Stomping the boards

11th March 2005 at 00:00
The school hall is a building site, the 'greedy' citizens are decidedly slim, and no one knows where they'll find a samurai sword in Llandudno. But the show must go on. Heather Neill goes backstage at the National Theatre's Shell Connections festival

Conversation is barely possible in the school hall at Ysgol Aberconwy near Llandudno. What with the noise of power tools and saws, the banging and hammering, the occasional fire alarms and electronic bells and the animated full-throttle discussions, you need to share the sense of excited purpose not to want to run for the exit. There is, nevertheless, no sense of panic; all problems can be solved, and at every stage it is pupils and students who do so. Somewhere in the organised melee are English teacher Pam Newton and her head of department, Richard Burrows.

This was the February half-term, but for three days of it no one was considering long lie-ins or trips to the cinema. Ysgol Aberconwy is taking part in the National Theatre's Shell Connections festival, the country-wide celebration of new writing for young people, which has produced more than 60 new play scripts since it began 12 years ago. More than 50,000 young people have been involved in Connections since its inception. This year, the third sponsored by Shell, 10 writers, including Mark Ravenhill of Shopping and Fucking fame and Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book for the mega-hit musical Mamma Mia!, have been commissioned to write hour-long pieces suitable for casts aged between 11 and 19.

The 275 schools and youth theatres that have taken up the challenge have the chance of appearing on the professional stage of one of 16 regional "partner" theatres around Britain and Ireland from March 15. Each group is visited by a National Theatre assessor while they are still at the school or sports hall stage. Then 12 productions (not winners, but chosen to give an idea of the scope of the project) are invited to take part in a national festival in London in July. The lucky ones get the full National Theatre treatment, just like a visiting professional company. The logistics (two different shows a night in either the Olivier or the Cottesloe for six nights) could be a nightmare, but stage management are said to relish the vigour and freshness of the young companies.

All the teacher-directors attended a "retreat" weekend in Bath in November, where they workshopped their chosen script with the writer, a professional director and youth members of the NT and Bath Theatre Royal, who could read or act out bits as required. Pam Newton made the journey from North Wales to explore the possibilities of Samurai by Geoffrey Case, the play she and Richard Burrows have chosen from this year's portfolio. It is a charming morality tale set in Japan, with plenty of ideas for the Year 8 cast to get their teeth into.

A boy called Yuki brings a golden samurai sword to the city of Utagowa, whose inhabitants are starving. The sword provides whatever they request, and the citizens are reluctant to return it, despite their promise to do so. When Yuki arrives to reclaim the magic weapon, the metalworker, builder, ploughman and office worker, who have grown fat and lazy, try to cheat him and keep the sword for themselves. They in turn are fooled by the greedy and dishonest Proclamation Reader, whom they have freed from prison.

Yuki, and the empress he releases from the citizens, set off on a dangerous journey to return the sword to the forest, but on the way they meet a lugubrious bandit

Although the ending is satisfying, it is not straightforward: Case cunningly plays with time, providing a further challenge for director and cast. "We've been debating irony with Year 8s. They want to make it funny, but it's important to get a balance between the humour and the seriousness underneath," says Ms Newton.

This is the fourth time Ysgol Aberconwy has taken part in Connections, always with Year 8s or 9s. Earlier plays have become a fixture in the school curriculum: Sparkleshark by Philip Ridley introduces the subject of bullying in Year 8, and others have been chosen as GCSE texts or for school shows put on by students at the top of this 11-18 comprehensive. Although their productions have never been part of the national festival, everyone who has been involved gets the chance to go to the National Theatre to see a production of the same play by another group, and whatever London sights they vote to see.

The degree of democracy in the Aberconwy Connections enterprise is impressive and may well be why, when the call went out for help from Year 11s and the sixth form, every student studying drama turned up during half-term to work on the set. Hence the industrial noise in the school hall. But the older students, many of whom have took part in previous Connections productions, do not dominate or impose decisions. Helen Cubitt is a talented Year 8 pupil who designed the set for Samurai. The boys, with their power tools, take directions from her as they collaborate in building flexible screens to become town or forest. At the back of the hall, a studious-looking sixth-former, Dale Cassidy, is unjamming a sewing machine and feeding fabric through while two much younger girls turn the handle.

Down the corridor, Ms Newton is guiding young actors through an early scene. The greedy citizens are played by girls who appear to have 12-inch waists. One idea to make them seem fatter is to build suits out of the paraphernalia of the consumer society, such as CDs. With only a week to go before their school performance, the music question has yet to be solved.

Ms Newton found musician Craig Vear's workshops in Bath helpful, joining in experiments in making rhythmic noises vocally, by stamping, clapping and using percussion. Some of his ideas will be taken up, probably the next day, by school musicians.

The session ends with Richard holding a meeting to discuss the best use of the next day. Fourteen of the sixteen screens are finished to be hung from the ceiling. How should they be weighted? What other materials are needed? How many can come tomorrow? Everyone. The younger students applaud the older ones to show their appreciation.

Obtaining a samurai sword can be a problem, although Sarah Mottart, directing a production of Samurai with A-level students at Redruth school in Cornwall, says she found one in a shop in Penzance. She has an A-level sound engineer in her group and has been able to conjure up 500 warriors on film. But, however much approaches vary, Samurai will not lead to any disputes over language. This cannot be said of some other scripts on offer.

Suzy Graham-Adriani, producer of Connections at the National, says she believes it is important to give writers freedom, although she admits that this year's choices contain "powerful language, gritty themes and lots of death".

A school in the North East has had to drop Citizenship, Mark Ravenhill's play about a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, after objections from the head and governors. Andrew Payne, the author of Mugged, has reluctantly agreed to tone down his language; the murder in the plot is apparently less problematic than the expletives. Catherine Johnson's musical, Through the Wire, set in the visiting room of a young offenders'

institute, is sharp and funny, and full of bleepable words. She has obligingly provided a "cleaned up" script, what she calls "the XCUSS version".

And for this, drama teacher Ginny Robbins, directing Through the Wire at Smestow school, Wolverhampton, is truly grateful. Her mixed-age cast, mostly from Years 10 and 11, also gave up part of half-term to rehearse. Ms Robbins, who is new to the school, has set them (and herself) a challenge: they are using a traverse construction, with the audience on two sides of the action. Clwyd Theatr Cymru (the "partner" for Smestow as well as Aberconwy) is able to accommodate this, so it's all systems go. She is even thinking of drawing the audience into the action by issuing them with stickers that say "visitor". There is a drug-smuggling plotline in Through the Wire, but the main interest is in the relationships between prison officers, inmates and their families and friends.

The action is punctuated with familiar songs remade for the plot: the Village People's YMCA, for instance, becoming, with witty relevance, "ASBO". During half-term, part-time teacher Faye Dark led the students through a Mexican wave-style sequence to go with this, and demonstrated dance movements such as you might find on a Madness video to accompany the first song, reminiscent of "House of Fun": "Gawd, here they come Stand up straight, you scum You'll tell your Mum? You are that dumb?" The school's best rapper isn't a drama student at all, but, recommended by the cast, he's agreed to take part. A piano and rock band will provide the music.

The production is a departure for the school, which has previously gone for large-scale, big-cast musicals. Ginny is aiming for a contrast between the acting (everyone has "a back story and an agenda") and the in-yer-face song and dance routines.

Through the Wire is especially relevant to Smestow students, as anti-social behaviour orders have recently been issued in the area. Pauline Ireland, directing Chatroom at Thomas Lord Audley school in Essex, has even more reason to find relevance in her choice. Enda Walsh's play is about two teenagers in a chatroom goading a third into committing suicide. The outcome isn't depressing, but a couple of years ago a student at the school (in a year whose members have now left) did commit suicide and the effects rippled through the school.

The Bath weekend provided plenty of opportunities for problem-sharing, especially for "one-man-band" drama teachers. Ginny found the professional help invaluable. "I don't think I could do it cold," she says, and meeting other teachers is an opportunity to "share difficulties and keep up with new ideas".

All Connections plays are published by Faber. A free anthology is sent to every secondary school each year. See for festival dates and play list. The first performances are on March 15, in Cork and Plymouth

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