of 14 and 24. There are various tiers of award (gold, silver, and bronze) depending on how old you are. There are specific ways for students to upgrade from one tier to the next as they progress through their secondary school careers. All of the awards center on achievement in four areas: volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition. Students looking to receive the gold Duke of Edinburgh's (DofE) Award also have to complete a residential requirement. Students need to volunteer with a charitable organization for twelve months to be eligible for a gold DofE award. (There's an opportunity board on the DofE website that helps connect student volunteers and organizations.) Students need to participate in some kind of athletic activity (team sports, fitness, extreme sports, martial arts, dance, etc.) to meet the physical requirement, and they need to join an after-school club or develop their own skills enrichment program in a topic that interests them (performing arts, science and technology, media and communications, board games, etc.).* They need to focus on one of these areas (either physical or skills) for twelve months and the other for six months. For expedition, students need to explore the great outdoors -- hiking, cycling, or boating -- and complete a project based on their experience. Two suggested projects were "planning a route around three of the places that inspired Wordsworth's poems in the Lake District" and "using the cycle system in the Netherlands to undertake a research project on the provisions and quality of cycle paths compared on Britain." Students need to be out in the wilderness for four days and three nights.

* Possible skills listed on the DofE website include: taxidermy, (underwater) basket weaving, dowsing and divining, snail farming, historical period re-enacting, and snack pimping. What is snack pimping? How does one become a snack pimp? Can I be a snack pimp?

Finally, students aiming for the gold DofE need to complete a residential requirement, which means that they have to be away from home for five days and four nights (presumably to prepare them for university life). The course website encourages students to participate in residential experiences that promote service (like "rebuilding a school roof in Lesotho"), learning (like "improving your Spanish language skills on a course in Madrid"), activities (like "going white water rafting in New Zealand past glaciers and mountains"), and environment and conservation (like "doing dry stone walling in the West Tyne Valley in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall"). Again, there's an opportunity board on the website that connects students with possible residential opportunities. Clicking on the board this afternoon, I found an opportunity being advertised to create a Viking performance in the Lake District. That's right. A Viking performance. Tell me that you don't want to start your Duke of Edinburgh's Award journey RIGHT. NOW.

While some components of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award might seem expensive (like the residential requirement), I scanned the opportunity board and found that most of the residencies are located right here in the UK and cost about £300. You can find less expensive ones (usually on nature preserves) or more expensive ones (usually abroad). However, you don't need to be "minted," as the British might say, to receive your gold DofE. Although I think being "skint" might be a bit prohibitive. Luckily, registration for the DofE only costs £20-27 depending on your award level.

Awards in the UK aren't just limited to the DofE. There are other programs like the Arts Awards and the Dynamic Youth Awards. The Arts Awards, especially at the higher levels, emphasize designing and leading your own arts project. The Dynamic Youth Awards (which seem to be only available in Scotland) are for students ages 10+ and require a minimum of five hours of work. I like the Dynamic Youth Awards because everyone has five free hours in their schedule and since there are so many free enrichment programs available for young adults, it makes the award achievable, even for students who aren't necessarily "all-stars" in their schools or who come from low-income communities. Essentially, the Dynamic Youth Awards reward students just for trying out a new extracurricular activity or exploring an academic interest. It dangles awards in front of students to help them become more well-rounded or to help them discover interests that could lead them down a career path. And we know that dangling awards works. Just look at Texas. (If you don't know anything yet about Texas's one-act festival, it's the competition that has turned theatre education into a cornerstone of the Texas education system. Seriously. I know that blue states might be reluctant to ask their red state neighbors for advice on the arts -- but Texas, Florida, and Georgia are leading the pack in theatre education. We need to be adapting their best practices all across the US.)

Find below the poster for the Arts Awards' Journey Gold Level and the Challenge Sheet for the Dynamic Youth Award. I first saw the Arts Award poster hanging on the walls at Toonspeak and, in fact, Toonspeak will be engaging in a partnership program with Youth Theatre Scotland next year to help bring these awards opportunities to even more low-income communities. These awards opportunities are great for what the National Theatre of Scotland's LEARN Department calls "sign posting." Students who've finished an enrichment program (like a LEARN Department production) will be "sign posted" towards another activity that will help them continue their learning. That might be a structured degree or training program, an internship or part-time employment position, or an awards opportunity that will encourage them to pursue their interest further. For the Dynamic Youth Awards, students complete a Challenge Sheet throughout their experience. The Challenge Sheet teaches and reinforces basic "soft skills" that students are going to need to succeed at university and in the workplace: action planning, record keeping, and peer assessment. It's a basic form -- but then again, remember that the Dynamic Youth Award's five-hour requirement is one of the reasons why it's so easy to get students to participate in the program. As previously mentioned, I'm strongly in favor of all of these awards schemes. I think that the students that I've taught in NYC public and charter schools would have benefited greatly from a structured program encouraging them to go out and discover what interests them. I'll always remember one parent-teacher conference in which I asked a parent what her child's hobbies were. She told me that her child likes to watch TV. I feel that, if we had programs like the Arts Awards or the Dynamic Youth Awards in the US, I could have said to that parent: "How about signing your student up for a three-week film production course? She'll get her Dynamic Youth Award!" It also might encourage schools and teachers to offer more short-term "taster" extracurricular programs.

Life-Coaching Stage Left (Or, Toonspeak's SHINE)

In a building not entirely dissimilar to a US shipping container classroom, a group of teenagers maps out a familiar narrative: the character has a goal, there are obstacles preventing that character from reaching her goal, the character overcomes those obstacles and achieves her goal. However, while these students are creating a show about their character's goals, they're also working with a life-coach to discover ways of accomplishing their own goals.

Welcome to Toonspeak's SHINE program. SHINE teaches students artistic skills while also providing them with life-coaching. While any student who lives in Glasgow can apply to SHINE, the program tends to be geared towards students from low-income communities, frequently who have no previous theatrical experience. I first learned about Toonspeak from Scottish Youth Theatre (SYT), which provides Toonspeak students with full tuition scholarships for their courses. (SYT doesn't have a formal financial aid program and instead depends on partnerships with programs like Toonspeak to fulfill their diversity initiatives.) During the ten-week course, SHINE students receive life-coaching, which the SHINE program team describes as "a way of seeing yourself and what you want out of life . . . then figuring out what you need to do to get it." There are two facilitators in the studio at all times: a professional theatre-maker and a professional life-coach.

Toonspeak Plastic-Bag Dragon. Word.

During the first class, students wrote down five words that describe themselves on index cards. They then sorted those words into three categories: positive, negative, and "question mark." Afterwards, they created characters in small groups -- drawing their character's silhouette on poster paper and writing how their character would describe himself/herself inside the character and how others would describe him/her outside the character. This encouraged the students to think about other people that they might know (friends, family, teachers, etc.) and how their perception of that person could differ from who he/she actually is. In subsequent classes, students started thinking about their goals. The life-coach had them write out a bucket list of all of the things that they wanted to accomplish and experience; students created a 15-second commercial about their top bucket list item. This segued into them thinking about the characters that they'd previously created and what their goals might be. What might be standing in the way of them achieving those goals? How might they overcome those obstacles?

Students then worked in small groups to create a short five-scene play. In Scene 1, their character introduces his/her goal. In Scenes 2-4, he has to overcome different obstacles getting in his way. And in Scene 5, he either accomplishes his goal, or he doesn't. During the class that I attended, the students came up with the basic objective for each scene ("he tries to get his friend to help him break out of jail") and then improvised the scene. The theatre-maker side-coached and kept them on-track. When a joke had gone on for too long, he told them to move the scene forward; when the actors had nowhere left to go, he suggested that they end the scene. While the students did all of the creating themselves, this guidance (where to stop, how to move on, etc.) was invaluable. By the end of the class, one of the groups had an incredibly solid short play -- especially for students with little formal theatrical training. They were even able to draw a strong performance out of a student who seemed especially reluctant to be there, just by focusing on where his particular personality might fit into the narrative and letting him create a character from there. It was a good reminder that, unlike with scripted drama, there's room for everyone in devised theatre.

Check out more of the SHINE program below. I'm interested in seeing if this model can be duplicated in the US, especially for students who have dropped out of the education system and are struggling to identify or achieve their goals.

To What End, Educational Research? (Or, Kaleidoscope Conference 2017)

I just wrapped up two days at the Kaleidoscope Conference at the University of Cambridge. I was presenting research on the EU's Let's Dance program that I observed in Granada, Spain. (You can find my Powerpoint presentation uploaded to the RESEARCH section of this website.) First of all, I had a fantastic time at the Kaleidoscope Conference. It was my first time venturing out to an academic research conference; all of my previous experiences have been at practice-based conferences geared towards teachers. Not only did I get to listen to educational researchers from across the globe, I also was able to present at my mother's alma mater. (I had to send regular text message updates about what neighborhoods I was walking through and which buildings were still standing. Since we're talking about the University of Cambridge, where John Milton and Isaac Newton went to school, the answer to that question was "most of them.")

Ye Olde University

I wanted to talk briefly about the two most interesting sessions that I attended: the Cambridge Faculty of Education panel (How can we produce research of international impact and what steps should we make to facilitate international collaborations between researchers?) and Workshop 1 (Who is my research for? Positioning ourselves as researchers). I have to admit that I was baffled by the beginning of the Cambridge Faculty panel. Prof. Jan Vermunt gave a presentation about journal citation reports. These tell you how many times a specific academic journal has been cited in the past year, so that you can decide which journals you should submit your research to. The higher the ranking on the journal citation report, the more prestigious the journal. (I should mention that one of the journals that I read the most often, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, was at the bottom of the list.) Academics apparently have all sorts of score-keeping mechanisms, like Google Scholar. Their database lists the number of times that a specific journal article or book chapter has been cited. So if I wrote a journal article and three other researchers cited my work in their journal articles, then a little 3 would pop up next to that article on my Google Scholar profile.

So yes, if you want to get citations, there's a strategic way to go about it. However, this was where I started to wonder: Why are any education researchers measuring their impact by the number of journal articles citing their research? Let's be honest: the only people who read journal articles are other researchers. Who have probably either a) never spent a day as a classroom teacher or b) retired from the public education system long ago. Who cares what those researchers think? Who cares who they read or reference? Who cares what number pops up on your Google Scholar profile? In education, there's only one valid measure of impact: How many students has your work affected? It doesn't matter if you've written the best-cited article in Google Scholar history and scored a million gold rings, Sonic the Hedgehog-style. If your research never pops up in classrooms in Wichita, Kansas -- integrated into Mrs. Miller's fourth period class -- then all of your gold rings mean diddly-squat.

Cambridge's Faculty of Education

Thankfully, Dr. Sonia Ilie started nudging the panel out of the Ivory Tower. "Don't leave research at the journal," she implored her audience. Take that journal article and "translate" it into a two-page policy brief for local government officials. Edit it down into "sound bytes" that can be published in the union magazine on the coffee table in the teachers' lounge. James Underwood (whom I'll talk more about later) said that there's no problem with only ten people reading your work, "as long as [it's] the right ten people." If you're a public policy researcher and the only person who ever reads your work is the Prime Minister of the UK? I'd consider that research a success. Even Prof. Vermunt of the journal citation reports concluded that "we have to publish our research twice at least" -- once for the academic researchers and once for a more practice-based audience (teachers, government officials, NPO managers, curriculum writers, etc.).

If Dr. Sonia Ilie gently nudged, James Underwood shoved the conference out of the Ivory Tower and left it splattered on the pavement below. This man was my education researcher spiritual soulmate. He had us question if research even needs to be published, or if research can be conducted simply to benefit yourself. (To what end, educational research?) He told us that an interview question for prospective lecturers at his university (the University of Northampton) is: "How has your research directly impacted a school, a group of students, or a student?" They don't ask about your published articles or your conference presentations or your ranking on Google Scholar. They want to know how your work had a real-world impact on actual teachers, principals, students, and families. At that moment, I knew two things: 1) If I ever wanted to get my PhD, I would be applying to the University of Northampton (sorry, mum!) and 2) I'm never getting my PhD.* The world that I discovered at the Kaleidoscope Conference was a great place to visit, but I don't think that I'd like to live there. It's not enough for me to write an article and then send it out into the void. Unless I can take my findings and immediately create a new program or draft a new bill or write some new curriculum, I won't be satisfied. I supposed that I'll never be an education researcher; I'm destined to always be a teacher-researcher instead.

* There's one exception. I'm open to pursuing a PhD (or other doctorate) that's firmly rooted in practice. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, for instance, has a DPerf (Doctorate of the Performing Arts) where you stage 4-5 theatrical projects with comprehensive write-ups and take supplemental coursework to become a more informed artistic practitioner. That degree sounds right in my wheelhouse, especially if I end up staying in Scotland for a while. Not saying that I'm staying in Scotland for a while or anything. Or maybe I am. We'll see.

No Opt Out (Or, Community Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland)

During my Fulbright, I've spent a great deal of time with the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). Simon Sharkey, the Associate Director of NTS's LEARN department (which manages community engagement), invited me to observe the development of Submarine Time Machine -- a production about the Forth and Clyde Canal that involves over a hundred members of the community. The National Theatre of Scotland was created as a "theatre without walls," developing new productions in cities, towns, and villages across the country as opposed to staying in one central locations. NTS recently moved into Rockvilla, an industrial building on the Forth and Clyde Canal that houses their rehearsal/development and construction space, as well as their administrative offices. While they don't actually stage any of their performances at Rockvilla (theatre without walls, remember?), the Forth and Clyde Canal does host NTS's day-to-day operations. The LEARN department developed Submarine Time Machine as a way of connecting to their new community.

The Forth and Clyde Canal

There are two things that have stood out to me the most in NTS's community engagement programs. First of all, Submarine Time Machine really does involve a diverse cross-section of the community as contributors. The LEARN team develops each of their productions by going out into the community and asking people: "What's the story that everyone around here knows?" (Simon says he frequently follows that question up with: "No, no, no. What's the other story?") This allows the LEARN team to dig into the narratives of that particular area -- their folklore, their legends, their morality tales. It allows them to craft a production that authentically captures what's unique about that particular community. Once they have a selection of narratives to choose from, the LEARN team transforms them into an actual script -- which then goes back into the community for further development. For example, NTS's education team has gone into three local primary schools to work with students on staging the tale of "The Plug." These primary schools will take turns performing this installation in Submarine Time Machine on different days of the week. BSL (British Sign Language) performers created an interpretive dance for "The Hart and the Fox," while a local choir of refugees will be singing original music for that installation.

GAMTA (Glasgow Academy Musical Theatre Arts) students make up the bulk of the key storytellers, along with a few professional actors. These students are performing as part of their coursework; they take classes in the morning and then head to NTS rehearsal in the afternoon. During Submarine Time Machine, they're performing each installation six times a day (or twelve during days with both afternoon and evening performances). That might not seem like a lot -- but it's a grueling schedule for even the most well-trained actors. NTS's LEARN department might work almost exclusively with amateur performers, some of whom are completely new to theatre, but they don't treat them any differently than the most seasoned professionals.

The second thing that's stood out to me is the culture of "no opt out" that permeates every rehearsal. I expected to be sitting on the sidelines during my observations, taking notes on the rehearsal/development process. Instead, I've found myself contributing to planning meetings, playing games with GAMTA students, and even volunteering for the actual performances themselves. I originally signed up to work front-of-house, but when one of the BSL performers dropped out, the LEARN team asked if I would be willing to fill in. For the record, I do not know BSL nor am I a contemporary dancer by any stretch of the imagination. But when you're at NTS, you just kind of throw yourself into any situation -- regardless of how much it might terrify you. I haven't performed in anything since I was in high school, but I'm going to be dancing (which I can't do) and signing (in a language I don't know) in a few weeks in front of an audience.

That represents the ethos of the Fulbright fellowship though. The US Department of State sends us to these countries not only to serve as ambassadors for the US (a challenging job at the moment), but to throw ourselves head-first into new experiences. For some of my fellow Fulbrighters, that means trying new cuisines, hiking new terrains, or meeting with government officials. I've used my Fulbright as the impetus to overcome some of my greatest fears. Later this week, I'll be traveling to the University of Cambridge to present in-progress research on international arts exchange programs (including the EU's Let's Dance program). I've never spoken at an academic conference before; I've never even been to an academic conference before. A few weeks later, I'll be interpretive dancing in NTS's Submarine Time Machine.

I've done my Fulbright differently than many of my DAT peers. And while I would say that my Fulbright hasn't been at all what I expected, I'd also say that it's been so much better than anything that I could have imagined. For all of the Fulbrighters out there (DAT or otherwise): Go into this opportunity with an open mind and be willing to push yourself far outside of your comfort zone. It may be a much different experience than what you'd originally planned -- but, then again, there may be something out there that's so much better, so much more, than you ever thought possible.

Rethinking the Canon (Or, Building the YA Theatrical Canon Through Connections)

Last summer, I stumbled on an exhibition about the National Theatre's Connections program. While I'd heard about Connections before, I was unaware of the program's full scope until I spent a few hours sifting through the exhibition's graphs, captions, and video footage. Both in UK and Irish youth theatre, there's an explicit focus on expanding the canon. Frequently, that's done through devised theatre, in which groups of students create their own scripts through improvisations and structured games. Connections approaches the development of the YA theatrical canon in a completely different way. Each year, they commission professional playwrights to write scripts for young adults "in response to a demand for good, new, relevant plays for young people to perform." They strategically select 10-12 playwrights per cycle to create "a diverse portfolio of work that's going to appeal to a very broad range of people." Upon returning to the US, I picked up a copy of Connections 500, the compilation released last year, which included plays written by Katori Hall (The Mountaintop), Patrick Marber (Closer), James Graham (Finding Neverland), Lucinda Cox (The Danish Girl), and Carl Grose (from Kneehigh Theatre). In the video interviews, many of these playwrights acknowledged that the scripts they wrote for Connections are amongst their most frequently-produced plays. (For instance, David Kelly wrote DNA for Connections 2008, which is not only produced all over the world but has also become part of the official GCSE Drama curriculum. The National Youth Theatre will be producing DNA next month.)

When I've told UK theatre educators that our students frequently perform plays like Death of a Salesman in high school, they've been shocked. Why would you put a student in a role designed for a middle-aged man? Don't you have material that was written for someone their age instead? And my answer has been . . . not really. We have some programs that are developing new YA works, like the ACT Young Conservatory and the Children's Theatre Company, but there's a good chance you've never heard of their work. This year alone, Connections worked with almost 450 schools and youth theatres from across the UK. Their model has been replicated everywhere from Brazil (Conexões Youth Project) to Sweden (Länk Riksteatern), from Italy (Teatro Limonai/Litta) to Finland (Den Unge Scenen Norway Nuori Näyttämö). Basically, if you're a student who's involved with theatre in the UK, you've heard of Connections -- and you've probably participated in a Connections production.

One of the first UK youth theatres that I connected with was PACE Youth Theatre. Back in February, I blogged about their work on The Monstrum, one of this year's Connections scripts. Youth theatres and secondary schools participating in Connections rank their choices of that year's commissioned scripts, and then the Connections Team lets them know which one they'll be performing. The Monstrum, a play about teenagers suffering from a disease that makes them unrecognizable to their parents (i.e. puberty), was one of the more popular play choices this season. Participating groups then have to stage a performance in their hometown, attended by a representative from the National Theatre. Afterwards, the representative from the National Theatre asks the students to reflect on their experience during a talkback. I attended PACE's talkback and the questions dealt primarily with evaluating their first performance ("From your perspective, what were the high points of tonight?"), assessing student comprehension of the production ("When you say you were trying to 'capture the ideas,' what did that rehearsal room look like?"), and understanding students' contributions to the artistic process ("Tell me how that was made. What was the process?"). As always, the PACE students responded to all questions articulately and enthusiastically. Once the talkback was completed, the representative told PACE's director that she could expect more comprehensive feedback via email in a few days.

There was also a representative from the Traverse Theatre at the hometown performance. The National Theatre has twenty-eight partner theatres -- from the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff (Wales) to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast (Northern Ireland) to the Soho Theatre in London (England). Every Connections performance transfers to one of these partner theatres for a local Connections Festival, giving students the opportunity to perform on some of the most famous stages in the UK. (The Traverse Theatre, known as "Scotland's new writing theatre," is the "theatrical heart" of the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival.) The Traverse Theatre was the partner theatre for all of the youth theatres and secondary schools in the Glasgow/Edinburgh area. The representative was able to sit down with the director and production staff after their hometown performance and talk with them about their load-in and technical needs.

PACE students en route to Edinburgh -- from their Twitter account

I was able to attend part of the Connections Festival at the Traverse Theatre, including Knightswood Secondary School's performance of The Monstrum. With over a fourth of their students receiving free school meals, Knightswood Secondary School has improved dramatically in the past few years: "From S4 to S6, the attainment of those leaving school is similar to that of other young people with similar needs and backgrounds across Scotland but has improved over the past three years in most measures." Still, Knightswood Secondary School clearly did not have the resources that PACE Youth Theatre had. The students were required to be in the production as part of their coursework, as opposed to electing to participate in the program. Accordingly, some of the Knightswood students struggled to remember their lines, and their acting didn't have levels and nuances that the PACE students demonstrated.

However, sitting through the Knightswood Secondary School performance taught me how important a program like Connections can be. The Knightswood students may not have the same interest or training in theatre that the PACE students did (many of them "opted out" of the workshops or complained during tech rehearsals), but during their final performance, you could see how much being on a professional stage meant to them. Theatre isn't just for students who've grown up with a background in the arts. Theatre isn't just for the "gifted and talented" students. Theatre isn't just for students who have access to resources (financial, educational, etc.). Theatre needs to be for everyone, and the Connections program helps open theatre up to all kinds of diverse groups across the country.

The various Connections Festivals are recorded and sent to the National Theatre. A committee for each play (which can include the playwright) selects the best production to be brought to the National Theatre in London for the National Connections Festival. These students have the opportunity to perform on one of the most famous stages in the world. While the productions are definitely selected based on quality, the committees look at a variety of different factors: Which groups would benefit most from the experience of performing in London? Which groups represent different types of communities (high-income vs. low-income) or performance experiences (youth theatre vs. secondary school)? Which groups best captured what the playwright was trying to get across through her/his work?

The National Theatre in London

As previously mentioned, Connections has been replicated in many different countries -- but not the United States. There are some major challenges involved in bringing a program like Connections to the US; many of them have to do with the sheer geographic size of our country. How do you manage festivals in so many different states? How do you even start reaching out to schools about participating? How can we commission plays that will appeal to different communities, different demographics, different regions? However, I do think that there are ways to work through these challenges and successfully build a program that brings the entire country together through theatre. Stay tuned for more.

The Business of Representation (Or, Why Diversity Quotas Matter)

A while ago, one of my Scottish friends sent me a link to a speech that actor Riz Ahmed delivered to Parliament.

In this speech, Ahmed talks about the entertainment industry being in "the business of representation" -- and appeals for public funding to be contingent on the filling of diversity quotas. BAFTA has already made steps in this direction. British film nominees now need to conform to the BFI's Diversity Standards (est. 2014) to be eligible for the awards. The BFI's Diversity Standards are a "three-tick" system that works to increase diversity both onscreen and behind-the-scenes:

1. The film must provide "demonstrable opportunities" for trainees and interns to advance their careers.
2. The film must employ at least two heads of creative departments (like editing, cinematography, etc.) from "diverse backgrounds."
3. The film must feature "characters positively reflecting diversity," with at least 30% of the supporting and background characters representing diverse populations.

Diversity for the BFI encompasses "ethnicity (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic), disability, sexual identity, gender or from a socially disadvantaged background." Films also need to tick at least two of these boxes in order to be eligible for BFI Film Fund lottery funding. While the BFI Diversity Standards are being used at the professional level, I've been doing some research on how youth theatres also ensure appropriate levels of representation.

Last month, I visited Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT) for their weekly workshop (which just happened to be facilitated by Collapsing Horse's Artistic Director, Dan Colley). At the beginning of the workshop, DYT's General Manager provided their members with information about Youth Theatre Ireland's National Youth Theatre, which selects members from the 55 youth theatres across Ireland. Despite their prolific reputation, she explained that only 2-3 DYT members will be accepted into YTI's National Youth Theatre because of their standards for geographic diversity. The National Youth Theatre (headquartered in London) has similar standards, requiring that certain percentages of its membership come from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to ensure representation for the entire United Kingdom.

DYT has its own geographic diversity quotas that they use to form their ensemble. DYT only accepts 35 new students every year (called the First Years), but Second Years (any DYT member who's been around for more than one year) can stay as long as they want -- and even re-join after they've decided to leave. First Year students go through a ten-week foundation course that provides them with a common vocabulary and develops ensemble. After that foundation course, First Years are eligible to participate in all productions and workshops. DYT only accepts a maximum of two students from each Dublin postcode. (Dublin has 24 postcodes in total), which ensures that students are coming from different locations and backgrounds.

Dublin Youth Theatre

DYT doesn't just make sure that they have diversity in their company; they make sure that students from all backgrounds and locations feel comfortable. DYT focuses not only on introducing students to theatre skills but also to each other. Each weekly workshop is followed by a four-hour social event where students have tea and desserts together. DYT wanted students to have a chance to explore their similarities and differences, to get to know each other outside of the structured workshop environment.

Despite the fact that DYT has made diversity an essential part of their work, they're always looking for gaps in their membership. They conducted a study with Youth Theatre Ireland (formerly called the National Association for Youth Drama) in regards to why certain demographics weren't joining DYT, like Black and Muslim students. They found that students coming from more conservative communities felt uncomfortable with DYT's extremely liberal ideology; for these students, working with DYT's trans members, for example, made them feel out-of-place. So DYT decided to gradually introduce these students to both theatre and DYT through outreach programs. Their facilitators went into underserved communities and hosted the ten-week foundation course with students that were exclusively from that community (ex. with an all-Muslim group of students). Sometimes, these communities decided to start their own youth theatres at the end of the course, and DYT committed to helping them with that process. DYT also provided these students with the same resources that official DYT members received (college recommendations, training opportunities, etc.). DYT invited the youth theatres from these communities to create/exhibit performances in conjunction with DYT, gradually bringing them closer to the DYT community and getting them more comfortable with the existing DYT members. This worked out well because (due to their geographic quotas) DYT didn't have the capacity to accept everyone from the outreach programs at once; however, these students were still able to get involved with DYT through their community youth theatres and were able to gradually filter into DYT if they chose.

Scottish Youth Theatre

The Scottish Youth Theatre (SYT) doesn't use diversity quotas; however, they have a full-time Director of Diversity and Inclusion who uses other methods to make sure that their membership represents all of Scotland. Located in Glasgow, SYT recruits and trains a prestigious National Ensemble of 25 students from across Scotland. While their programming resembles that of their English counterparts (like the National Youth Theatre), their auditions are unlike anything that I've seen in the UK. SYT provides as many opportunities as possible for students to shine during their audition process. Students attend a two-part audition consisting of a group workshop (which assesses students' "creative input, ability to work as part of an ensemble, ability to contribute to group pieces and problem solving") and an individual opportunity to perform their prepared works. Students are asked to prepare in advance:

1. A devised monologue based on a quotation (This year's quotation was: "I'm not running away, I'm moving on" - Irvine Welsh, Scottish novelist/playwright best known for Trainspotting)
2. A scripted monologue of their own choosing
3. An individual skill or talent (like playing a musical instrument, dance/movement, stand-up comedy, acrobatics, etc.)

Youth theatres rarely think about all of the barriers to admission that exist in their programs. Is there a financial barrier (through audition fees, course fees, travel or accommodation costs)? Are there geographic barriers (physical distance from auditions or rehearsals)? Are there experiential barriers (where students need to have substantial knowledge of dramatic works) or socioeconomic barriers (where students need to have access to vocal lessons)? Maybe students can overcome these barriers (ex. auditions where the adjudicators allow "unprepared" students to sing the national anthem a cappella), but are students who have additional resources (ex. students who have vocal coaches who help them select and transpose songs that play to their individual strengths) at an advantage?

SYT intentionally tries to overcome these barriers. They travel to towns and cities across Scotland, so that all students have equal geographic access to their auditions. While many of SYT's National Ensemble rehearsals are in Glasgow, each ensemble member hosts an "away" rehearsal in their hometown, meaning that everyone will need to travel. There's no course fee for participating in the National Ensemble (although students do have to pay for travel and accommodation during "away" rehearsals). And students prepare different types of audition material, so that students who haven't studied dramatic literature (and might not have a comprehensive knowledge of scripted work) can lean more heavily on their devised monologues and individual talents. As previously mentioned, SYT doesn't use quotas (unlike DYT) but instead just looks for students that are "right" for that particular ensemble.

Representation matters. Riz Ahmed argues that lack of diversity in the media drives young adults towards extremist fringe groups like ISIS. "If we fail to represent," he says, "we are in danger of losing people to extremism. In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he's the next James Bond, right? Have you seen some of those ISIS propaganda videos? They are cut like action movies. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories?" Maybe instead of worrying about illegal Muslim Bans at our borders, we should worry about the stories that we're telling our homegrown Muslim youth. Every time they see a film that doesn't feature a Middle Eastern hero (or even a Middle Eastern supporting or background character), we're sending them a message: "Every time you see yourself reflected in the media, it's a message that you matter." If we don't show these students that they matter, it's only a matter of time before they start seeking out groups that do.
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