Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Is Age a Challenge?

Emily-Louise Duff, Young Journalist, reflecting on Connections at the NT

For a playwright used to developing plays with complex ideas perfect for adult actors, it must be a challenge to then adapt their thinking and approach to create plays for young people aged 13-19. This is exactly what the writers at the Connections festival have to do, and while some may say it is a challenge, they have all risen to it to provide a variety of theatrical masterpieces.

Hilary Bell, writer of ‘Victim Sidekick Boyfriend Me’, made a very thoughtful comment during this year’s Connections Writer’s Forum; as an author of a play designed for a young cast of actors to perform, you have a responsibility to ensure the content is suitable age-wise and thought-provoking, yet not take on a patronising tone. It seemed that all 10 of the writers agreed with this statement which, I think, is reflected through the performance and reception of their plays.

Is there really a difference between writing plays designed for a younger audience? Michael Lesslie, author of ‘Prince of Denmark’, says there is no difference between plays aimed at a younger audience and those aimed at an older audience. He also said he aimed not to patronise, which was clearly shown through his consistent use of language effects that some might remove for a younger audience, such as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Whilst ‘Prince of Denmark’ explored the developing relationship between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ophelia, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, co-writers of ‘Alice by Heart’, focused on pushing boundaries of the exploration of “adult stuff” as an adolescent. The subject matter of their play, including drugs and sex appeal, can be deemed as too explicit for teenagers, but they felt that the play showed the differences in sophistication within teenagers. It seems that there is no difference in the subject matters of plays for various age groups, but the way that they are approached reflects different sophistication levels within different ages.

Plays such as ‘The Ritual’ by Samir Yazbek, ‘The Grandfathers’ by Rory Mullarkey, ‘Journey to X’ by Nancy Harris  and ‘Socialism is Great’ by Anders Lustagarten chose to address topics that can also be labelled as “too grown-up” for performers as young as 13 years old. The plays that do address matters such as secret organisations (The Ritual) and abortion (Journey to X), amongst other controversial topics, are written and performed in such ways that the age of the cast and audience are not the focus. Paven Virk, who wrote ‘So You Think You’re a Superhero?’, which was performed by a cast of the youngest participants in this year’s Connections, aimed to celebrate youth, writing a play that again was not patronising, but was adaptable and accessible for those who may not speak English as a first language or who may have a disability. In theatre, there are no right or wrong ways to address subject matters that can be seemed unsuitable for different ages.

If there is only one thing I’ve left the festival with, it’s the knowledge and faith that a good performance of a well-written play can be given by any aged actor, no matter how controversial the subject matter is. The youth of the performers and everyone involved technically shines through every performance, leaving an audience surprised at the high quality of acting skills displayed by teenagers with little or no past experience of performing, especially not at such a prestigious event.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Connections Day 5 Video Report

Leondra Darlington, Young Journalist, reports from Day 5 of the festival...

Day 5 Round Up

PJ Choi, Young Journalist with a round up of Day 5 of Connections at the NT

Prince of Denmark- Michael Lesslie
The last day of the Connections Festival saw two plays which were- in their own ways- re-imaginings of Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland. 

Michael Lesslie’s Prince of Denmark was originally written as a companion to the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet in 2010. Its inclusion in the Connections Festival is extremely apt. The young actors step into their roles and unphased by the big names that will later play their roles in various productions of Hamlet, make them their own with aplomb. Prince of Denmark sees the relationship between a teenage Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes. Lesslie manages to capture the nuances of Shakespeare’s brooding Hamlet- torn between his duties as a Prince and his own feelings- “Am I a man or a prince?” The strong willed, yet ultimately passive and powerless character of Ophelia is explored further in this play, with Hamlet choosing going to university in Wittenberg over a relationship with her, and characters with minor roles in the original Hamlet are given more prominent roles. The original role of Osric is but a mere few pages in the play but in Prince of Denmark is expanded to a suitably foppish character - true to original form providing well timed comic relief.
Prince of Denmark, Calderdale Theatre School. Photo: Simon Annand
The play is written in iambic pentameter- a nod to the format employed by Shakespeare- but in contemporary English. This combination of Elizabethan and modern in not only the language but also with the costumes remind us of the youthful nature that Lesslie and the Connections festival are aiming to convey. Ophelia’s dress is unmistakeably Elizabethan in design, but in turquoise and pink foil, the colours put a contemporary twist on traditional dress. The boys are in trainers and skinny jeans with brocade jackets and capes. The costumes paying homage to the original Elizabethan drama, but like the concept of the play itself with the idea of a new generation imprinted in the audience’s mind.

The action in the play echoes the events in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is revisited as the climax of the action in Lesslie’s play- with some impressive stage fighting by the young actors. The tensions between the two in this prequel are a suitable additional justification for the tensions that run in Hamlet as the sequel to Prince of Denmark.
Lesslie provides us with subtle allusions throughout Prince of Denmark to make those with a previous knowledge of Hamlet give a knowing chuckle without too many claggy references, but as a standalone piece addresses issues still relevant to the youth of today- going to university, the importance of reputation, family affairs to name a few- which makes Prince of Denmark not only an effective prequel to The Bard’s tragedy, but an extremely worthy participant in the Connections Festival.

Alice by Heart- Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
When asked about their play in the Connection Writers’ Forum, which I was fortunate enough to partake in, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater were asked about their work and its relevance to the youth today. Sater answers that the story of Alice in is an extended metaphor about drugs and sex. I was excited to see Alice by Heart knowing that Sheik and Sater had both previously written Spring Awakening which I greatly enjoyed- drawing further comparison to Spring Awakening, this play also deals with timeless teenage issues such as sex, drugs and death. Alice by Heart, however, seems to certainly be more explicit about the issues with songs including lyrics such as “Now you’ve found the hole” and “And when we’re high.” When Alice asks if the White Rabbit has “found someone else to give his gloves” and the Cheshire Cat purrs her approval of the combination of words “pleasure” and “puss” the allusions to sex are extremely thinly veiled, as are the references to drugs with the frequent calls to “Mary Ann.”

The sultry bass in the third musical number “Aren’t you getting bigger?” adds to the possible and probable interpretation of the song as a euphemism for sex as well as addressing the main theme of growing up which runs throughout the play. There is something to be said about the effect of Sheik and Sater’s music. Their melodies in minor key are able to shake something within you- “Isn’t it a trial?” addresses growing older and the poignant combination of music and lyrics linger with you long after the end. “Chilling the regrets” is reminiscent of music by Jefferson Airplane creates an almost hallucinatory effect on the listener, and the frequent wordplay emulating the trippy experience which Alice is currently experiencing. It is thrilling that Sheik and Sater are able to send shivers every time I listen to their music. I was extremely impressed with the way in which the young actors were able to fill the theatre with their extraordinary stage presence, a feat that all the actors should be extremely proud of- as Nicholas Hytner stated in the closing of the festival.
Alice by Heart, Flying High Theatre Company. Photo: Simon Annand

The play, whilst using characters from the Lewis Carroll’s original story, dissects the usual Alice story and rearranges it in such a way that it overthrows the traditional perception. By using meta-literary references to the Carroll’s book, having Alice ‘turn the pages’ and the White Rabbit calling Alice out on omitting the episode where she destroys his house, Sheik and Sater are able to deploy the themes prevalent in the original tale whilst rewriting the story to suit a more teenage driven agenda. The song “We’re sick to death of Aliceness” shows how the story has been turned on its head with the revamped characters now rebelling against the protagonist singing lines such as “stop analysing everything you’ve read.”

The resonating message to be taken away from the play is one about growing up, a message which links all of the plays seen in the past five days-what better way to celebrate a festival promoting youth in theatre than teenage retellings of classic stories? The answer to this question makes Alice by Heart a fitting and fantastic conclusion to the Connections Festival 2012.

The Prince of Denmark

Rosina Sabur, Young Journalist at Day 5 of Connections at the NT

Being ushered into a darkened theatre whilst young actors performed their dress rehearsal, I think I could be forgiven for mistaking these young people for seasoned professionals. The professional way they carried out their rehearsal was impressive, as was their presence on stage.

Watching their interactions with the crew and directors, it would be difficult to distinguish those who worked at the National Theatre full-time from the visitors - the height difference was the only clue! Sitting in on the dress rehearsal was a fascinating experience. As a regular visitor to the National Theatre I have often been left in awe of the seamless productions, so being let ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak, was a real treat. The rehearsals revealed the precision necessary for quality productions - be it the timing of the music, the position of the lighting or the movement of the actors.

The minimalistic staging focused all our attention on the actors’ performances, which were superb. They really got to grips with the anxieties of their teen characters, and astutely interpreted the parental expectations.

Prince of Denmark by Calderdale Theatre School, Photo: Simon Annand

Of course, having a great play to work with helps. Michael Lesslie’s Prince of Denmark, a prequel of sorts to one of Shakespeare’s most renowned tragedies, Hamlet, was excellent. Lesslie’s use of iambic prose created a flow of language which had echoes of the great bard’s own flair and wit. If Shakespeare were writing today, I can well imagine him writing in a similar way, albeit with a slightly more modern vocabulary!

Speaking at the Writers’ Platform, Lesslie explained that Prince of Denmark “came about in a slightly unusual way”. His brief was to create a short play specifically for young people that would act as a companion to the National’s production of Hamlet.  He discussed his desire to avoid patronising the young people he was writing for and the difficulty of creating a sense of development in a play of under an hour.

Prince of Denmark by Calderdale Theatre School, Photo: Simon Annand
Despite the difficulties, Lesslie created a superb play, which Calderdale Theatre School made their own, complete with Yorkshire accents. A production worthy of the National! I’ve already marked a spot in the diary for next year’s Connections…

A Teenage Wonderland

Emily-Louise Duff, Young Journalist at Connections at the NT Day 5

Every teenager has their own tale to tell of their journey from childhood to adolescence. ‘Alice by Heart’, written by Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik, explores the story of Alice Parsley as she leaves her childhood behind. Set during the war in a London underground station, Alice and her dying friend Alfred fall down the rabbit hole to well-known Wonderland for one last adventure. With Alfred playing the White Rabbit, and Alice her namesake, the adventure is one that turns out to be far from the classic story we have come to love.
Flying High Theatre Company in Alice By Heart, Photo: Simon Annand

Teenagers face many problems while growing up; drugs, peer pressure, changing physical appearance, sexual feelings. Sater and Sheik’s rock-musical addresses these problems in comical ways that highlight problem areas for many in growing up. It seems that for Alice, these problems are best handled in a land where not everything is at it appears, although her confusion seems doubled as the classic tale she remembers by heart changes around her.

The first problem addressed is changing physical appearances, with mock Alice characters taunting her about her figure; “you don’t have the chin for that”. A problem that many teenagers, mostly female, have to face as they lose their innocent figures for new curvaceous frames. We are then introduced to sexualised Caterpillar, who is obviously impressed by the new Alice; “grow yourself such breasts and hips.” The singular Caterpillar character we all know in the original story is replaced by multiple Caterpillars, who all team up to peer-pressure Alice into taking drugs, again another problem that some teenagers may face. Imagine all of the problems you faced, or are facing, as a teenager. In short, the classical tale is changed to reflect these problems, with Alice facing and dealing with them all.
Flying High Theatre Company in Alice By Heart, Photo: Simon Annand

One of the final musical numbers in ‘Alice by Heart’ is a song with the line “isn’t it a trial to try and stay a child?” and this seems to sum up the whole process of leaving childhood behind. Whilst the original Wonderland Alice visited was a magical land, times had changed and the story changed too, leaving Alice wishing for the innocent, simple place she knew before. Through Sater and Sheik’s clever adaptation of a timeless and popular story, we are shown that the journey to and through Wonderland, from childhood to adolescence, is never the simple journey we wish it would be.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Writers vs. Directors

Nada Showman Day 4 of Connections festival (Saturday 23rd June)

I don’t know about everyone else, but in my mind (for some reason) I envisaged a great conflict between the writer and the director – the former offended about how their perfectly crafted, well-thought out piece  has been chopped and changed by the latter whose artistic vision is a polar opposite to theirs. Whilst this may sometimes be the case it certainly isn’t all the time. To be quite truthful, I was a little disappointed – perhaps the journalist in me would have enjoyed such an angle!

Over the course of the day I was fortunate enough to watch two exceptional plays, both very different yet equally as thought provoking – whether for the didactic message presented by Hilary Bell in her play Victim Sidekick Boyfriend Me or for Anders Lustgarden’s politically charged piece Socialism is Great, both were highly successful and it was clear that both were received well by the audience. Yet I was drawn to exploring the relationship between writer and director and seeing how a formed idea on the page can be brought to life and whether the end result is always what the writer had conceived.

As Anders Lustgarten said, “intent [of the play] is always there from the beginning. I always have something to say and have a way to make it come alive.” So what does he suggest when the play in performance is vastly different to the play he had written? He simply had to “chalk it up to experience, but next time have [his] finger on the pulse from the beginning.”

I was interested in whether all writers have had an experience in which their work just wasn’t re-enacted in a way they had thought it would be. For Hilary Bell her play in performance was much different from how she had imagined it; “[the play] was parallel to my vision, the cast made some distinct choices, particularly the use of Greek chorus, which I didn’t intend” 
however, Bell still appreciated the effectiveness of the chorus. A runner for the NT Connections festival who also has written plays has certainly had such an experience as “I am quite precious about [my plays.] I did a writers and directors workshop and I had to give a director my piece, it was actually quite painful to watch as I am one of those writers who have a clear vision and what the director was doing was good, but was completely different to what I had in my mind.”
I had imagined directors having complete control over the interpretation of these plays, but this idea was quickly deflated after talking to Deborah, one of directors who worked with all the directors of these plays in the directors’ workshop, she discussed her deep sense of worry when directing a new piece as she believes it’s her “job to serve the play and the writer.” She also discussed that there is a sense of some conflict as “when you embark on a journey you want to see where the play goes, there may be an instinct to go down a slightly different route, but your ultimate job [as director] is to serve the play.”   

Despite me searching avidly for some inherent sense of conflict between these two parties what I found instead was a sense of mutual understanding, and a real desire to get to the heart of the piece and perform it in a way that is befitting of the brilliant cast members, director and writer. The end result of this ‘conflict’? Two incredible, evocative plays that stay true to the writers’ vision whilst still expressing the creativity of the director and cast members.