Monday, 6 July 2015

Final thoughts on the NT Connections journey

'It's all over - and what a fantastic experience it has been - personally and professionally. I still can't quite believe what has happened and it will take some time to process. From the moment the 'vision' for what this play could become to the moment the cast took the applause at the Dorfman there was excitement, challenge and achievement. Each and every one of the cast and crew grew - some to a quite astonishing level. 

So can we look back over the Connections experience with a degree of objectivity? Well, here goes...

The scheme itself is a fantastic concept and is entirely appropriate for the National Theatre as it reaches out to all geographical and cultural parts of the United Kingdom. In inviting 10 established writers to write specifically for young people it fills a yawning gap in the material available for young people.

The quality of the writing is variable IMHO- it seems that some authors take the task much more seriously. And in asking writers who may not be used to writing for young people to do just that, some are bound to be better at it than others! 

From a participant's point of view, the initial process is a total gamble. There is that bated breath time when the new plays are released (after you've paid your fees usually) when you earnestly hunt for the plays that match the size of your cast/availability of resources/ appropriateness. This has meant we've worked with some gems in the past, but also we've had to 'make do'.

We withdrew from the scheme some years ago when the original (quite relaxed) quality filters were lifted and literally hundreds more groups started taking part. This devalued the writer's weekend workshop and really made any prospect of progression (even to partner theatres) a bit of a lottery. When we found out the filters had been restored, we decide to take part again - and thank goodness we did.  

Unfortunately it looks like the NT has relaxed the policy again for 2016 and although we had already decided to take a break to get some perspective on this year, we would not have entered anyway without some reassurance over the workshops and partner theatres' status (which I now understand the NT could give). 

The process of mounting your home production is fine and relatively simple. There are a few little hurdles to get over, such as clearing your PR material and collateral, but nothing really to worry about. 

To be honest, I had a feeling right from the start that we had a very strong vision and talented cast and that our end product would be compelling - we were in with a chance.

The visit by the NT assessor we found invaluable and, although the play was in fairly good shape, his suggestions we entirely appropriate and welcome and started a process of improvement which I believe was the most exciting element of the whole project.

The trip to our partner theatre, the Royal & Derngate was very enjoyable and the cast had a brilliant time. The organisation by the theatre was superb. This alone made the project worthwhile. 

The show had moved up a couple of levels and when I was introduced to a mystery person visiting with our assessor at the end I was pretty sure we were, at the very least, on a shortlist.

The wait for a phone call from the National was awful but totally understandable. I was pleased that every company would be informed before the final list was posted, as previously the names simply appeared on the website and this was the first you knew you hadn't been successful. So when the phone call came, there was as much relief as joy. But then there was the embargo period (again understandable, again agony) before I could tell the cast and the world.

The moment I informed the cast will stay with me for the rest of my life.

So we were selected - and didn't the work REALLY start then? Forms, forms, forms. But you don't mind. It was taking the production to the level it needed to be for the Dorfman that was the biggest challenge, and the most wonderful part of the work. Our associate director was fantastic, blending I into he background when needed, pushing forward when needed. Some of the exercises he let us with will power any future shows, but his objective and practical insights made the performance increasingly polished, accurate and professional.

And then there was the huge team at the NT - always reassuring, always calm, totally professional and on our side, even when we hit a few production blips along the way. I cannot speak highly enough of all of them - without exception. Yes, you field emails from so many different people that sometimes you can lose track of who has what information, but there was always our associate director and the co-ordinators at the NT to make sense of it all and pull it all together.

So we came to the production itself. The tech was extraordinary - the resources were just immense and having people who knew how to make them work was fascinating. And how they encouraged and coached  my production team was extraordinary and inspiring.

When the days came, the NT made it seem effortless. I know from long experience just how hard it is to corral young people and point them all in the right direction at the same time. We were treated as professionals and colleagues by everyone and the task of getting the show onto the stage could not have been more relaxed and supportive. It left my young people totally at ease and able to deliver the performance all their hard work ( and that of the NT) deserved.

It was an experience they and I will never forget.

Were there any disappointments? For me, it was a shame that the social media networks set up to exchange ideas with other groups were almost totally unused. We went big on social media but felt a little bit out on a limb. There must be other ways to encourage more interaction. 

It was also a shame that the schedule at the NT meant we didn't get any time to talk to our playwright - we'd have loved to talk to her about what we'd done and what she thought of how her play had developed. 

But these were insignificant compared to the life experience offered to the cast.

We wish all the groups taking part in next year's programme the very best of luck. It's a great scheme with a goal that is unique, achievable and very, very special. 

In conclusion, the Connections programme is a crucial drip feed of adrenalin into the UK youth theatre world. It's not initially cheap, certainly, but you can defray those costs with a bit of clever marketing and good support from your home audience. 

Getting to the National (I think) requires a degree of luck, a uniqueness of vision and clarity of storytelling but you can't go into the programme with that as a (stated) goal for your cast. There is so much of the process totally outside your control. All you can do is to produce the best work you can. Far more important is taking part in a festival that unites the nation and delivers vital new energy to theatre for young people and the excitement of pioneering new works.

Thanks to Rob, Dan, Adele and everyone at the National Theatre for their hard work and unfailing support.

And thanks to my fantastic cast and crew. Lotta love for you, guys!