TEEN PLAYWRIGHTS TAKE-OVER THE STAGE - CLASS ACT 2005.
Class Act here and in Russia.
How rewarding it is to hand someone the key to their creativity. To treat a person's fledgling efforts seriously can lead to wonderful things. Through its flagship education project, Class Act, the Traverse Theatre has for sixteen years put faith in Lothian teenagers by coaching them in writing plays which are then performed by actors on the same stage that hosts hundreds of professional plays.
The results have been magical in a project which aims to give the students as authentic an experience as possible of the script development process. With no restrictions on their scripts, except a five minute time limit, students begin in August, have a first draft in September and a final draft in October, and the plays are performed in November. A professional playwright comes in at each stage and workshops the scripts, and then the actors bring the final draft to life.
A Stella Performance From Everyone.
"It's fantastic to watch a 15 year old girl stand up to a director and defend her play to the hilt!" says Suzanne Graham, the Traverse's Literary Development Officer. Confidence-building is central to the Class Act project, but it takes many forms. For those struggling with literacy, the workshops open up a whole new perspective of this usually unpleasant thing called 'writing'. Actress Katrina Bryan sums it up best: "for them, writing is a big, big struggle, so they're thinking, 'oh god, here we go, more writing'. When you actually go in with the actors, they see they'd better take it seriously and it gives them such a confidence-boost! Writing's no longer boring and functional".
For teenagers who are already competent writers, Class Act introduces them to a new medium, and might reveal unexplored talents. It's a welcome change from the ordinary, as playwright Alan Wilkins knows: "they've done so much writing for marks and 'folios….to suddenly do something that has an end product, it's very satisfying for them".
One thing all the Class Act students seem to have in common is that they loved every minute! As director Lorne Campbell puts it, "having your work taken seriously by a group of adults and a group of professionals who come from outside [the school], really giving credence to what you're doing, is incredibly empowering". A few may even find their lives changing tack as a result.
Over the years, more than 380 plays by 780 young people have debuted on Traverse's main stage thanks to Class Act. This year, Scottish playwrights Alan Wilkins, Catherine Grosvenor, Douglas Maxwell, Davey Anderson and Jules Horne have guided students from Musselburgh Grammar School, West Calder High School, Peebles High School, The Royal High School and The James Young High School.
Noble Motives, or Just For The Craic?
Why does the arts community run such educational projects? There are various reasons, but Lorne Campbell summarises it well: "it's very important for the Traverse to make a contribution back into the community. And it's a two-way street…the impact on our work of going out to work in schools, we feel that influence. It gives us a connection to different communities". It also gives young people a very positive early experience of theatre, developing in them a passion for theatre and thus securing an audience for the future.
Theatre is a rich cultural form that owes its diversity to generations of distinct individuals who have taken it in new direction. There is a real danger that large chunks of society, who are not familiarised with theatre from an early age, will never engage with it, especially with home entertainment and the cinema vying so seductively for attention. Projects like Class Act keep theatre alive.
Noble causes aside, the professionals involved in Class Act ultimately do it for love of it! The actors, playwrights and directors were unanimous in this, enthusing over the joys of working with people who are not primarily playwrights and thus think in completely unpredictable and uninhibited ways. Actor Ross Allan finds it stimulating to have such an unusually big input into a raw script. And, of course, the promise of discovering untapped talent makes for very exciting work.
The Creative Freedom of Youth.
The night I visited the Traverse, it was plays by Advanced Higher English students from Musselburgh Grammar School that were in the limelight. The school's Head of English, Claire Hyslop, told me, "they are a particularly good group. They're very smart and motivated, and just such genuinely lovely people".
Before the performances began, I asked some of the young playwrights how they were feeling. Apart from a few nerves, everyone was simply excited that this night had finally come. What, no personal crises? No crippling fears that their best efforts might turn out to be clichéd, dull, convoluted or simply bad?! Not this lot.
But then they are blissfully free of the pressures that shackle experienced artists, you might say. When there's no need to consider their creations from a business point of view, and with them not knowing the craft of theatre so thoroughly yet (a state of innocence that allows their pens to flow unchecked), it's no wonder they're calm. It is an enviable state for many a writer. As Lorne Campbell points out, "all kids can act and all kids can write, because they play all the time. What we do now [as playwrights] is what we did effortlessly when we were kids".
The Russia Connection.
In light of its continued success, the Traverse was last year asked by The British Council to take Class Act to Russia. Scottish playwrights Douglas Maxwell and Nicola McCartney are in Moscow and Samara right now (28 November -12 December), magically compressing the four month project into one week! Now that the Russian theatre professionals have last year's experience tucked under their belts, Nicola and Doug are this time taking more of a back-seat role, ensuring that the Scottish-born project develops its Russian personality.
The Traverse team has found Class Act: Russia a cultural eye-opener, as they've found that in Russia children are not typically recognised as potential playwrights. Lorne Campbell says it's a case of freedom of expression, that their Russian counterparts attitudes boil down to this - "so you're going to get the children to write? But how do you control what they write? They might write about anything!" In Scotland, thankfully, theatre-goers and professionals alike take young minds very seriously indeed, so we can only expect Class Act will be making its annual appearance for some time yet.
© Lorna Lythgoe 3 December 2005 - Published on EdinburghGuide.com
Theatre Company Involved - Traverse Theatre. Cambridge St, Edinburgh. 0131 228 1404.
Review of the 2005 Class Act Plays.
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