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.
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