Heather Neill sees the Royal Court play host to the next generation of playwrights - some of whom are still at school
The facade of London's Royal Court theatre looks much as it did in historic photographs taken in the Fifties and early sixties when landmarks of modern theatre such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Edward Bond's Saved were first unveiled to a shocked public. But inside, although the sense of this as a workplace rather than a temple to escapism is still intact, there are changes - comfortable seats, two rebuilt stages, a spacious bar and a roof without a leak. The ethos of the place, under its present artistic director Ian Rickson, is unchanged, however. For 50 years this theatre has prided itself on discovering new writing talent - and it does so still.
The refurbished theatre opened with much razzmatazz in February. Rather more quietly, the building next door was occupied in July by the members of the Royal Court young writers' programme. The Site, as it is known, is not yet improved to the standard of the Court itself, but there is space to work here and, best of all, it is close enough to benefit from the professional expertise on its doorstep. Exposure: Young Writers 2000 will take full advantage of this, for from today until November 11 some very young writers indeed will have their work presented in the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Among them will be Holly Baxter Baine, aged 15, who came to the theatre in June to do her year 10 work experience.
A student at Hampstead comprehensive, Holly became interested in writing while she was helping with the administration of Exposure. Between bouts of filing and photocopying she attended a script conference and read a few of the entries. In no time she had joined the young writers' workshops and two weeks before the closing date had written her first play, Goodbye Roy.
This is one of eight plays selected for the festival from 490 scripts submitted by writers aged 13 to 25 from all over the country. Four of these will be given rehearsed readings and the other four full productions. Of those in the second category, two writers - 16-year-old Emmanuel De Nasciemento, author of Drag-on , as well as Holly - are still at school. Another striking fact, given recent publicity about boys and young men trailing their female counterparts where application, commitment and an interest in the arts are concerned, is that there is only one other young woman besides Holly among these eight playwrights: Melissa Perkins's Helstone and Nell will receive a reading on October 31.
Was any theme discernible among the submitted scripts? Ola Animashawun, director of the young writers' programme, says there seemed to be a preoccupation with the role of men in modern Britain, "and they don't come out of it particularly well". The work of the two school-age writers, although very different, falls into this category. Holly's piece represents a tremendous leap of imagination: an Asian woman travelling on a London Tube is reminded of her abusive father in India. Scrning naturalism and daringly adopting the speech patterns of a different cultural group, the 15-minute play for five characters moves backwards and forwards in time. Holly says: "I find it easier to write about things far away from me. I know about women's issues because my mother works for an organisation called Womankind, and I'm at a multicultural school." Her favourite writers are, she says, Bertold Brecht and Sarah Kane.
Emmanuel, until recently a student at Phoenix high school in west London, is now doing A-levels at William Morris Academy. His short play bravely and often humorously confronts a young man's sexual confusion. Ziggy meets Ruby, only Ruby turns out to be a transvestite called Duncan who drops his shoe in the manner of an unconventional Cinderella. Ziggy's laddish heterosexual swagger turns to unexpected romantic emotion when he discovers that he is fond of Duncan as himself.
Then he has to face his mother. "She's like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella," says Emmanuel. He wanted his play to be "real, to hear people talk like a modern teenage person". But he also introduced humour so that the audience would be more relaxed about the subject.
Both plays reveal a sophisticated ear for dialogue - Emmanuel's is full of young black street language - and both have benefited from being developed in young writers' workshops. They will each be performed with a longer work by a writer in his twenties and the two programmes will be performed alternately. Alongside these and the readings, there will be two other related presentations. Crossing the Borders, the culmination of a collaboration between 12 young writers from around the world working together via the Internet with help from YWP tutors, will be performed on the afternoon of November 7. Naturalised is a bilingual piece written by young people from the Balkans now living in Britain. Under YWP guidance, the experiences of individuals have been woven into a dramatic piece which will be staged at 9.45pm on November 1, 2 and 3.
Although not all the successful authors attended YWP workshops, it is easy to see why they are so popular. Ola Animashawun reckons there are about 200 members and, on any one week, 80 to 100 will turn up for the sessions with well-known playwrights and directors. Although the Royal Court has a particular responsibility to its borough, Kensington and Chelsea, many students make long journeys across Greater London and one, now a student at Exeter University, regularly travels from Devon.
For Exposure, each entry was assessed by two readers, with allthe readers meeting once a week for a month until a shortlist of between 15 and 20 scripts emerged. Given such encouragement, there need be no end to the ambition of the young writers. After all, previous YWP members include many of the new wave of playwrights, including Nick Grosso and Rebecca Pritchard.
Exposure:Young Writers 2000 is sponsored by BSkyB. Naturalised is funded by the London Arts Board Regional Challenge as part of a London-wide refugee initiative. Tickets: 020 7565 5000. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org