Stories for teens to tell
Not so long ago, groups of enthusiastic young thespians wanting to put on a play would have "devised" a piece of their own. Their theme would almost certainly have related directly to the concerns of teenagers, often quite dark concerns - anorexia, saving the planet from destruction, family break-up, drugs and violence were popular - and angst would have been more in evidence than structure.
More recently, there has been a revival of respect for the written text. But where do you find suitable material for teenage performers? Most groups - perhaps encompassing a range of ages and experience, perhaps with limited time and resources at their disposal - would not choose Shakespeare, Sheridan or Chekhov. And contemporary plays, whose length and language are more manageable, tend to have small casts.
Now the Royal National Theatre (NT), aided by funding from BT to the tune of Pounds 400,000 over two years, has stepped into the breach and commissioned 12 new short plays - designed specifically for young actors - from established writers.
The scheme - BT Connections - is a complicated one involving playwrights from all over Britain and Ireland and one from Africa, the Nobel laureate and veteran human rights campaigner, Wole Soyinka.
Ten regional theatres - the Lyric, Belfast; Cambridge Arts; Chichester Theatre; Everyman, Cheltenham; Eden Court, Inverness; Riverside Studios, London; Theatr Clwyd; Plymouth Theatre Royal; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough and the Crucible, Sheffield - are working in partnership with the NT and 142 groups of young actors. Between March and June these theatres will present festivals of the 12 plays by their local youth drama groups. Every one of the productions will have been assessed already by NT representatives.
Just before Christmas, the youth leaders and teachers who were to direct the plays met NT organisers and some of the writers for a brainstorming weekend, described by the NT's Suzy Graham-Adriani as "inspirational".
The groups had already chosen their plays from synopses giving details of cast and set requirements and, where necessary, warning of strong language. Where this might present a problem, writers helpfully offered to provide "creative alternatives".
The final stage will be a festival of chosen productions at the NT in July. And then, perhaps best of all, this exciting new material is to be published in book form, so that other young people can accept the challenge in future.
The subjects tackled by the playwrights are as varied as their styles. Liz Lochhead, one of the Scottish contributors, has chosen to write about the 1960s Cuban missile crisis from the viewpoint of teenage girls; Wole Soyinka's characters - mostly between 14 and 16 - are caught up in a political coup on a South Seas tourist island and are forced to confront their assumptions about freedom and justice; Gina Moxley, who lives in Dublin, contrasts the comic agonies of young love with the horror of a family terrorised by a brutal father; Sian Evans has set her tale of love rivalry between girls who have magic powers in rural Wales in 1830; Philip Ridley's storyteller, Jake, weaves a tale to save his skin on the junk-strewn roof of an urban towerblock while Bryony Lavery's 16 women, immured after the death of their Far Eastern emperor, turn to cannibalism.
Simon Armitage's Eclipse could only have been written by a poet. He is, he says, convinced that most people "think poetically", and, although he acknowledges that some of the speeches in Eclipse may be difficult to learn, he was all too aware that patronising a young cast was a worse pitfall. He is, in his thirties, Britain's leading young poet and has been spectacularly successful since his first collection, Zoom!, was published in 1990.
Armitage took part in the weekend for directors which he found "uplifting. I was happy so many had chosen the play, that they'd responded to the writing - and to the challenge." Set in 1999, the plot of Eclipse is minimal, but its implications are, well, cosmic. While a group of unseen adults stands on a Cornish headland to watch a total eclipse of the sun out of scientific interest, their teenage offspring are on the beach below, more concerned with myth, magic and the inexplicable. A strange young girl, Lucy Lime, appears, teases, tricks and undermines the others and disappears again mysteriously. The scenes on the beach, where magical things happen, are intercut with police questioning about Lucy's whereabouts.
A good deal remains enigmatic. "I was trying to encompass the changes in people's lives between the ages of 15 and 21. Very young children have the capacity to be more imaginative, intuitive, to encompass primitive instincts in their thinking. They lose this as they become more scientific and rational. These kids still have some of that ability, but they're losing it," Armitage says.
"They are placed in a powerful environment: this event was significant to populations before civilization, so the play is about the coming together of the ancient and modern, of science and mythology, of innocence and experience. "
Armitage believes that the heavens (in scientific terms, astrophysics) represent one of the last battlegrounds between science and the imagination. His next book will include 88 poems, one for each of the constellations in the sky - as well as the text of Eclipse.
Armitage lives high on the Yorkshire moors and is "exposed to great bursts of daylight". He could not live far from natural phenomena, he says, "knowing what time it is naturally.
"Most people don't know what the weather's like. Our civilisation is comfortable but weak against the outside world - in more danger of being swamped by some virus or other disaster." Eclipse reverberates with these ideas, exploring the boundaries between the real and the supernatural, but its touch is as oblique and thought-provoking as a poem.
During the directors' weekend he found that people wanted to know which of the characters was innocent, which guilty. "I tried to encourage them to find their own way through. Each could be culpable or innocent. As with many disappearances, there is no solid evidence."
He is not concerned about being politically correct. "I was in the probation service and I've had a bellyful of that - people policing what other people think through what they are allowed to say." In Eclipse, there is a blind character called Midnight and another who sniffs glue.
The language and rhythms of this piece are clever and unexpected. Armitage does not much value naturalism: "As a child I hated books about kicking a football around."
Gina Moxley's play Dog House could not be more different. Her language is grounded in Cork teenspeak. She hopes groups in other areas will adapt the dialect to their own local tunes - some said they found received pronunciation hilarious - but the mixture of lilt and earthiness is particularly successful.
This is a tragi-comic piece, unsentimental and brave to the point of recklessness in its theme and its honesty about young people's behaviour. Here we have smoking, drinking and swearing and young love at all stages, from blushing embarrassment to unmarried, teenage parenthood.
Moxley has had discussions with some directors about the four-letter words, but no one has found the main storyline a problem: the emotional and physical abuse of a girl scapegoated by her widower father.
Moxley grew up in Cork and now divides her time between writing and acting. The idea for Dog House came from a newspaper story about a child abuse case in which a girl was eventually starved to death. It stuck in Moxley's mind. "The report makes chilling reading. It takes such a mind-jump to come to terms with what makes people do that to a child."
Underlying both the serious and the jokey strands of the play is the suggestion that people's parents are not necessarily the best ones to be in charge of them. Sensible 14-year-old Ger has to cope with a mother whose intentions are not malicious, but who cannot help interfering. One daughter has just produced a baby without benefit of husband; the other, who is married, is constantly nagged for "good news" of pregnancy. Ger is told to give her boyfriend Mossie an egg to look after as a reminder that babies can't be ignored once they arrive and they sometimes arrive unbidden.
Moxley says she thought she'd invented something hilarious in this - only to discover that schools really do sometimes teach parenting with bags of flour, along the lines of Anne Fine's Flour Babies. "Ger knows her mother gets notions. She's very grounded, copped on with how she deals with Mossie. "
The cruelty is presented in all its harshness, although never on stage; only teenage characters appear. "It is a bit scary, kids doing it. Directors will have to be sensitive in how they handle it. Abuse goes on; kids know about it and encounter it in varying degrees. The play could be a trigger to talk about it."
Moxley wants the groups who do her play - there are eight or nine - to feel completely free in their handling of the text. As an actor she has tried to avoid the things she herself dislikes in the theatre: "set changes, lumbering on with furniture". Although the language is naturalistic, the locations need be only sparely represented. And she deliberately avoids having young people play grown-ups: "teenage fathers - that repulsive talcum powder on the hair."
The plays are: Asleep Under the Dark Earth by Sian Evans; The Chrysalids by David Harrower; Cuba by Liz Lochhead; Dog House by Gina Moxley; Eclipse by Simon Armitage; The Golden Door by David Ashton; In the Sweat by Naomi Wallace; More Light by Bryony Lavery; Shelter by Simon Bent; Sparklesnake by Philip Ridley; Travel Club and Boy Soldier by Wole Soyinka; and The Ultimate Fudge by Jane Coles. The collection will be published by Faber in the summer.Details of performances: NT Education 0171 401 9786.