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Characters in search of an author

As a two-year drama project involving schools and youth groups from all over the country nears its culmination, Reva Klein shows how schools can commission work from top writers.

Look at the repertoire of material that youth theatres and school drama groups perform and you're very likely to find the same old stalwarts that appear to have been chosen because (1) they were written by Shakespeare or (2) they have no problem accommodating 20 or more thrusting young actors on a stage at any one time.

While some drama and English teachers with the time, energy and determination produce their own work for their schools, some of them of very high quality, it's more usual to find the heavy Shakespearean tragedies or the big brash Broadway musicals with the occasional Daisy Pulls It Off or Rocky Horror Show for something different. New writing that has been specially commissioned for young people to perform themselves is notoriously thin on the ground.

Which is why BT National Connections exists in the gargantuan, not altogether tidy but organic and intensely creative form that it does. The partnership between BT, which donated Pounds 400,000 in sponsorship, and the Royal National Theatre, under the direction of Suzy Graham-Adriani of the Education Department and Nick Drake, literary consultant, has been one of the most ambitious of its kind. Where its predecessor the Lloyd's Bank Theatre Challenge provided a showcase for youth theatre productions of devised and established plays, BT National Connections is different. After its regional and national showcases have come and gone, it will leave a legacy for youth theatre groups everywhere in the form of published plays.

Of the 12 plays that a total of 2,000 young people from around the country have worked on, ten will be featured in the showcase. Six were specially commissioned for BT National Connections; the remainder were existing texts, either adapted or translated. The list of participating playwrights is impressive. Christopher Hampton, Snoo Wilson, Judith Johnson, Lucinda Coxon, Richard Cameron, Ken Campbell in collaboration with his daughter Daisy Campbell and others have worked quickly to write plays for a sector of society that is often ignored by professional writers.

Their brief was as open as they come. "We told them the plays had to be one hour long, that they were to be performed by young people between the ages of 11 and 19, that there had to be a good plot and that it should be written from the heart. They could write for a company of five or 50," says Suzy Graham-Adriani. The hope was that the submitted scripts would reflect the range found in the National Theatre's own adult repertoire. Some playwrights were given specific commissions. Paul Godfrey was asked to shorten his previously published Bucket of Eels, Christopher Hampton translated Odon von Horvath's Faith, Hope and Charity, Snoo Wilson wrote a new adaptation of Mayakovsky's The Bedbug. The Dark Tower was originally written by Louis MacNeice in the forties as a radio play.

Youth theatres who wished to participate in the project were contacted through a network of regional theatres, each of which offered a programme of workshops of their own choice. Some, like the Minerva, Chichester, had school drama and youth theatre groups coming for sessions on stage management, voice and the like. Others, like the Manchester Royal Exchange and the Lyric, Belfast, went out to the groups to run workshops.

To introduce the scripts to the groups, a conference was held at the National last December. Youth theatre directors did workshops with the playwrights while the young people worked with professionals such as Fiona Shaw and Toby Jones of Theatre de Complicite. The writers did read-throughs of the plays and terms were set. One of the most important was that the groups were not to alter the texts. Graham-Adriani says, "We wanted the groups to tackle and respect the texts." Particularly for those groups used to devising their own work, this was a tricky pill to swallow but, in the end, swallow it they did.

The next stage, once they had chosen the plays, was going back to their regions to work on the plays, rehearsing like mad, raising funds or begging for money for sets and costumes and preparing for the professional assessments that would determine which ten groups would appear in the showcases at the National.

Some groups were visited by the writers. Lucinda Coxon, whose adaptation of the Norwegian play The Ice Palace was chosen by no less than 28 companies, liaised early on with the National Theatre's own youth theatre company, who acted as unofficial script consultants. Discussing her work with them was as refreshing as it was illuminating. "They were the best script editors in the world. What they wanted was story story story. It was incredibly clear from their comments which bits worked and which didn't. When I was writing it I was very anxious not to produce something that was going to be patronising and at the same time I was concerned that it might be too mature. I think this story was the answer. It's a simple one which works on lots of levels but it requires a particular kind of open-mindedness to trust the play. When I talked to some of the groups who had chosen it, they all knew where they were in the story, even the younger ones."

From the youth theatres' perspective, involvement in the project has been challenging, frustrating, rewarding and occasionally nerve-racking. Greg Banks is co-director of Flies on the Wall Youth Theatre, Gloucester, who are performing Judith Johnson's Stone Moon in the showcase at the National Theatre on July 3. He has met the playwright to discuss the play but she hasn't yet seen the group's production. "We chose the play on behalf of the group as one of the only two that were suitable because of the group's large number of girls and the age range, which runs from nine to 17. We also felt it was down to earth and relatively easy to stage." The fact that the play is set in a quarry presented no problem to a company based in the Cotswolds: they've incorporated their own beautiful native stone into the set.

The next stage is the final one, when the ten groups converge on the National's Olivier and Cottesloe theatres to do the final technical rehearsals and then perform over the five nights of the festival. It will be a grand finale to an intensive 18 months of blood, sweat, tears and lots of fun, but it will not be the end of BT National Connections 1995.

The opening night will be preceded by the launch of Making Scenes the portfolio of plays, published by Methuen. For Suzy Graham-Adriani, it will be the realisation of her original concept, which was to help create high quality writing that was accessible to, though not necessarily exclusively written for, young people.

"Very few schools actually go to the lengths of commissioning a playwright because they may not get what they want. With these ten plays, schools and youth theatre groups will have a choice that, hopefully, will be the beginning of a canon of new writing with which they can work."

Among those few schools that have decided to go to the lengths of commissioning playwrights is a consortium of 20 from around the country co-ordinated by Jenny Johnson, creative arts co-ordinator at Hampstead School, a large multiracial comprehensive in north London. Triggered by an idea suggested by playwright David Edgar, who came to the school to give a talk to sixth formers, the scheme has brought together schools wanting good plays to perform. While he was not available to take on the commitment himself, he has pledged to act as adviser on the project.

The consortium has gone to veteran playwright and poet Adrian Mitchell. Each school is putting Pounds 1,000 into the project, half of that coming from fundraising and half from school funds. Mitchell has chosen the theme of "siege" for his play, which he is to begin writing this summer. Prior to putting finger to keyboard, workshops led by Mitchell and the project's composer Andrew Dickson with 200 pupils from the participating schools have taken place. In addition, he has asked pupils to participate by researching sieges throughout history. The theme is particularly relevant for Hampstead School which has a large refugee intake from some of the most troubled regions in the world and has led to a refugee support programme involving all pupils.

Mitchell says of his choice of subject matter: "I knew that I wanted to write about the siege of a city. The siege of Sarajevo is one reason. But there is always a siege going on somewhere in the world."

Following more workshops next year, each school will be performing their own production of the play in autumn 1996 or early 1997. It is a huge commitment on the part of the schools involved but, says Hampstead School's headteacher Tamsyn Imison, "the spin-offs are well worth it. We're doing this because we want to share good practice with others who think big, have a spirit of adventure and unlimited enthusiasm and because we want to demonstrate to our students the value of modern theatre and make sure they develop a lifelong active interest in the arts."

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