Viva Vic

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
When the curtain falls at the Young Vic, it's the audience's turn to tread the boards. Now the London theatre is sharing backstage secrets about its radical work with local schools in a new book. Heather Neill reports

The Young Vic's bubbling Monday night audience had already witnessed some unusual events in Thornton Wilder's play The Skin of Our Teeth. A dinosaur had warmed itself on a suburban radiator, Moses had come in for a sandwich, and half the set had collapsed. Yet, when David Troughton, playing the irascible paterfamilias Mr Antrobus in the Forties-set drama, requested help from the audience to read statements from philosophers, no one was fazed; whereas theatre-goers usually freeze and try to disappear at such moments, here was a clamour of assistants willing the spotlight to turn on them. The would-be performers were from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds and mostly young. This could happen nowhere else; this south London theatre constantly disproves the accepted wisdom that theatre is for a middle-class, middle-aged, white elite.

But such diversity did not come about by accident. Certainly the building itself, with its air of make-do informality, is less intimidating than most arts centres. Its foyer is a converted butcher's shop surrounded by an unprepossessing breeze-block mass with, at its heart, one of the most flexible, most intimate and most loved auditoria in London. The stage can be used in the round, the thrust, traverse and in other hybrid configurations .

When in 1970 Laurence Olivier, then artistic director of the National Theatre based at the Old Vic just along the road, suggested the building could be used to present the classics to young audiences, the project was meant to last five years. Now, with David Lan as its artistic director, renovation (rescue might be a more accurate word) can no longer be deferred, and a pound;12 million fundraising campaign is well under way.

(The campaign, incidentally, is fronted by that former south London schoolboy who grew up to play Doctor Faustus on the Young Vic stage, Jude Law. He describes it as his "ideal theatre".) But the building is only part of the story, and a peripatetic period during the restoration, which may last a couple of years, is regarded by Young Vic staff as an exciting opportunity; no one fears that the unique relationship with its audience is in danger.

Under Frank Dunlop's directorship, young people were welcomed at the Young Vic from the start. Subsequent artistic directors Michael Bogdanov and David Thacker presided over flourishing education projects and an often brilliant youth theatre, but it was Tim Supple, working with Sue Emmas, now David Lan's associate artistic director, who made the changes which underpin the theatre's modern philosophy initiated a decade ago. The Young Vic Book, by Ruth Little, artistic associate at the theatre, and published on April 8, sets out both history and philosophy, but doesn't stop there: it is a handbook of ideas, a resource for directors and teachers, an opened box of what might have been backstage secrets.

David Lan writes in the preface: "At the Young Vic we put on shows. That's our raison d'etre. But we believe - ie we've discovered - that you have to put almost as much work into making your audience..." This does not involve tailoring the choice of plays patronisingly to younger tastes or pandering to national curriculum requirements.

In 1994, Sue Emmas simply "started from scratch", visiting schools in the two local boroughs, Southwark and Lambeth, a culturally diverse area coping with a range of social problems. Helen Everett, now head of performing arts at St Francis Xavier College in the London borough of Wandsworth, after experience in other local secondary schools, has been an enthusiast for the work of the Young Vic's teaching, participation and research (TPR) department from its beginnings. "To be honest, I can remember being rather sceptical when Sue first made contact. I was used to my pupils being seen as 'bums on seats'I I was proved wrong. The Young Vic's approach is radically different," she says.

She describes how company members work with young people as individuals, in schools, with their families and in the communities. She praises the "empowering" teachers' workshops led by "cutting-edge theatre practitioners", the teaching packs which "deconstruct each production seen by pupils", and the Young Vic Teachers' Forum, of which she says: "It is a two-way process: the Young Vic staff disclose the theatre's plans and the teachers are consulted on their ideas and opinions and feed back the response of their students." This is one example of the way TPR work is integrated into theatre planning.

Even more important is the treatment of the young people, "the way our students are respected and their work valuedI Young people are given ownership of the plays they see through interactive and challenging workshops. For example, the day after seeing A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic about aspirational African-Americans in Chicago) my students were on the main stage, standing on the set they had seen the actors performing on the night before, redirecting a scene from the playI The workshop was run by the director of the play, David Lan."

Or, as Kate Turvey, arts co-ordinator at Bishop Thomas Grant school, Lambeth, and another enthusiast, puts it: "They don't speak down to the students. They are treated like a little company of actors." She, too, was visited by Sue Emmas, who "meant to come for an hour but stayed all day in the drama studio" and recalls how, years later, Lennie James came to her school three times when he was appearing in A Raisin in the Sun and inspired a "difficult" group of 16-year-olds. Her students regularly take part in the Young Vic schools festival, once touring local primaries with their short version of Grimm Tales.

Quite often there is a parallel performance of a main house production with a script adapted and directed by a young director and a cast of school-age students. The Young Vic under David Lan is training and providing opportunities for dozens of new directors, a fact also reflected in the book. Kate Turvey says it is good for students to see such professional development in theatre. Performances take place in the Studio, with its professional staff and technical facilities. Often more people want to take part than can be included, but all are invited to come to workshop-auditions intended to be enjoyable and instructive in themselves.

But perhaps the most surprising fact of all is that each year thousands of school students (and an equal number of adults in the community) come to plays free; 10 per cent of tickets are given away. In the past, local businesses have contributed to the scheme but, says Sue Emmas, it does not rely on sponsorship. The Young Vic staff, quick to seize an opportunity, provide free ice cream vouchers for students joining the mailing list. This enables them to contact young people as individuals, to give them information about productions and workshops and encourage independent theatre-going.

Ruth Little, one-time academic and script-reader, has captured the Young Vic's energy and excitement in her book, with the help of illuminating interviews with actors and directors such as Lennie James, Tim Supple, David Lan and Rufus Norris. "You have to be spontaneous, flexible and resourceful here," she says. She details several key productions, from Tim Supple's work on Grimm Tales (considerably influenced by children invited to watch the show's development) to the more recent feel-good musical Simply Heavenly, as well as Doctor Faustus and A Raisin in the Sun.

"By being specific, we also wanted to generalise," says Ruth Little, and cites the detailed exercises designed to clarify and celebrate Marlowe's verse which could be applied to other classic texts. Ms Little hopes that young directors and teachers will work from the book while emphasising its "provisional" nature. "If you become too prescriptive, you can't remain open to their fluid engagement with the world," she says.

Or as Leanne, one of Helen Everett's students, puts it: "Theatre? We know all about theatre. We were raised the Young Vic way."

The Young Vic Book: Theatre Work and Play by Ruth Little is published by Methuen, pound;12.99. It can be ordered for the discount price of pound;6 direct from the Young Vic's website:

Play time

Practical ideas in The Young Vic Book range from pre-rehearsal (or lesson) warm-up games to hundreds of activities specific to particular plays, such as suggestions for storytelling, investigations of character-building and approaches to difficult text.

Here are a few tasters:

* From Active Storytelling - Grimm Tales. A "storyteller" reads out "Little Red-Cap" sentence by sentence. The others walk silently across the room. At every full stop the reader calls out "Go!" and everyone runs a few steps before the speaker continues.

This exercise helps the listeners to connect with the rhythm of the story, and it clearly marks every shift in thought or perspective (literally, its turning points). It gives participants a dynamic sense of the shape of the story.

* From Poetry and Language - Doctor Faustus. "It strikes. It strikes. Now, body, turn to air or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell." Read the passage above, clicking your fingers on unstressed syllables and clapping on stressed syllables. The whole words which are emphasised are "strikes", "strikes", "turn", "air", "bear", "quick", "hell". Faustus drives home the horror of the moment by stressing the chiming of the clock, his vain desire to become nothing, and his fear of being carried into hell. More verbs than nouns are emphasised in these lines; active words dominate and create a sense of movement, panic and change.

* From Larger than Life - Simply Heavenly. Imagine you are your character, lying awake in bed at dawn. Imagine your bed, the feel of the sheets and pillow. Imagine the room around the bed, and the house beyond, and the street coming to life outside. Now, still lying down with your eyes closed, imagine you are getting out of bed and going to stand before a mirror. What do you see in the mirror? Who are you, all alone at this time, without your "public face" on?

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