Decisions, decisions and starting points

Back in November I began a post about choosing starting points for making theatre with young people, as I was mulling over my choice for the CYTM* summer production. I made the choice, wrote the (hopefully) ‘vague yet enticing’ brochure copy and am now half way through devising the show but I didn’t finish the blog. Now I’m in the midst of devising and this part of the process always leads me to doubt my choice of starting point. I am internally screaming “why did I choose this?? Why always make my life sooo difficult!?” So maybe now is a good time to revisit how and why I choose a starting point for making theatre with young people.

I’m sure the way I work is not unique (I’d love to know more about how other people do it) but it does feel like a way of working which has grown with me, and a fair bit of trial and error, over the years. I expect a certain amount depends upon an individual style as a director, as a youth theatre leader as well as circumstances like available performance opportunities. The way we work in CYTM is how it is because that’s the way of working that I have found to be a successful way of making new theatre with groups of young people on a relatively quick turn around. We don’t spend a term on skill-based workshops but rather make three shows a year per group, increasing in scale to the main stage show in July.

In the past I’ve used fairy stories and myths, real life events both historical and recent past, a thematic idea or structural concepts (including responses to commissions) as starting points for making theatre with young people. Recently with older youth theatre members I went with an entirely open “what do you want to make theatre about and what do you want it to be like?”

My first question when I’m deciding on a starting point is always “am I interested in this idea?” Sounds pretty obvious, but if I’m not inspired or intrigued then there’s not a hope in hell of me getting the group of young people on board. It’s also about seeing myself as a co-collaborator with the young people, I have a right to be interested in the stories we want to tell, it will make me better at my job! I think this particularly applies to ideas which seem like something ‘teenagers ought to like’ or an ‘issue’ which may seem dramatic but ultimately turns into a moralistic dead end. One of the ways I think about my interest in an idea is whether it makes me ask questions. In TIE lingo, does this idea incite unanswerable questions so we can create a ‘genuine enquiry’ in the devising process? I think that’s the key, the categories above don’t really matter, it’s more about finding a jumping off point from which both I and the young people can spark our interest and investment in making the show.

Next I ask myself; “is there enough to go on?” Firstly, this is about scope for the idea to work for a large cast (very pragmatic, but one of the things I work really hard to try to achieve for CYTM is work in which there’s an equality between the parts.) Secondly, but more importantly, that question is also “is there enough space for the young people’s ideas?” Space for their contributions is often more obvious with the less narrative starting points. In the show we did for the Carriageworks’ 10th birthday last November, I gave the group the structure of 10 scenes over 10 years and they flew with it, building the narrative and characters they were interested in staging. If I’m starting from an existing story, however, this can be trickier. Is there scope to imagine other perspectives, create untold scenes, without this overwhelming and ruining the original story? In 2012 I used the myth of Icarus and Daedalus and we created a parallel story in which a teenage girl also ‘went too far’ and we interwove the two stories with a brilliant and bizarre ensemble of seagulls/shop assistants.

The amount I give the group, how prescriptive my starting point, sometimes depends on how confident I am feeling in both their abilities and in my own. Over the last couple of years I’ve grown more sure within in this process and in identifying the points at which I need to instigate key decisions. As I mentioned, I’m thinking about starting points because I’m in the crunch phase of our devising process. The conversation in my mind goes thus: “WHY oh why didn’t I just do something easier?” “Because I don’t know what would be easier, this is how I know how to make theatre.” “WHY didn’t I choose a script which exists already?” “Because I get so much joy from watching the young people make their own work. Damn it.”

I introduced the concept of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ earlier in this year to a brilliant response from both the 10s-14s and the 14s-19s groups. We had several very sparky initial sessions then moved to more detailed material-generating sessions and now my always daunting task of writing the groups’ work into a script for them is looming just round the corner. We now have 3 sessions in which I, and 40 young people, will attempt to refine a zillion ideas into a few dynamic plot strands. Sharing the refining used to make me very anxious (what if they are REALLY keen on an idea I think is badly clichéd? What if they can’t negotiate and decide without upset?) Of course, I found the best approach is to simply discuss the process and these points of decision. These young people are committed to making the show the best it can be, and have signed up to the process and their responsibilities of offering, accepting and developing ideas upon which the devising is based.

So I’m questioning our starting point, the ‘Butterfly Effect’, it has inspired the groups and they’ve suggested some really interesting ideas but it’s going to be a tough one to refine into one coherent show with equal parts for 40 performers who all need to be individually challenged. Plus we need to fit in the skill development for those adjusting to performing in the main auditorium for first time.

But this year we have some of the strongest groups we’ve ever had and my mantra will, as always, be: trust them, trust the process and trust myself.

And maybe next year we’ll just do something easy. Like Shakespeare or some Chekhov.

Butterfly is on July 30th 2pm 7.30pm Carriageworks Theatre

* Carriageworks Young Theatre Makers (more info http://www.leeds.gov.uk/carriageworks – participate)

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Stop Apologising

Recently at a chic, happening party on the drizzle-soaked school run, a new acquaintance asked me what I did for a job. I replied: “I’m a theatre director. Well, sort of. I run a youth theatre. And make theatre for children.” I’ve felt crap ever since about describing my work in that way as it felt like apologising for my work and for myself.

I do run a youth theatre. It is called the Carriageworks Young Theatre Makers and specialises in making new work collaboratively with young people. If anything I need a wider skill base than traditional directing – in that I jump between creating and facilitating workshops, co-devising, writing and then directing (not to mention the admin and safeguarding side of the whole shebang). So why the need to apologise?

I’ve always apologised. During my brief stint as an actor I always qualified it with “in Theatre in Education”, not because I didn’t appreciate the quality of the work and great companies I was lucky enough to work for, but because I have always been afraid of the pretention police. I thought they would have me bang to rights for claiming the same job title as Maxine Peake whilst in a drafty school hall. Maybe I was scared that my new school run acquaintance would think I was an arse. I am trained and have trained myself to apologise.

I apologise for not living up to my idea of a ‘proper theatre director’. It’s taken me an obscenely long time to be at all comfortable with calling myself a theatre director. I felt it was a title for someone else: someone louder, posher, older and probably male, someone who shouts at actors about his genius vision and has an impressive quote at the drop of a hat. (Where the hell has this come from? I’ve never met any director matching this description at all!) I’m not that confident a speaker. I never remember quotes. I hate networking. Even writing this blog has seen me wallow in self –doubt. Surely that’s not what a ‘proper theatre director’ does?

I often apologise by prioritising the practical benefits of the work. CYTM has allowed me a huge amount of working flexibly: planning sessions at home from under a sleeping baby or two and then running rehearsals at weekends and evenings when my partner can take over at home, thus minimising crazy childcare costs. It’s also flexible and part time enough for me to take on other interesting projects as they come along. CYTM is ongoing work across an academic year and has given me a level of security and continuity. So youth theatre work has been very useful. I am grateful. But that is also a form of apology: I’m so sorry but yes I’ve had children and attempted to continue a career, but it’s ONLY youth theatre and theatre for children.

I think that’s the core of it. I apologised for myself to this other mum because youth theatre has formed most of my work whilst I stumble through the soft-play and sleep-deprivation years. Coming back to work after, however short, a maternity leave is tough. Coming back to work to an area that isn’t valued as highly as it should be, such as Youth Theatre and TYA can be downright depressing. Apologising for myself as a working mum and for my work and as only for young people simply adds to that lack of value.

So screw you pretension police, it’s time for me to stop saying sorry. I am a theatre director. I am as boringly insecure as the next person. I am not loud, I am not male and I did not go to private school. I am a working mum. And yes, the work I make is for or with young people. They are awesome. The Carriageworks Young Theatre Makers are so skilled and generous in their devising process they put professionals to shame. We get to make interesting work and we get to make a lot of it. I hope this will be the start of a few blogs about how I devise theatre with teenagers. If my kids nap for long enough, that is.