All the way to the South Bank
"WE HAD a good bunch of students and we were looking for something extra for them. It was huge fun and they got a massive amount out of it. That's why we're back this year."
This was Simon Boothroyd, principal teacher of drama at St Augustine's High in Edinburgh, talking about the National Theatre's annual Connections festival and typifying teacher enthusiasm for this event.
The "connections" the NT makes are chiefly between youth and theatre. They commission new plays from young writers "some of the hottest talent in world theatre" and offer the premieres to schools and youth theatres to perform across the UK, Ireland and further afield.
Two other schools, Craigholme in Glasgow and Edinburgh's George Heriot's, joined St Augustine's to perform at the Edinburgh Lyceum. The night also included an Oslo International School group from Norway, and youth theatres from Shetland, Kildare in Ireland and the Lyceum's group.
Although nine texts were on offer, all three Scottish schools chose the same play, A Year and a Day. I saw the Craigholme production at the Lyceum, a fluid and moving performance in which director Iris Williamson had involved 25 girls on stage and almost as many in the stage crew. The play has a strong appeal for both teachers and taught, being a paradigm of human over-population, competitiveness and conflict, with Romeo and Juliet-type martyrs in a divided world.
The first step for the three Scottish teacherdirectors was to meet the playwright, Christina Reid, at the "writers' and directors' retreat" in Scarborough, where they also had a masterclass in directing. Then it was back to school for the rehearsals and performances, which were watched by an NT representative who met the casts afterwards before writing up the show reports.
Then came the performances at the Lyceum, one of 17 theatres in the UK and beyond that showcased the hundreds of entries.
From these, nine productions were selected to perform on the Cottesloe and Olivier stages of the NT next week (July 12-17).
Remarkably, from only five Scottish entries, Heriot's and Shetland are in the final nine. John Haswell's Shetland Youth Theatre, which performed Bryony Lavery's Red Sky, has been chosen to close the festival, going on stage after the NT Young Company.
Julia Douglas, who directed Heriot's entry, was delighted to be chosen for the South Bank. "We're a relatively new department, set up six years ago. We went in for Connections for the first time last year and had a fabulous time. Because it coincided with our Activities Week, we joined the workshops and saw all the performances," she says.
"This year I tried not to be optimistic after the school show, but James Hillier, whom we all knew from Holby Blue, came to do the show report and gave us fantastic feedback afterwards. He said how well it would fit in at the Cottesloe.
"We had to send a DVD of the performance to London they watch all 200 of them and we were overjoyed when we were chosen. I know they have to get a balance of entries, and of plays, and there are all sorts of other considerations but, anyhow, we still think we are the best."
She chose the play because "for a change, it wasn't about teenagers doing what teenagers do".
For Simon Boothroyd, the choice was dictated by other factors. "I liked the anti-sectarian message and I wanted a play with the biggest possible cast," he says. "We gathered a cast of 35, from the first year to the sixth. It was open to all-comers, at all levels of ability. We auditioned for the principal parts, but the others were open to anyone who was prepared to turn up regularly for rehearsals. They all worked really hard at first two, then three, then at the end six rehearsals a week.
"We made the Lyceum performance an enterprise project, with pupils helping with scenery-making and lighting design. Even though it has nothing to do with the curriculum, I'm glad the school senior management sees Connec-tions as something well worth supporting. I'd be very happy to be back next year"