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How NT Connections is inspiring young talent

Stagedoor Learning students performing Laura Lomas’ Chaos at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, this year. Photo: Neil Smith Stagedoor Learning students performing Laura Lomas’ Chaos at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, this year. Photo: Neil Smith
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For almost 25 years, the National Theatre Connections festival has been giving teenagers their first taste of theatremaking, with graduates including John Boyega, David Oyelowo and Keira Knightley. Samantha Marsden reports on the 2019 edition

NT Connections has been going strong since 1995. Each year, 10 companies comprising young people aged between 13 and 19 are selected out of hundreds from across the UK to perform at the National Theatre.

Actor John Boyega, best known for his work in the Star Wars films, is one actor who got his first taste of theatre through taking part in the festival. “I was very lucky our tutor entered us for Connections,” he says. “We performed at the National Theatre. That was the breakthrough for me.”

Other well-known actors to have taken part include David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 film Selma, and Keira Knightley, nominated for Olivier, Golden Globe and Academy awards.

This year, about 6,500 young people have taken part in the event, with 10 new plays being performed by 273 young companies.

The companies are made up of casts from schools, performing arts academies, colleges, youth theatres, theatre companies and drama schools. Ten are selected to perform at the National in London, and all the companies are given the opportunity to transfer their production to one of 30 regional Connections Partner Theatres across the UK, from Eden Court in Inverness to the Lyric Belfast and Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Jenny Cameron, who uses Connections as part of the BTec performing arts course she delivers at Stagedoor Learning in Cheltenham, says: “From a teaching point of view this is brilliant as we have excellent material to work with, and a set date for a public performance.

“It’s hard for students to understand the ‘it’s not a competition’ element as it certainly feels like one. However, overall, it’s excellent.

“Another benefit is that the plays are all published and readily available after the festival is over. Every school drama teacher should have a collection of Connections anthologies. They are a brilliant resource and I have used them over and over.”

This year the 10 plays have been exclusively commissioned for young people to stage at the festival and are written by both established and emerging playwrights, including Ben Bailey Smith, Lajaune Lincoln, Katherine Soper and Dawn King.

Soper, whose debut play Wish List won the Bruntwood prize for playwriting and The Stage Debut Award for best new play, wrote The Small Hours for this year’s festival.

Fiona Doyle’s The Ceasefire Babies was staged at the National Theatre in 2018. Photo: Richard H Smith
Fiona Doyle’s The Ceasefire Babies was staged at the National Theatre in 2018. Photo: Richard H Smith

She says: “One of the best moments of Connections has been hearing from performers that anecdotes and incidents I’d drawn on from my adolescence were things they’d encountered as well, a decade on from me. The realisation that ‘This isn’t just me – this happened to someone else too’ was exactly what I’d hoped for.”

National Theatre director Rufus Norris says the idea behind the event is “to inspire more young people in the art of theatremaking and the huge variety of backstage and offstage roles involved in creating a production”.

Cast member Milly Sweeney, who will be performing in Chaos on June 28 at the Dorfman Theatre, says: “We students at Glasgow Acting Academy feel as though we have pulled off the impossible.

“The very idea that we will be able to perform our little show in the theatre capital of our country is insane. Granted, revisiting a play we left behind two months ago will be challenging, but we are more than willing to take it on. It seems fitting, when you think about it: a chaotic play with an even more chaotic rehearsal process.”

She goes on to explain that “as a cast of young people, we have connected with Chaos. The characters and struggles they go through are relevant to our lives. We cannot thank the team at NT Connections enough for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Emma Willetts, who directed Gulbenkian Youth Company from Canterbury in Ageless, which will be performed on June 29 in the Dorfman Theatre, says: “Connections is a unique experience that allows a young company to delve into fantastic, relevant new writing, and to see the process of developing a show for different venues.

“The ownership that they have over the final piece is an absolute pleasure to see, and the best prize that I could ask for.”

Applications are now open to take part in Connections 2020. The National Theatre is looking for 300 school and youth theatre companies across the UK to take part. Applications close on July 9 and young companies are notified if they have succeeded in getting a place on July 13.

Productions invited to appear at NT Connections 2019

Tuesday 25 June in the Dorfman Theatre: 7pm: Variations by Katie Hims performed by Outwood Academy Hemsworth, West Yorkshire. 8.30pm: Flesh by Rob Drummond performed by Rare Studio Liverpool.

Wednesday 26 June in the Dorfman Theatre: 7pm: Class by Ben Bailey Smith and Lajaune Lincoln performed by Easy Street Theatre Company, Sheffield. 8.30pm: Stuff by Tom Wells performed by Bolingbroke Academy Theatre Company, Wandsworth, London.

Thursday 27 June in the Dorfman Theatre: 7pm: The Small Hours by Katherine Soper performed by Kildare Youth Theatre, County Kildare, Republic of Ireland. 8.30pm: Terra/Earth by Nell Leyshon and choreography by Anthony Missen performed by ACTS, Wolverhampton.

Friday 28 June in the Dorfman Theatre: 7pm: Salt by Dawn King performed by Dimensions Performance Academy, Wales. 8.30pm: Chaos by Laura Lomas performed by Glasgow Acting Academy SCIO.

Saturday 29 June in the Dorfman Theatre: 7pm: Ageless by Benjamin Kuffuor performed by Gulbenkian Youth Theatre, Canterbury. 8.30pm: The Sad Club by Luke Barnes and music by Adam Pleeth performed by Hall for Cornwall Youth Theatre, Truro, Cornwall.

Tickets are £5 each. For more details go to NT Connections

Fergus Morgan: At 24, the National Theatre’s youth festival is more important than ever

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