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.

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