How many young people get the chance to see their own play performed on stage at one of Britain's most prestigious playhouses, watched over by some of the leading names in modern theatre? That's what happened one Sunday afternoon earlier this month, as the elegant Theatre Royal in London's Haymarket echoed to the words of some of the 21st-century's youngest playwrights.
The students, from schools throughout London and the Home Counties, were watching 15-minute productions of their work, albeit in workshop conditions, in the presence of luminaries of modern theatre including playwrights Timberlake Wertenbaker and David Lan and critic Michael Billington. The event was so successful that the organisers hope to turn at least one of the plays into a full-length production.
The students' chance to show off their dramatic and literary talents came courtesy of a masterclass scheme set up by the theatre's trustees led by Arnold Crook. Determined to share his enthusiasm for the performing arts, in 1998 he launched a project that has brought schoolchildren into the company of distinguished names such as Steven Berkoff, Frances de la Tour, Jeremy Irons and Sir Tom Stoppard.
The classes varied from small workshops for drama students to demonstrations and talks for packed audiences of GCSE students. One of these latter sessions was taken by Timberlake Wertenbaker last October. She addressed several hundred drama and theatre studies students from the south of England and the Midlands, who had been reading her play Our Country's Good. But rather than concentrate on guiding the participants towards competent answers on their set text, she decided to do something more demanding.
Before the workshop took place, she had invited a few students from selected schools to write five-minute playlets to be performed by drama students. Wertenbaker commented on the pieces, advising the writers how to proceed if they wanted to develop their ideas.
The students' obvious interest prompted Wertenbaker to plan another, more ambitious event. She widened the invitation to any schools who had been at the masterclass. This time, students would have longer to compose their pieces, individually or in groups, and were expected to fill about 15 minutes.
At the October masterclass, the students' plays, like Our Country's Good, had been based on a historical topic. The idea had been to get young writers thinking about subjects outside their own experience, forcing them to exercise their imagination and hone research skills, and removing the temptation to write TV soap-style drama about inner-city teen preoccupations. Having set the tone, Wertenbaker remained as a sort of "honorary chairman" for the following project, but five other playwrights were each invited to become attached to a teacher and group of students who had been at her masterclass. The writers took three or four workshops but research and writing went on between times, in and out of lessons. In the event, four schools brought work to the Haymarket.
At Wycombe High school in Hih Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Clare McIntyre, who was an actress for 10 years and has had three plays performed at the Royal Court, worked with teacher Chris Gill and her small group of sixth-form theatre studies students.
Asked what they wanted to write about, the students, all girls, came up with important but unwieldy ideas, such as "slavery" and "the liberation of women". McIntyre asked them to cut away generalities, to concentrate on specific people and incidents, to clarify what it was in those compendious subjects which interested them.
They talked, she read them a piece from a biography of Florence Nightingale and off they went on their research. Between sessions, they read newspapers, surfed the Internet, delved into encyclopedias and did writing and drama exercises. Clare McIntyre was still giving advice on her last visit, just before Easter. "Write down in a sentence what you want to happen in each scene and a cast list with a couple of words about each character."
The resulting plays cover a variety of topics, all in one way or another about women's history. One was inspired by an 18th-century painting which includes a young girl of mixed race. Another was based on an imaginary interview with the oldest woman in the world, who is 125 and lives in Dominica. She worked in the fields until she was 104 and gave up smoking in her nineties.
But, difficult though the choice was, The Rights of Women, about the exclusion of women painters from the Royal Academy when it was founded in the 18th century, was chosen for the Haymarket performance. Chris Gill is so pleased with the standard of work, though, that she is to hold a mini-festival of all the pieces later this term.
At St Thomas More school in north London, Carl Miller told his group that writing scripts is nothing like improvising or devising plays - activities they are more familiar with. He visited the school four times and began by helping the group look at many kinds of writing. He encouraged them to listen to the way people speak and funnel observation such as they might use for acting exercises into writing instead.
The six-strong class worked together researching the sixties - its music, photographs and fashion - concentrating eventually on the World Cup final in 1966 and the case of Moors murderer Myra Hindley. Individuals took responsibility for particular sections - a sub-plot, perhaps, or all the evocative scenes - and the result is "a bit Short Cuts, a bit Robert Altman". Miller, who has run young writers' festivals at the Royal Court and whose most recent plays are Master Betty and The Last Enemy, says discussions, about the way a character speaks, how a plot-line is introduced, are "endlessly interesting, because one never gets them totally right".
Students from Quinton Kynaston school in north London worked with Diane Samuels and a group from Lord Williams's school, Thame, were led by Nicholas McInerney. they presented swift moving scripts, often strong on dialogue. Every one agreed it had been a very positive experience.
For information about the new season of Master Classes, please contact Suzy Humphries on020 7930 8890.