Oxford Playhouse and Magdalen College School annually appoint a resident theatre director and producer who develop professional projects at the theatre and contribute to the rich programme of drama at the school. One of the year's key projects is producing a play as part of National Theatre Connections, a nationwide festival of new plays written for and about young people. Magdalen College School financially support the production and provide a venue for the 'home' performance.
This year, the Playhouse suggested a new direction for the project: that we assemble a company of young participants who didn't normally engage with the arts. Oxford is a city notable for its inequality, with an affluent centre surrounded by areas of extreme poverty; Blackbird Leys, for example, ranks among the most deprived areas in the country. Our search for participants took in the city and surrounding areas; through engaging local youth groups, charities, and Early Intervention hubs, we ended up with a diverse group of young people. Two of the group were in care; one was homeless; one an asylum seeker; several were young carers; and many had ongoing health problems. Most were no longer in education, training, or employment: young people who had, in many cases, fallen through the gaps in the system. The success of a project such as this is predicated on two factors. Firstly, how can it affect the lives of its participants? And secondly, how do you justify the funding?
The answer to the former is clear. Theatre, as an art-form, is uniquely accessible. It has its own rules and discipline – but these are very different to the rules and disciplines of the classroom. Good theatre requires instinct, spontaneity and playfulness – qualities that are often neglected in the classroom. Equally, a good rehearsal room runs on the principle that every offer is valid; it might be discounted, but it must first be realised by the group in a spirit of good faith. Value-judgment is born out of collective trial. Too often, young people learn at school that the outcome of an offer can only be binary: right or wrong; pass or fail; yes or no. Many of our cast, in particular, inhabit a world in which ‘no’ is more often heard than ‘yes’: ‘No, you can't stay on at school; your grades aren't good enough’; ‘No, you can’t go into town; you can’t afford the bus ticket.’
As was the case with some of our participants, it is sometimes possible completely to fail within the school system – or to be completely failed by it – and yet to discover a sensibility for interpreting text and a real talent for stage-craft. The effect on self-confidence that a discovery like this has is huge, and was something we observed time and again. The process of rehearsing a play also develops skills and personal qualities that can be transferred to the job market - from the most basic, such as a commitment to turn up on time every week, to teamwork, taking responsibility for aspects of the production, and being thorough and accurate in taking and giving instruction.
We had two experienced youth workers with us throughout the process to deal with the pastoral issues that, due to our participants’ unstable life situations, frequently arose. This meant that, as part of the process, the young people had access to a safe space in which they could discuss personal situations, but that the rehearsal room itself was able to become a place in which these problems were put aside. Being part of an activity in which you are asked to imagine yourself into someone else’s life is liberating, especially if your own life is characterised by unemployment, health problems, lack of qualifications, homelessness and substance dependency.
It was particularly inspiring for our group to feel they were part of a country-wide scheme as it gave them a sense of being connected, and contributing, to something beyond their worlds’ normal scope. The fact that the performances were visited by a representative of the National Theatre and by Catherine Johnson, writer of our play and of Mamma Mia!, gave them a sense that their thoughts and contributions were taken seriously by professionals.
So what are the benefits to an independent school that chooses to invest in this kind of project, beyond providing copy for a couple of paragraphs in the prospectus? Firstly, schemes like this provide a rare chance for young people from quite opposite ends of the social spectrum to interact. For example, two of our group were private school pupils. Preconceptions and prejudices were challenged and common ground discovered as the cast collaborated to achieve a creative product. The importance of such a dialogue cannot be overstated in an increasingly immobile and stratified society.
Secondly, supporting work whose remit goes beyond the school community forges stronger links with the local area. Independent school buildings can often appear to be closed – daunting, even; but the act of staging a performance at the school site opens up the space to the wider community - parents, siblings, relatives, youth groups – and helps it seem welcoming, accessible.
Thirdly, National Theatre Connections is a scheme which premieres new plays by some of the UK’s most exciting playwrights. To get involved with this kind of project – and to open up that involvement to a diverse group of young people in the area – helps to shape a school’s image as actively engaged with contemporary arts. It’s exciting, and inspiring, for young people of all backgrounds to watch new work and to consider how successfully the playwright’s intentions have been realised by the performing company. It might not be appropriate, for a variety of reasons, for many organisations to combine ‘outreach’ with working on National Theatre Connections, as we did, but the principle of being part of a nationwide scheme that encourages artistic excellence and asks from its participants the integrity of being committed, over a sustained period of time, to a piece, was, we found, a useful one in this context.
Finally, in an era of swingeing public arts and youth funding cuts, private schools find themselves in a unique position to facilitate similar opportunities: they have access to space and resources that other organisations do not. Seeing our cast’s pride in their work as they were congratulated by the writer after the final performance; hearing them talk passionately about the message of the play and its effect on audiences; watching unconfident individuals discover joy in performance: all these moments were testament to the value – and lasting impact - of Magdalen College School’s support of the project.