Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Truth About Youth

Playwright Katherine Mitchell reports on a valuable new experience with young people at the Princes Trust

“Would you be interested in working as a writer/dramaturg on a Princes Trust project at Bristol Old Vic?”

Hell yeah.

My mouth kicked in faster than my brain. On the one hand: fantastic opportunity, encompassing several things I’d been wanting to try – working with young people, working at Bristol Old Vic, working with people who weren’t part of the traditional theatre (read “privileged”) culture, and working as a dramaturg.

On the other hand: I didn’t have any experience of working with young people, and I’d never been a dramaturg before. I immediately resolved to just deal with the inevitable Imposter Syndrome and dive right in, knowing I’d emerge at the other side stronger for having done so.

The Truth About Youth is a project funded by The Co-operative Foundation, partnered with various organizations. The aim is to take young people age 16-25 who aren’t in education, employment or training and engage them on a creative project that has at its heart the aim of challenging and improving public perceptions about young people.

With director Jesse Jones leading the group and Michael Melican (Mr Woodnote, check him out on YouTube) in charge of music, we had three weeks to put together a show with 10 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who had no professional experience of performing.

Before it started I begged David Lane for advice, knowing that he had worked on similar projects. David’s advice included:

·         Making sure to listen to everyone and value their contributions.
·         Keeping a record of all the material that gets produced.
·         The narrative might be about how we use the material to construct a journey for the audience rather than a conventional linear story.

From the start, Jesse and I were determined that the final piece should be driven by the young people; it should be their words and stories, not ours. My aim as writer was to not write, but to pull out the words from the participants, to find ways of creating a safe and experimental space for them to express themselves.

Another concern was to avoid making anyone feel awkward about a lack of basic literacy skills, but this turned out not to be a big issue. One girl preferred to dictate (and also not to read aloud), while others needed encouragement, unable to believe that their words and ideas were anything more than stupid.

It was often more appropriate for me to sit one-one-one and ask the right questions than to ask people to write on a given topic, although several members of the group wrote texts that were woven into the play. My frantic, messy handwriting kept these “interviews” informal whereas an audio/video recording might make people feel self-conscious, but this might be my personal preference; some might welcome the chance to record themselves.

When it came to writing exercises I learned that it was no good borrowing an exercise from someone else to throw into the mix unless I knew the reason why I was doing it. Sounds obvious, but duh! It’s all too easy to think “Well I’ll start off with that one as a warm up, then get them to do this, then that,” without thinking about why you’re doing it. The fact that it’s an exercise you did on a workshop once and enjoyed isn’t going to cut it in these circumstances.

The exercises that worked the best were those I’d created for the group and which fulfilled a purpose in constructing the play. Halfway through week two we realised we didn’t have any positives emerging from the group; cue Awesome, an exercise in completing sentences that all began with variations of “I’m good at…” (details here).

This led to what might be my favourite scene in the finished piece, what we called the reversed rinse-off; two groups of hoodied youths squaring up for a verbal fight, which then became a trade-off in compliments… You totally rock at facing your fears / You should be proud of how far you’ve come / You are unbelievably brilliant at flipping pancakes.

David’s advice about keeping a record of all the material that was being amassed was definitely a crucial piece of information. Pry those crumpled pieces of paper out of their sweaty paws before they leave the room, otherwise you’ll likely never see them again. Jot down what happens in the rehearsal room (as it happens), whether verbal or physical, song lyrics, suggestions; buy yourself a nice shiny new folder to put it all in because you are going to be drowning in little pieces of paper covered with various scrawled notes.

Scan the room for paper before you leave, and check the bin; someone else’s version of cleaning up might just involve dumping that messy pile of paper straight into the trash (oh yes they did). Trust me, I don’t have OCD (and the state of my house right now will attest to that) – but it will be worth it when you’re asked “Mmm…. Do you still have that lyric I wrote?” two days before the performance.

When it came to assembling the script, it was clear that the fictional scenes that had been devised were nowhere near as strong as the aspects where the young people were telling it like it is, whether through song, movement or words. I created a loose structure, following a through-line of emotion, a journey from self-doubt to burgeoning confidence.

Perhaps it sounds extravagant to suggest that this reflected their experience in the rehearsal room, but having watched them confront their fears and challenge themselves it seemed apt. I was blown away by the beauty, honesty and courage of the responses by the young people, whether verbal or written. To watch the final performance and see them all shining on stage, owning the material, made me feel like a proud mother. One young woman who had been struggling with a lack of self-confidence and panic attacks was still shining several hours later.

“You took what we said and made it into a play,” she said, and thanked me. Whatever else I achieve in the theatre, that’s a moment I’m going to hold on to.

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