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.

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