Big new plays for great big casts: the exciting new Multiplay Drama series

As Nick Hern Books launches its new Multiplay Drama series – a great range of plays with large casts that are perfect for older teenagers and young adults to perform – series editor John O’Donovan explains why it’s a boon for any group looking for an ambitious play to perform with roles for all the company.

Every year, a great number of original plays are commissioned and performed by drama schools, educational institutions, and youth, student and amateur-theatre companies. Reading them, talking to their writers, seeing them in production, we are always struck by the complexity of their themes, the invention of their storytelling and the calibre of their playwrights.

Some of these plays are revived in professional productions – for instance, Growth by Luke Norris was first seen at the Royal Welsh College before being revised and produced on tour by Paines Plough in their pop-up theatre, Roundabout, and winning a Fringe First Award in Edinburgh – but most haven’t yet had a further life. It seems like the very raison d’être of many of these plays – the creation of large-scale complex pieces for young, large casts – has meant theatre companies, hamstrung by ever-shrinking budgets, haven’t been able to find a way to give the plays the continuing existence that they deserve.

That’s why Nick Hern Books has created Multiplay Drama – a new series aiming to bring back to the fore some of the best plays for large casts we’ve read. Offering ten high-quality plays that originated with various drama schools and youth-theatre companies, it provides a selection of ambitious, complex, dramatic and theatrical plays with one common factor: large casts of rich, exciting characters for teenagers and young adults to perform.

No one-person shows. No knotty two-handers. No triptychs. These are plays with big ideas and need big companies to put them across. From the relatively modest seven-hander Blue to the 75+ speaking characters in katzenmusik, these plays offer multiple perspectives and clamorous takes on some of the most important issues of today.

In making these plays available to read and perform, we’re hoping to see a legion of other drama schools, youth theatres, student-drama societies, sixth-form colleges and amateur-theatre companies gaining ready access to the kinds of plays that interrogate theatrical storytelling form as vigorously as they question the world we live in today. In every play in this first season of the initiative, actors will find roles that are fleshed out and demand self-reflection, that justify their time on the stage and find their place within a larger set of characters.

If your performance group is looking for a play that builds a post-apocalyptic world and focuses on a large group of identifiable characters navigating through a dystopian vision of Britain – we have the play for you; if you prefer a play where a Chorus comes and narrates across time zones and locations, splitting up voices to tell a fragmented story – we have the play for you; if you want to wonder what it’s like to spend every day in a psychiatric unit; or in mourning for a loved one; or even what it’s like to metamorphose into an animal – we have the plays for you…

Multiplay Drama is a great way for plays with large casts to find even larger audiences. Commissioned by some of the most illustrious educational and youth groups in the country, and featuring playwrights whose work has been seen on the most celebrated of stages, these ten plays offer rigorous storytelling, unflinching explorations of contemporary issues, and a willingness to experiment with theatrical form and invest even the smallest of roles with significance and dignity. They are ideal for companies with a lot of performers looking for fresh, modern and dramatic stances on the world we live in today.


John O’Donovan is Consultant Editor at Nick Hern Books.

The first ten titles in the Multiplay Drama series are out now, published by Nick Hern Books. For more information and free extracts, visit www.multiplaydrama.co.uk.

All ten plays are available to buy as ebooks from Nick Hern Books and from most ebook retailers.

Jack Thorne (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Jack Thorne is the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a five-times BAFTA-winning screenwriter. He talked to theatre journalist Al Senter about his abiding love for theatre, while, below, we publish his speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre in July…

Jack Thorne is a writer in demand right now. The winner of no fewer than five BAFTA awards for his TV work (including for his original drama series The Fades, his work on Shane Meadows’ This Is England series, and his 2017 mini-series National Treasure starring Robbie Coltrane), he is also the playwright behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which has played to packed houses and won Best Play awards on both sides of the Atlantic. As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, he’s even bringing King Kong to Broadway later this year in the form of a live show featuring ‘animatronics, puppetry, music and stagecraft… and a 20-foot high gorilla’. All this and he’s not yet reached the age of forty.

Yet despite this conspicuous success and the acclaim which his work has attracted, he remains wary of fame, and almost reflexively self-critical. ‘I’m still surprised by the fact that people are interested in listening to what I have to say,’ he observes when we meet up for this interview. ‘That’s the arrogance of the writer, I suppose. I still love writing but I also feel that it’s important not to grow too dependent on it. Ultimately I’d say that I use my writing to try to make sense of the world, and I only do stuff when I think that there is a really interesting story to be told.’

Jack took to writing plays, as he says in the extraordinarily revealing Introduction to the first volume of his Collected Plays, ‘as a means of expressing things which I couldn’t say.’ He laments in those pages that ‘I’m a constant idiot in conversation. I always seem to sound either smug or stupid.’ There’s a self-lacerating streak to Jack’s conversation still, even if that period of ‘utter self-hatred and destruction’ now lies in the past. You get the sense that, for him, writing has always been something of a displacement activity.

Once he found his voice as a writer – partly through the support and patronage of Mike Bradwell, former artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, where his first professional play, When You Cure Me, was staged in 2005 – Jack seemed to stumble on the realisation that he was a born writer. In the years since, he has become a prolific one. Despite all his work for TV and film, he has continued to get plays onto the stage at an impressive rate: 2nd May 1997, about Labour’s landslide victory, at the Bush in 2009; Mydidae, written for Phoebe Waller-Bridge prior to her breakout success with Fleabag; an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, a coming-of-age vampire love story that was directed for the National Theatre of Scotland by John Tiffany, with whom Jack was later to collaborate on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; a National Theatre Connections play for young people, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement; Hope, about the intolerable pressures placed on a local council, staged at the Royal Court in 2014; The Solid Life of Sugar Water for Graeae Theatre Company; Junkyard, a play with music by Stephen Warbeck about the creation of a community playground by a group of disaffected youngsters; and, most recently, two high-profile adaptations for the Old Vic in London, of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Jack Thorne’s stage version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, in a 2017 production by the National Theatre of Scotland (photo by Lawrence Peart)

On the face of it then, there seems little to unite his disparate work. Yet themes do emerge. There’s Jack’s ability to get inside the minds and hearts of young people – especially young people struggling with the confusing complexities of the modern world – apparent in his early TV work on Skins and on This Is England, and there too in his National Theatre Connections play, and in Junkyard, inspired by his own father’s work on a pioneering social scheme in Bristol. It must have been a consideration, too, when J.K. Rowling was looking for a collaborator for Cursed Child: Jack had already shown an extraordinary empathy for embattled or bullied children thrown into fantastical or supernatural situations, with Let the Right One In and his TV series The Fades. It’s there, too, in the apparently odd coupling of Woyzeck and A Christmas Carol for the Old Vic: for who is Woyzeck if not a traumatised child, infantilised by the military hierarchy that bullies and abuses him, and strips him of his self-belief; and who is Ebenezer Scrooge, if not a man whose ability to experience joy went missing at a precise and demonstrable time in his childhood, and whose redemption lies in reclaiming it, through the ministry of Dickens’ supernatural agents? The casting of the ageless Rhys Ifans as an unusually youthful Scrooge for the Old Vic production seemed designed to underline the point.

Jack’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol also demonstrated his innate understanding of how people are shaped by social realities, and how the gap between prosperity and penury is a narrow one. It’s a recurring theme, there in his depiction of the night New Labour came to power in 2nd May 1997, in the playground politics of Junkyard, and in his analysis of local council politics in Hope.

Jack Thorne’s Junkyard, at Bristol Old Vic in 2017 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

In a way, it’s remarkable that Jack continues to return to work in the theatre, after such success in the golden worlds of TV and film. Yet it’s the more democratic nature of working in the theatre that appeals to him. ‘It’s the one area where you feel you are part of the creative team. You come in to rehearsals, you chat to the Music Supervisor, you sense you are part of something bigger.’ That sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that weaves its way through his work.

He must have faced huge pressures, though, having to deliver for J.K. Rowling on the stage?

‘The pressure before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened was enormous,’ agrees Jack. ‘But I’d gone through a similar kind of experience when I wrote This Is England and I didn’t want to let Shane [Meadows] down. A lot of it is like being in school and having to hand your homework in on time. And I tend to work best to deadlines.’

Writers are, of course, expendable. There are always plenty of them available for hire. ‘I’ve been fired twice this year already,’ admits Jack. ‘And I get really upset by it. But then, as a writer, you are always expecting failure. There’s always a twist somewhere and people are never satisfied. You feel that you’re constantly exposing yourself. When they give your job to somebody else, it’s brutalising. You might be the first writer on a job and you can sense the other writers queuing up behind you. There are projects with directors attached whom you’d crawl over broken glass to work with again, and there is work that you don’t want anybody else to do but you.’

Jack Thorne (photo by Dan Wooller)

Not long after conducting this interview with Jack, I was at the Royal Court Theatre for an event to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Nick Hern Books. Jack himself gave one of the speeches. His speech was full of his habitual humour and trademark modesty, but also remarkably eloquent and outspoken in its praise for Nick Hern and his publishing team. Jack had dug out something that Nick himself had written, about how he got into play publishing: as a teacher at the University of Hull, Nick hadn’t had immediate access to plays produced in London, and had longed for them to appear in print. He went on to pioneer the ‘programme/text’ at the Royal Court and other theatres, ensuring that those plays being staged in London could be read, in affordable editions, across the UK and beyond. Jack was effusive about ‘a publisher born of the need to see Pinter and his generation as soon as London was lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. This is a man that values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t born in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out, I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.’

It was clear from his speech that Jack, for all his worldly success, feels glad to belong to a stable of playwrights published by Nick Hern Books. ‘For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.’

I ask Jack if there’s anything he feels he hasn’t yet tackled in his writing. ‘I am still trying to write a defining original stage play that expresses how I feel about politics,’ he says. ‘I have tried, and I’ll go on trying.’

Let’s hope he will soon realise his ambition. There’s no shortage of material, after all.

Most of Jack Thorne’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his Plays: One (which includes the plays When You Cure Me, Stacy, 2nd May 1997, Bunny, Red Car, Blue Car and Mydidae).

All are available from our website in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol returns to the Old Vic Theatre, London, in November 2018, tickets available here.

 


Here is the text of Jack Thorne’s speech at the Nick Hern Books thirtieth anniversary party at the Royal Court Theatre on 1 July 2018…

When Nick asked me to make this speech, he said – and I quote – ‘It certainly shouldn’t be hagiographic. Maybe just a reminiscence of your early years as a writer and getting published, etc.? Whatever you like really.’ Yup, despite thirty years at Nick Hern Books, and forty-four in publishing, he gave the sort of brief it is extremely dangerous to give a writer – ‘Whatever you like.’

So I started writing a play, because it’s all I can do, but it got a bit weird and tangential and about writers kissing behind shelving units – and I decided to keep things a bit simpler.

When they took me on, three of them took me to lunch at this lovely Italian in Shepherd’s Bush. And I can’t make conversation and I’m not very good at eating spaghetti, and I was quite a lot weirder and lonelier than I am now – and I’m quite weird and lonely now – and they made me feel so important – so cared for. I was going through a stage of being quite into horoscopes at the time – thinking they meant something – which in all probability they might do – and Nick was asking me kindly about this – as he probably regretted even being there – and he said – ‘So was your horoscope today upbeat? Because it probably should be. Because you’re going to be published!’

I remember walking home that day and thinking, ‘I’m going to be published! Who on earth would want to do that? I’m going to have an ISBN!’ And yet they made me feel like they’re the ones who should be grateful. And that’s how the relationship continued. With care, attention and just incredible generosity.

My first colour – spine colours are important in the Nick Hern universe and something that is taken very seriously – was pink, for my first play When You Cure Me. I then had puce, purple and red; I’ve been through blues, greys, greens and whites – and now I’m back at what I think is magenta. Now I know, because I keep them stacked on my shelf, that these colours have been carefully thought about. Nothing ever gets repeated, everything always means something. My first play about the Labour Party,  2nd May 1997, they put in a beautiful red cover. My second play about the Labour Party,  Hope [published in 2014], they put in a greyish black. Not that they were casting aspersions but – you know…

Jack Thorne’s published plays – including When You Cure Me, 2nd May 1997 and Hope

And that is the attention they put into everything – and it is an appalling job when you think about it. The majority of what they publish are live plays – currently in rehearsal: that means the majority of writers they deal with are in the middle of what is essentially an existentialist nightmare. I went back through some emails I’d written to them, looking desperately for anything interesting or funny, and all I found was panic, sheer unadulterated panic, from me – and then calm, brilliant, soothing words from them. Nick reminded me I’d been with them twelve years – during which they’ve published thirteen books of mine. I looked through the emails I sent them and there are hundreds – and the abiding word is ‘Sorry’ – or ‘Dead sorry’. Generally because I’ve missed a deadline, or misunderstood something, or let them down in some way. And the chastisement I deserve as a result never arrives – and I don’t think I’m alone.

My First Play, published to celebrate NHB’s 25th anniversary in 2013

But this is the thing – as I understand it – and this should make us all feel a lot better: this is all Nick Hern’s fault. Stemming from, if my sources are correct, the publishing of Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town. To quote from Nick’s introduction to the book My First Play: ‘At that time Methuen was still publishing all its plays in both hardback and paperback and publishing them some months after the premiere. Coming from teaching in the provinces [at the University of Hull] where we needed immediate access to the plays that London was seeing, I was determined to short-circuit this cumbersome publication procedure.’

A publisher born of the need to read Pinter and his generation as soon as London was being lucky enough to see it. A genuine revolutionary. Nick is a man who values the playwright and the play above all things, and took those values into his own company. As someone who similarly wasn’t living in London and who would order all the Royal Court plays (which I discovered were remarkably cheap) as soon as they came out – I think that democratic intent is extraordinary.

Thank you for doing a beautiful job with every play, thank you for always finding something nice to say – even when the play is terrible – thank you for being revolutionaries – and thank you for your extreme generosity in all things.

And I am one of many. In fact, I’m one of hundreds. For thirty years this glorious company has been publishing beautiful plays and making every one of their writers feel like they matter and that people need to read them – and that is a glory.

I tried to work out today how many writers they have on their list. I discovered rather neatly that there are ninety-nine pages of authors – I think that amounts to close to a thousand writers – with everyone from Hassan Abdulrazzak and David Bowie to Tom Wells and Alexis Zegerman on their list. And I bet if you talked to any of those people they’d tell you how valued they felt. And that’s the thing. Yes, they publish Caryl Churchill – but they also publish and treasure many others who do not get the limelight or acclaim and who never will – and I know they make them all feel like they’ve made me feel. Which is like I matter and that my plays matter.

As a writer, I treasure being part of Nick Hern Books. As a reader, I treasure having Nick Hern books. I treasure them because they’re all bloody good – it is a company with, myself excluded, immense taste – and I treasure them because I know they were made with love, with thought and with joy.

All four speakers at NHB’s 30th Birthday Party: (l-r) Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (photo by Dan Wooller)

The text of Jack Thorne’s speech has been slightly abridged for its appearance here.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Staging our own Brainstorm: an intrepid English teacher on the rewards of devising a show with teenagers

When Steven Slaughter, an English teacher at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, decided to stage a production of Brainstorm, the acclaimed play about the workings of the teenage brain, he was taking a big risk. The show is designed to be devised by a company of teenagers, putting their own lives and experiences centre-stage. But, as Steven explains, the rewards are immeasurable for everyone concerned…

I’m excited to tell you about our production of Brainstorm, the play by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three, at Rosslyn Academy. The process was all that I hoped it might be – an exhilarating challenge for our students and for me, resulting in a show that had a profound impact on our audiences. Afterwards, one parent came up to me and said, “I usually say ‘Great job!’ to the kids. But this time, that doesn’t seem adequate. All I can say is, ‘Thank you’.”

This sense of gratitude, that we had given our community a gift, elevated the experience above other productions we’ve done in several important ways. I want to explain why. Also, I’ll try to address some of the challenges and opportunities of doing Brainstorm as a school play, my assumption being that it will likely most often be done in schools. And I’ll include all the things I’d want to know, as a high school theatre director, if I was considering putting on a production of Brainstorm with my students.

The Process: Spring into Summer

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Ned Glasier, co-writer of Brainstorm and director of the original production, while passing through London last June. I’d read the original script a few months earlier and loved it. It stayed on my short list, and its depth and resonance just wouldn’t let go of me.

But producing the play in a school context was going to add a bit of complexity. Firstly, I needed to have it approved by my administrators without having a working script to show them. Sure, we had the original script, but that, as it says on the cover, is only a ‘blueprint’ for any production; our version was going to end up being very different by the end of the devising process. And so it was important that they had a high degree of trust in what we were trying to achieve.

Furthermore, as Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school, there was going to be a significant degree of sensitivity about what could and could not be included in the final version. The challenge of this, of course, is that the edgier bits, the really honest things that give this play its electricity, are the very parts that might be problematic in a religious school context. And so I knew that I was asking a lot – I wanted approval of something not yet written, but I didn’t want to do it at all if all the rough edges were going to get smoothed away, neutering it of its raw power. Thankfully, the administration saw the potential good of this show and trusted that I could guide it along that path.

Meeting with Ned was really encouraging. He answered some key logistical questions, like, “Can we really complete this inside three months?” (Answer: Yes… but it is a challenge.) In June, over our summer holiday, I sent a secret note to the parents of my most committed theatre kids. Since we would also be asking parents to allow their own home lives and struggles with their teenagers to be expressed on stage, I needed to know that they were supportive, willing to take this journey with us. This was an important step for me, because if several of these committed students would not be allowed to even audition due to parent discomfort (especially those graduating this year), I didn’t think it would be fair to them to choose the show. Thankfully, all parents were supportive.

August: The Big Reveal

At Rosslyn, the announcement of a forthcoming show is done with much excitement. But when I revealed what we’d chosen this time, it was met with mixed feelings. Firstly, no one had really heard of it. No surprise there. Everyone was intrigued by the trailer of Company Three’s production and my initial description, but the cast all admitted that the idea of a play that we would in large part create, about their lives, was something that made them nervous. And sceptical. We hadn’t done a devised show at Rosslyn in many years, and some of the students remembered working on a student-written middle school show that they looked back on with some embarrassment. There was also significant scepticism amongst the broader high school population. All through the production, as the cast bonded and faced their fears of exposing themselves so much, they also had to deal with the added challenge of many of their peers believing that it wouldn’t be any good.

I also had to deal with my own self-doubts. I’d never done a devised show before, and desperately wanted to do justice to this subject and to my students. Can I gather all of these pieces collected over many weeks, and fit them together into something theatrically coherent and beautiful? The fear of failure caused numerous 4:00am wake-ups, ‘dark nights of the soul’. However, with the comfort and benefit of hindsight, I can assure any directors aspiring to dive into devised theatre that Brainstorm is the perfect entry point. The script’s ‘blueprint’ section is really helpful, providing dozens of ideas for activities, writing prompts, games, and processes to assist a company wanting to create their own version. This made the process much easier for me than starting with a blank slate.

Still, I couldn’t really tell how strong the script actually was until just a couple of weeks before performances began, when we’d polished the scenes enough to evaluate the final script at its full potential.

Rehearsals, Part 1: Content Generation

Our three-month rehearsal cycle was split roughly in half. Unlike with a typical play, the cast did not get a final script until about the 6-week point – and even then it continued to change quite a lot, all the way up to the performances.

In the first period of rehearsals, we engaged in a lot of different activities, many taken straight from the blueprint. Students produced YouTube instructional videos, gave virtual tours of their bedrooms, filled out surveys, played games, interviewed each other and their parents, and wrote their own material. I collected everything. One tool that we used extensively was the suite of Google Apps, which I would highly recommend. We had content collection documents shared by me and my co-director and our two student leaders. I also used Google Forms at several points, creating anonymous questionnaires for the Brainscan segment and Never Have I Ever game. For Brainscan, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the show, a series of statements are projected onto the set and the cast turn on lights – on for yes, off for no – creating a sort of impressionistic data set of how our students feel about themselves, some of their deepest fears, etc. During rehearsal, our list began as the original cast’s list plus a few more that were relevant to the lives of expat and international kids, even some missionary kids. (So, for instance, a statement like “I don’t know if I believe in God right now” was a poignant and honest subject to broach in our Christian school context.) And in the anonymous survey, I included an area for them to propose their own statements, a number of which made it into the show. Google Forms is useful because it instantly gives you the percentages of those who answered yes. This helped us select the most impactful statements to feature. Further, to intrigue their sceptical classmates, we had the whole high school do a version of the survey a month or so before opening. This also allowed us to select the final list that would align fairly closely between the cast and the school population at large.

Ned had told me to think of the process in thirds – content generation, script writing, and actual rehearsal (memorising lines, blocking, etc). For us, the first two really needed to overlap. So while the kids generated content, I began writing the early scenes of the show, and so on, so that we wouldn’t have a time gap before ‘real’ rehearsals began. By the time I passed around the working scripts, we only had six weeks left, but the kids felt very familiar with the content. We did a second read-through, this time of our very own Brainstorm, and then proceeded roughly as we would with a conventional play.

Rehearsals, Part 2: Workshopping, Blocking, Polishing

One part of the process that really made me nervous in advance was workshopping the scenes of conflict between the kids and their parents. Cast members had written first drafts of scenes depicting real conflicts they’d regularly experienced with their parents. I was pleased by the variety of scenes the students brought – some very funny or warm, others uncomfortable and quite angry. I edited and polished these scenes and selected a suitable cast member to play the parent. Once the scene had been rehearsed for a bit, we invited the parents into a 20-minute workshop. This worried me. I feared that parents might get offended – most hadn’t seen the scripts at all. We had a friend, a family therapist, join us in these sessions (just in case). To my delight, all of the parents were great sports. The kids ran the scene, we asked mum or dad for their initial thoughts, then they stepped in and did a cold reading of the scene with their own child. (This was so instructive – and hilarious.) We filmed those for later reference. After this, the student playing the parent asked questions. “When you said X, how were feeling?” … ”You seemed so angry at that point. Why?” This opened up wonderful opportunities for parents and their kids to talk about these ongoing arguments they have, and, I think, to gain some insight into how the other feels and experiences those moments of tension.

As the show came together and tightened up, we made adjustments to the script and worked through the stage mechanics that all plays require. One thing we realised was that, playing themselves, there was a tendency to paraphrase and improvise. This was fine for a while, but eventually we had to insist on actors memorising a final version of their lines. This is necessary because we were trying to create specific moments for the audience, and improvisation, if done badly, can destroy something that has been carefully crafted. It was also interesting to work with students on naturalism. Several commented that they thought it would be easy to play themselves but realised how much they tend to put on the ‘stage version of me’ instead. Working through this was a valuable growth opportunity that none had experienced before.

The Company Three Production and Ours: Similarities and Differences

We created our show using the central arc of the original script – the tour through the brain and the structural elements of the play. This provided a really solid foundation from which to build. In the end, though, perhaps as much as 75% of the script was our own words. We found that, even though we were sticking with the underlying purpose of each scene, most of the text needed to be rewritten to suit our actors – their personalities and cultures and the specifics of their lives. Certain speeches and segments were so beautifully crafted in the original that I kept them word for word (such as the You Say to Me speech used in the voiceover of the Company Three trailer – so beautiful, why would you mess with that?). Others were preserved at a conceptual level, but rewritten by the student or students presenting them, to bring their own voices forward in a more authentic way.

We decided to use quite a lot of video projection in our production. In addition to projecting the group chat (WhatsApp in the Company Three production, Instagram for ours), the ‘Two Dot’ YouTube tutorial, and the Brainscan list, we also created additional slides for various scenes, from a new section I wrote to expand the ‘86 billion neurons’ section to a short slideshow on the limbic system. We even included a few one-off slides to enhance the jokes. For example, one girl is said to have a crush on Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, so on this cue we did a slow zoom of his dreamy face with romantic music; a moment later, another girl is outed as having had a crush on Cole from Lego Ninjago – yes, a crush on a Lego character – and so the same music plays with a slow-mo video clip of Lego Cole at a romantic dinner.

We also used a lot of music. Since we ran the show without intermission, we had an extended time for concessions before each show and a playlist of teen music through the eras (we had great fun choosing the tracks for that!). We also used music during many scene transitions, under certain scenes (such as a Beatles-inspired elevator musak track under the parent introductions), and very powerfully during the Brainscan and You Say to Me placard-dropping scenes. I’d definitely encourage other productions to experiment with music – it’s such an important part of teenagers’ lives and can lend so much resonance to the emotional impact of a scene.

Conclusion

The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before. I can’t encourage other directors strongly enough to take on this show. If, like me, you’re intrigued by devised theatre but don’t have previous experience of it, Brainstorm is the perfect place to start. You’ll need some experience of managing what is a fairly complex process. And you’ll need to be able to write pretty well. As much as the content needs to come from the actors you’re working with, crafting it into something that works on stage is an act of playwriting. I don’t think a show like this would work very well if left only to the students’ draft writing, without someone doing this playwriting work. But with some imagination and flair, and a good deal of hard work, you’ll create something unique and unforgettable for everyone involved.

Putting the play on at Rosslyn was a profound experience for my students, and we received a number of amazing responses from parents who said it was the most thought-provoking and moving play they’d ever experienced, that it had challenged them to understand and relate to their kids in new ways. At the cast party, I spoke about this idea that art can be more than entertaining – that it can be transformative. I feel overwhelmed and grateful that I was able to create our own Brainstorm with my students, and to give them this experience of a collective transformational piece of art.


Steven Slaughter teaches English and directs plays at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is happy to answer any questions about his production of Brainstorm, or your own, and can be contacted through Nick Hern Books.

Brainstorm: The Original Playscript (And a Blueprint for Creating Your Own Production) by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is published by Nick Hern Books, and is available to buy, in paperback or as an ebook, with a 20% discount here. School groups, youth theatres and amateur companies considering their own production should contact the Performing Rights Manager.

Photographs by Jeff Kirkpatrick.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2017: Amateur companies taking on the Fringe

In our annual Edinburgh Fringe Report, we take a look at how amateur theatre companies fare on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where they’re in competition for audiences and ratings with more than 50,000 other performances taking place across the city over the month of August. And this year, the 70th anniversary of the Festival Fringe, the competion was fiercer than ever. How did four intrepid amateur companies get on performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books – and what are their Top Tips for companies wanting to follow in their footsteps?

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, in a version by Stuart Paterson
Performed by  Aquila (Eagle House School, Berkshire, and Cargilfield School, Edinburgh) at SpaceTriplex

We chose Stuart Paterson’s adaptation of The Jungle Book because it had all the right elements for us.  It’s an ensemble piece that allowed our cast of twenty (age 11-14)  to take on various roles.  The show can be staged simply, is well known (important as it helps to get a few extra people through the door!) and uses a lot of Kipling’s beautiful, resonant language.

We decided to set the piece in an urban jungle, using lots of ladders as the basis of the set. We opted for simple costumes, with performers wearing T-shirts printed with animal symbols denoting their characters.

We’ve taken shows to the Fringe before, but 2017 was a special year for us as we combined with Cargilfield School in Edinburgh to put the show on. It meant that rehearsing it was logistically challenging, but it could not have gone better. We were delighted with its reception.  We sold more than 500 tickets and our last performance was a sellout.  The audiences were very appreciative and we got a good review as well.  Edinburgh was buzzing, and as well as performing the show six times, we got to see a lot of other shows too.  The kids loved it.

Aquila performing The Jungle Book adapted by Stuart Paterson at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

Our Top Tips…

Timing is so important in Edinburgh. Be very good with time keeping, and don’t let your show overrun! Also, make sure you can set your show up in five minutes or less, as that may be all you’re allowed. Rehearse the get-in and get-out so that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.

Aim for a distinctive look that marks you out, especially when you’re out and about in Edinburgh and on the Royal Mile – it gets you noticed.  We were lucky as there are not that many youth groups performing at Edinburgh, so people noticed us.  We also had a fairly slick Royal Mile routine that involved one of our actors flipping his way down the Mile to draw attention to the show!

Promoting the show on the Royal Mile

Above all, have fun with whatever show you choose. Make sure it’s a good one.  This is the third show licensed by Nick Hern Book that we’ve taken to the Fringe (after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  in 2015, and Jack Thorne’s Burying Your Brother in the Pavement last year), and we’ve loved bringing each of them to the Fringe – they’re all great shows.

– Matthew Edwards, Eagle House School


About a Goth by Tom Wells
Performed by  Gritty Theatre at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall

We chose Tom Wells’ About a Goth, a one-man show about a gay 17-year-old goth who is obsessed with his straight mate and hates his family for refusing to reject him because of his sexuality. It’s a raucous, rather rude comedy about the trials and tribulations of being a gay teenager.

We had a late-night slot (10.30pm), and the play was ideal as it’s only 45 minutes long and the perfect material for a late-night audience. The main character, Nick, goes on a real, substantial journey – but the story isn’t too heavy for that time of the evening.

We were over the moon with the reaction to the show. We got three 5-star reviews and five 4-stars: ‘A wonderfully unconventional coming of age story, full of tongue in cheek drama that fits perfectly into a Saturday night at the fringe’ (A Younger Theatre); ‘A joy from start to finish’ (edfringereview.com).

Even more importantly, the audience feedback was immense. Audiences at Edinburgh used to give their feedback via the EdFringe website, but more and more they are turning to social media, which means that we’re able to spread the good word more easily too!

Clement Charles in About a Goth by Tom Wells at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017 (photo by Sorrel Price Photography)

 

Our Top Tips…

Be at the top of your game. Don’t take a new production: make sure you’ve performed it elsewhere first.

Be prepared for anything to happen.  You can’t prepare for every eventuality, but you must stay alert and respond quickly when the unexpected happens, good or bad. Because it will, and you’ll have to take it in your stride.

Bring doughnuts for the tech team at your venue. Ok, yes, some of them get paid, and you probably don’t; but they work even longer hours than you, and have to deal with hugely varying degrees of competence. Make sure they’re on your side!

– Ian Robert Moule, Artistic Director of Gritty Theatre


Girls Like That by Evan Placey
Performed by  The Theatre School, Tunbridge Wells, at Greenside @ Nicolson Square

We chose Evan Placey’s Girls Like That, a play about what happens after a naked photo of a schoolgirl goes viral. We wanted a contemporary script that reflected the landscape the members of our youth theatre are growing up in. The script was highly approachable, relevant and – in places – challenging for our cast of 15-17 year olds. Also the script’s flexibility (lines are not assigned to specific characters, so it can easily be tailored to the requirements of your particular cast) allowed performance time for every member of our large cast, all of whom were girls.

The Theatre School, Tunbridge Wells, rehearsing Girls Like That by Evan Placey for their 2017 Edinburgh Fringe production

The production was a massive success. The students performed well, we had great audiences, and although this year we didn’t get any reviews, we received lots of great feedback from audience members as we left the venue. We now can’t wait to go back next year and do it all over again! In the meantime, we’ve just started rehearsing Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby.

Our Top Tips…

1) Preparation. There are so many things you need to get ready in order to take a production to the fringe that it can seem daunting. However, if you put in the time to prepare everything well in advance, you’ll be ready when those all-important deadlines loom. A ‘To-Do List’ is of immeasurable benefit – create one by using the edfringe.com guide to ‘Putting on a Show‘.

2) Timings. Ensure you know exactly how long your production takes to get in, perform and get out.  Why? Most venues you go to will have someone else performing after your time slot and it’s not uncommon for venues to simply turn on the house lights of shows that are running over their time slot. Best to avoid this by getting your timings right.

3) See other shows. When you’re at the Fringe, you’ll spend a lot of time promoting your own show, performing, eating and sleeping (you’ll need a lot of sleep). But it would be criminal to miss out on the other theatre that’s on offer. You can see world-class theatre at the Fringe for £10 or less, and the range is unparalleled. Not sure what to see? Don’t be afraid to ask anyone at the Fringe what they’ve seen and what can they recommend – most people will be only too happy to help!

– Colin Armour, The Theatre School, Tunbridge Wells


Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington
Performed by  Saughtonhall Drama Group, Edinburgh, at  Saughtonhall United Reformed Church

We performed Amanda Whittington’s Ladies’ Day, a laugh-out-loud comedy about four women on a day trip to the races. It was a great fit for our company. The four female characters are all strongly defined and great fun to perform. There are six smaller male roles, which are often doubled by a single male performer, but we cast each of the roles separately so that more of the group could participate.

It’s a real ‘feel-good’ play. We all enjoyed the humour, the various tensions between characters and the way that their individual stories are revealed. In Amanda Whittington’s original script, the four women work in the fish docks in Hull, but we sought special permission from Nick Hern Books (the play’s publisher, who also license the play for amateur performance) to set the play in Scotland and have the women work in a fish factory in Musselburgh. This made it work even better for audiences at the Fringe.

We went for a minimalist stage set that made use of projection and film clips. This was quite a challenge for our tech team, but it proved a great success and went down well with our audiences.

Saughtonhall Drama Group performing Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017: Linda (Candice Sullivan), Jan (Chris Mitchell), Shelley (Louise Starkey) and Pearl (Eleanor Watson). Photo: E. Wilson

Out of the seven performances, four were sold out and the other three were 75% sold.  So overall we were able to keep our Treasurer happy!  Audiences left with big smiles, humming along to ‘(Is This the Way to) Amarillo?’ and arguing about whether or not one of the male characters, Barry, was a ghost.  We got a 4-star review from the Edinburgh News too. Can’t wait to tackle the sequel, Ladies Down Under!

Our Top Tips…

We’re an Edinburgh-based group, so our experience of putting on a show at the Fringe is probably quite different to that of most companies, for whom the costs of travel and accommodation are so significant, not to mention the logistical headache…

However, one piece of advice above all: make sure you get enough sleep!

– Elizabeth Wilson, Director


A round of applause to the fifteen brilliant, brave companies who took NHB-licensed shows to Edinburgh this year!

Are you looking for a show to take to the Fringe next year? Take a look at our dedicated Plays to Perform site, where you can search for plays by genre, theme and/or cast size, and sign up for our Plays to Perform newsletter.

Or get in touch with our Performing Rights team – we’re always happy to help you find the perfect play to perform. Call us on 020 8749 4953, or email PerformingRights@nickhernbooks.co.uk.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, @NHBPerforming.

Our previous Edinburgh Fringe Reports are still available here:

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final Preparations
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 2: The Reckoning
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 1: Cutting it at the Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part 2: The Final Reckoning

Putting teenagers (and their miraculous brains) centre-stage: Ned Glasier and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on making Brainstorm

After being inspired by a TED Talk about the workings of the teenage brain, Ned Glasier (Artistic Director of Company Three, previously Islington Community Theatre) and co-writer Emily Lim realised they had the germ of an idea for a play that could be shaped and performed by teenagers themselves. Here, Ned Glasier charts the development process, and explains how the resulting play, Brainstorm, has been designed to be adapted and performed by other youth drama groups. Below, neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who contributed to the play’s development, reports on the scientific angle.

Ned Glasier, Artistic Director of Company Three: Like so many devised plays, Brainstorm started out as a totally different idea.

In 2012, Emily Lim and I began work on a project exploring the coming of age of a fictional boy in the Egyptian revolution. When this didn’t quite work out, we realised that what we were both really interested in was the moment when people become ‘themselves’.  That led us to an inspiring TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, about the workings of the teenage brain.

As with all Company Three work, what followed was an in-depth and long-term process, working with more than fifty young people through a series of projects, scratch plays, development processes and residencies.

During our early explorations of the subject, one of our young cast members was having an incredibly difficult relationship with her mum. After an early scratch performance, she told us that her mum had come to see the show, and had immediately gone home and called a family meeting to discuss it.  That was perhaps the first time we knew just how important it was to share what we’d learnt.

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

So we continued to develop the play. We went on residentials, played hide-and-seek, made limbic system dances and created art installations explaining the pre-frontal cortex. We wrote thousands of lists, recorded hundreds of conversations and spoke for hours with Sarah-Jayne and her then PhD student Dr Kate Mills.

Eventually we were lucky enough to take the play to the Park Theatre, the National Theatre and the BBC.

We discovered that not only had we made a play that helped others understand the teenage brain, but we had developed as a company too.  All our work making theatre with young people has been informed and improved by a better understanding of why teenagers are the way they are.

2_tyrelphan_creditrichardhsmithCompany Three’s work is based on a principle of sharing, and we are so happy to be able to share Brainstorm with schools and other young companies. We know from the parents, teachers and other adults who came to see the show how important it is that adults understand what’s going on in the changing teenage brain. And how empowering it can be for teenagers to be the ones to tell them.

The recently published playtext of Brainstorm is both a record of the show, and a blueprint for making your own production. It’s an invitation to take our work and make it your own – to play with it, adapt it and develop it in new and extraordinary ways.

Above all, it’s an invitation to do what the teenage brain does naturally – to respond, to question, to adapt and to experiment.

We can’t wait to hear what you do with it. Do tell us how you get on. There are lots of ways to get in touch, including Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.


845fdaed59d3cd91f98106165c9b07b610615c5b_1600x1200Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience: In 2013, I saw a scratch performance of Brainstorm given by twenty-five teenage members of Company Three (then Islington Community Theatre). The group, together with directors Ned Glasier and Emily Lim, had seen my TED Talk on the teenage brain and been inspired to create a play about what was happening inside their heads. Ned and Emily approached me and my former PhD student, Dr Kate Mills, to talk to them about the science of the adolescent brain.

When I went to see the scratch performance, I had no idea what to expect, but from the first scene onwards I was mesmerised by the imaginative interpretation of the science and the brilliant performances by the talented young people. The play was innovative and clever, and incredibly poignant, telling the stories of the complex relationships between the young people and their parents, set within the context of the science of how the adolescent brain develops.

I wanted to get more involved and was delighted that a grant from the Wellcome Trust enabled Kate and me to spend more time with the directors and young people to develop the play. Our first step on this journey was a twenty-minute performance and talk by the young people and myself in front of four thousand people at the Discovering the Future of Medicine event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

3_michaeladewale_creditrichardhsmithIt is important that we find new ways to communicate our scientific discoveries to young people and the general public, and Brainstorm is a perfect example of this. The impact of the play on its audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, Park Theatre, National Theatre and on BBC iPlayer has been profound and long-lasting. The cast have told Kate and me stories of parents rethinking how they understand and interact with their children as a consequence of learning about brain development from the play. We have heard about headteachers who have seen the play and returned to their schools determined to do things differently.

And we have learned from the experience too. It’s fascinating and important to learn about how the science of the adolescent brain is interpreted by young people themselves. We learn about their experiences, what’s important to them and what they care about, and this gives us ideas for our next experiments.

It has always been important to me that science is accessible and that everyone has a role to play in communicating it, questioning it and sharing it. I hope the published version enables many other young people to have the same experience of self-discovery that the cast of Company Three’s Brainstorm did, and that many more audience members might start to understand the extraordinary potential of the teenage brain.


FormattedBrainstorm by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

This edition contains a series of exercises, resources and activities to help schools, youth-theatre groups and young companies create and perform their own Brainstorm. It also features the complete script of the original production which played at Park Theatre and the National Theatre, London, in 2015.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Production photographs by Richard H. Smith

Related Blog Post: ‘The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before.’ An intrepid English teacher reports on the experience of staging Brainstorm with his students. Read more >>

Tackling taboo subjects in theatre for young people: Carly Wijs on her play Us/Them

After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 and winning a Fringe First Award, the extraordinary Us/Them opens at the National Theatre on 16 January. An international co-production between BRONKS,  the Brussels-based theatre company for young audiences, and Richard Jordan Productions
with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium, the play focuses on the 2004 Beslan School siege, which ended in the deaths of more than 380 people. But rather than giving a straightforward account of this terrible tragedy, Us/Them explores the entirely individual way children cope with traumatic situations. Here, director and writer Carly Wijs explains how she approached the subject matter, and why she’s convinced no subject should be taboo for children.

When BRONKS asked me if I was interested in creating a performance for them, in 2013, the terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, had just occurred. I had read about it in the newspapers and watched footage of it on television, but I had not discussed it with my then eight-year-old son.

But he had seen it for himself on the news and he came to tell me. The way he talked about the attack was very specific: objective, aloof, with the ability to overlook the emotional implications. He handled the news factually, as a sequence of events, and without having to connect it to a judgement. It was as if the horror for him as an eight-year-old child had a completely different meaning because it was not possible to relate it to his own life. A child, unlike an adult, does not think: ‘That could have been me.’

I started to think about another horrifying act of unspeakable violence – the Beslan school siege of September 2004 – and how this dark episode in history could combine with the thoughts and impressions of children about such acts, to make a piece of theatre for young people. I subsequently managed to persuade Oda Van Neygen, who was at the time artistic director of BRONKS, and to this day I thank her for her courage in allowing me do it.

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Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs. Photo by FKPH

If you type ‘Beslan’ into Google and look at the pictures, it is riveting. You cannot let go of the horror. The fact that it involves children makes that feeling even stronger. It is an abomination in the extreme. But how can we put such indescribable acts on stage? How can we make something that is totally incomprehensible, understandable? And isn’t it taboo to make a piece of theatre about terrorism, aimed at audiences of children? Ultimately, I do not believe it is taboo – in fact, no subject should be taboo for children. It is just important that you use the right words. Discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done. And must be done.

Why Beslan? Well, the drama took place at a school, and the first day of school is something to which every child can relate. The fact that the terrorists chose that specific day and environment to stage their atrocity reflects a profound perversion – but I did not want to talk about the perversity of it all. That’s just an ongoing debate by adults: why is this happening? A child cannot answer and does not have to answer that question. That is the privilege of being a child.

Whilst doing research, I came across a gripping BBC documentary called Children of Beslan, in which the story of the siege is told by the children who were held hostage (it’s available to watch on YouTube here). These children gave the same factual account of those events as my son had given about the Nairobi attack. Aloof almost. Which, of course, does not mean that these children do not have an enormous trauma to process. Unfortunately, the horrifying implications of what happened to them will probably hit them when they grow up. But the only thing that seemed to count for the children in the documentary was that the story was told as accurately as possible.

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It was because of this documentary that I decided to tell the story entirely from the perspective of the children involved: one boy and one girl. There is a difference between their perspectives, but they both try to be as precise as possible in their accounts of what happened during the three-day siege. This precision sometimes takes the form of a ‘Show and Tell’ presentation, a scientific paper or a maths lesson, like you get in school…

But sometimes the children flee from the horror, straight into the comforting arms of the imagination. In the documentary, a boy fantasised that Harry Potter would arrive wearing his invisibility cloak and kill the terrorists one by one. Others fantasised that they were part of a film and none of this was really happening to them. In the play, the children devise their own endings to the siege that are either extremely happy or extremely sad.

Almost 1,200 people, including 777 children, were held hostage during the siege. Outside the school there must have been several thousand people. And yet, in the news footage, Google searches and documentaries, you keep seeing the same group of about fifty photogenic people. In all of the footage that has survived from those fateful days, it’s always the scenes of greatest desperation and devastation that play on a loop, that come back time and time again. Even though the story – and other stories like it – need no further dramatisation, the media keep pushing that sentimental ‘drama’ button. And we keep watching.

161006_wij-zij_fkph_300dpi__78_von_139_1

This manipulation of our feelings, and the fact we allow it to happen, is neither innocent, or inconsequential. If – or when – we are blinded and overwhelmed by emotions, we stop being able to think and reflect and analyse. Our only response becomes ‘Oh my god, this is terrible.’ And yet it is essential that we don’t stop thinking and reflecting and analysing. Only by doing so can we get to the origins of these atrocities – and then, we hope, start to think about preventing them.

As adults, we are conditioned by our overly dramatised perspective, by the media, by ourselves, into black and white thinking: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it is not coloured by the need for ‘dramatic interpretation’, because that view of things does not connect to their own life. And if it does connect to their own life, it is tackled through imagination. That is what Us/Them is about.


FormattedUs/Them by Carly Wijs is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit our website here.

Us/Them is at the National Theatre, London, 16 January – 18 February 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Guido de Grefte, production photographs by FKPH.

Amateur theatre: A vital contribution to UK theatre

Tamara von WerthernEarlier this month, a large group of academics, writers, theatre-makers and individuals passionate about amateur theatre gathered at Royal Holloway University in London. They were there to discuss the findings of a 3-year-long research project into amateur theatre, Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research, led by Royal Holloway and the Universities of Warwick and Exeter. Our own Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern, was there to participate in panel discussions, and to report back on what she discovered about the state of amateur theatre today…

I have been involved in amateur theatre for a long time now. In my capacity as Performing Rights Manager at Nick Hern Books, I license amateur performances of a huge number of plays, and my daily work is advising amateur groups on how to select a play to perform, and how to apply for the rights. So I thought I had the measure of the amateur theatre community.

And yet despite this, I was taken aback recently when I spent the day at Royal Holloway, talking to people for whom amateur theatre is a vocation. The sheer passion and enthusiasm on display, and the commitment to artistic excellence that was consistently demonstrated, left me feeling inspired and overawed.

It was a real honour to have been invited to speak on a panel, and it was wonderful to meet so many of our regulars face-to-face, finally, after many years of being in contact solely by phone and email!

writing-workshop

The theme of the day was to explore and celebrate the role of amateur theatre culturally and its wider impact on the community. It was truly eye-opening and inspiring to reflect together on the differences between professional and amateur theatre, and how they can interlink and support each other.

From Ian Wainwright we learnt about the ‘RSC Open Stages effect‘ on professional actors as well as amateur actors, and how it has deepened the respect both groups have for each other. Jill Cole from the Castle Players spoke very movingly about how the local drama group gave her a reason to stay on in Darlington ‘for another year’ – twenty years later she is still there and now also works for the Arts Council. Lyn Gardner, writer and Guardian theatre critic (see her article about amateur theatre published earlier this year), spoke about the nature of being an artist, which doesn’t depend on being paid or trained, but consists simply in ‘artisting’, in making art. She encouraged amateur theatre-makers to be more confident in thinking of themselves as artists.

panel

What struck me in our debates was that the ‘value’ of amateur theatre has to be measured by a different yardstick from the one we use to measure the ‘value’ of professional theatre. Whilst professional theatre’s success is often measured in monetary terms, to promote tourism and the economic regeneration of urban areas, amateur theatre exists outside these imperatives. The value it has for its members, for the community within which it works and which it binds, the connections it forges and the enjoyment it brings to its audiences – all of this goes largely under the radar. It is important to recognise these benefits and the value of the work purely for its own sake.

Amateur theatre is a space where communities reflect themselves back to local audiences, many of whom know the people on stage personally and are therefore more invested in the success of the performance – another thing that Ian Wainwright could confirm. He spoke about how the professional actors in the RSC Open Stages project had never before experienced such a warmth from their audience as when they acted alongside amateur performers.

ending

We also spoke about how the requirements of amateur theatre productions when it comes to staging a piece of new writing are very different from those of professional productions, and how theatre publishing has a crucial role to play in supporting the needs of amateur theatre. Amateur companies often look for large-cast plays, all-women casts, or at least good, substantial parts for women, and intergenerational performance opportunities. In professional theatre, the current trend amongst companies and venues that stage new writing is to move towards small-cast plays suitable for studio spaces. So amateur theatre has a huge role to play in preserving the diversity and vitality of theatre culture at large.

Nick Hern Books is unique in being the only trade publishers who also routinely handle performing rights, and we have a large following interested in new plays. (Something I learned at Royal Holloway is that 46% of amateur theatre in London and mainstream theatre venues consists of new writing.) So our job is to publish the plays that you want to put on, and to make them easily accessible to you. We do that via the Playfinder on our website, which allows you to search for plays by categories including ‘good roles for women’, ‘large casts’ and ‘good roles for older performers’, amongst many others. We’re also available via phone or email to give you personal recommendations if you have more specific requirements.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan – one of the Platform plays from Nick Hern Books and Tonic Theatre

We’re always looking for ways to publish plays that will serve the amateur theatre community. We recently teamed up with Tonic Theatre for a project called Platform, an initiative to commission and publish new plays that put young women centre stage, and to give each woman on stage a role which shapes the story. The idea is to instil confidence in women early on, while they are performing at school, in their youth group or at drama school. It was suggested at the event at Holloway that a similar initiative catering for women between the ages of 50 and 80 would be welcomed by theatre-makers across the UK, and this is something Nick Hern Books is now thinking about for the future.

One of the challenges that groups face is that many younger members, with their increasing workloads and 24/7 expectations from their employers, find it hard to commit to regular rehearsals and participate in community drama. This seems a wider problem with our society today. It also turns out that many groups who do have committed youth members, and a loyal core group of older members, are finding it difficult to recruit and retain members of working and child-rearing age. It seems to me that this could be addressed if the benefits on health, well-being and community spirit could be communicated more widely in workplaces. Many progressive employers have already recognised these benefits – and some even have their own in-house theatre companies! But there’s still a long way to go.

Another challenge facing amateur theatre-makers who work in smaller communities is the lack of group members from other cultural backgrounds, and it was heartening to see that so many of you are striving to make your groups more culturally inclusive.

Please do join in the debate and let us know what challenges your group is facing, what kind of plays you are looking for and what could be done to support you.

The day at Holloway ended with a brilliant performance from the British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society, which turned the air blue as we sipped our champagne – a suitably decadent ending to a brilliant day.


tamara-marceloFor details of our plays for performance, visit our website at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/plays-to-perform, where you can also sign up for our regular Plays to Perform Newsletter.

See the full report, Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research, published by Royal Holloway, the University of Warwick and the University of Exeter, available to read for free here.