Back to School: The National Theatre's Creative Choices Programme
On a chilly spring morning, I'm still blinking the sleep from my eyes, but the kids are bright as buttons, sitting in the front rows of the National's Lyttelton Theatre, eager to find out what the day will bring - and, of course, for the chance to be off the leash, out of the classroom, uptown.
In smartest uniforms, 12 and 13 years old, from state schools selected by the NT to avoid the usual suspects shouldering their way to the front of the queue, these young people were considering GCSE subject choices, the arts/science divide raising its ugly head at so tender an age. This day was all about showing how STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects can help forge a career in the theatre.
Bang! And jump! Simultaneously, the lights go out and we see silhouettes of dancers (not very good ones) as we witness the opening of Tartuffe, the production currently occupying that venue. The kids' eyes widen (mine too, but only to normal setting) and the magic of theatre is woven one more time.
The lights go up and the dancers are revealed - sweatshirts, jeans, tool belts and all. Okay, we had a bit of glamour earlier from Tartuffe himself, Denis O'Hare, who told us a bit about the show and the set, but he's an imposter at this gig - it's really about the guys and gals found behind the scenes, not upfront on stage; no greasepaint, but plenty of elbow grease.
We hear from Tartuffe's Stage Manager, the Assistant Stage Manager, the Sound Technician and plenty more of the 17 people backstage making it happen for the handful in the limelight.
They look like anyone you would meet on the Tube: men and women, older and younger, white, brown and black. In fact - and this sinks in to the kids too - they look like older versions of those in the school uniforms whose hands are shooting up with questions.
We learned (because I sure didn't know) how the roles meshed together to create a coherent, fully focused team and, through eavesdropping on the calls in an open mic rerun of the Tartuffe opening, just how slick and detailed a gig it is.
That said, everything was leavened by the sense that the wizards behind the moving statue and the tilting stage were ordinary people, albeit people who had worked hard in their education and in their jobs and who loved their work.
No kid left their seat thinking that they couldn't do it - "Wow!" and "Yeah I could" were perfectly balanced. And the questions showed that they were pretty keen to give it a go too.
Into the long featureless corridors that criss-cross the NT's buildings to Wardrobe, where the kids had a lot of fun with a bit of high-concept dress-up (selfies allowed) and learned about how critical costumes are in telling stories. Later, another group helped design sets with a bit of this and a bit of that, the ideas splendid.
If this is the out-of-touch elite that the Old Etonians complain of, too wrapped up in their own echo chambers to listen to the "little people" - well, it didn't look like that. It looked like one of our great cultural institutions opening its doors, its hearts even, and planting seeds that may grow into dreams.
I explored some of those thoughts with Sarah Eastaff, Secondary and FE Programme Manager at the NT, whose down-to-earth enthusiasm struck me as just right for the job.
What's your role at the NT?
It's my job to oversee all our work in secondary schools and further education settings. I manage things like New Views, our playwriting programme for teenagers, with 85 schools taking part.
They get partnered with a professional playwright, who gives them one-to-one feedback on first drafts with final drafts due after the Easter holidays. One play will get put on in the Dorfman Theatre! [July 1 and 2]
My big job is to make sure that the National Theatre is for everyone, particularly young people in schools. That's a great way of getting to them.
We do Make Theatre Days, which are only for state schools now because we've decided to prioritise them. They do a design workshop and a backstage tour to experience the theatre.
We also do Archive Learning Days, when kids come to the Archive and watch a film of an old show and do a workshop on it. So maybe it'll be Brecht or Stanislavski or Katie Mitchell - people on the curriculum.
Do you do anything to get kids into fringe theatres, often cheaper than the multiplex for an afternoon or evening out?
We try to encourage the belief that theatre is something out in their communities as well as here - because there aren't that many kids who live near the South Bank.
There's a big work experience week in which we try to partner them with their local theatres for the future. Because there may be really meaningful experiences available there that the NT can't offer.
Reduced price tickets and all that jazz helps too. For the NT Live shows [broadcast to cinemas], there's always a camera rehearsal, so we've started offering free or £5 tickets to schools to come and watch them. They get the whole show, of course.
Our touring partnership areas (Doncaster, Salford, Wigan, Rochdale, Sunderland, Hornchurch and a few more) have local theatres involved too, offering a more day-to-day relationship.
How much of a priority is this work for the NT?
Momentum is building. Rufus [Norris, Artistic Director] is a really big advocate of our work. He grew up in theatre through learning programmes, so he gets it. He's excited by the opportunities and funders are too. Telling them that 13,000 children saw Curious Incident when it went around the country last year [see my piece on that tour here] is really impressive.
There's over 30 of us in the NT's Learning Department and we work hard to make sure we're open to as many people as possible. Nothing is ever perfect - that not what we're striving for. We want more and better quality stuff made available to as many people as possible, so there's never any sense of stagnating.
But I'm only six months into the job, so maybe I'm still a little bombarded by being at the NT!
There's some real work going on to make us more "national" than we have been in the past.
How are you evaluating these programmes?
With the one day events (like today's), it's about starting new engagements - we've worked with none of these schools before.
There was a cold email to start the relationship that will be followed up with an email and phone call from me about how best to continue the work. We ask them for feedback of course.
But we're also looking for something more direct from the young people involved. I will go round and record their thoughts at the end. We used the feedback gathered from the November day to plan this event.
New Views has been running for six years - it's probably due a review. Connections is undergoing an external review to plan change - it's 20 years old now.
From an Arts Council point of view, it's so often about participant numbers - people through the doors.
For me, I like to see the longevity and the development you can achieve with one young person. For example, there's one young woman who is doing this workshop today, but wants to be a photographer. So she's going round with our photographer, Emma Hare, to see what she does. We also do some photography in our youth programme, so it's also about being joined up.
The Youth Programme includes a young technicians course that's totally free to access, where they can learn about tech at a level that I don't understand! Our apprenticeships are incredible (in my opinion), run by an in-house team who manage our apprentices. That's carpentry, metalwork, wigs, hair and make-up, props etc. It's about upskilling young people to the point of employability.
So much of young people's lives happen online now - do you use Instagram etc. in your gathering of feedback?
We do that with work experience and use hashtags with New Views and Connections and it's really helpful.
It's tricky with social media, although you do get to discover things you wouldn't if you asked the question directly. We need to know if they think something is really boring - but it's hard for them to say so when their teacher is with them.
We have an Instagram account and Connections has its own Twitter account - but protecting the brand can cause issues in these environments.
We're trying to create a platform for drama teachers to communicate more easily with each other, because they're often isolated.
I think we should do a little bit more on social media though.
What is your dream project?
An international and national project that brings together young people to make work in the same room - globalisation in action, I suppose. It wouldn't be everyone gathered in London - we would have smaller groups across the world who would make work for a festival.
The focus of that work would be determined by the young people, encouraging them to think politically or around current affairs - mental health or climate change for example.
It would be exciting to see experiences mirrored around the country and the world. If you're from The Wirral or South London, there are parts of your experience that are universal. If you can find ways of working with people who are different to yourself, that would be something quite powerful.
Then I'd want all their headteachers to come and see and appreciate the value of the Arts.
But that's just me. With 30 of us in the department, there's always 60 or more good ideas running around. It can be quite humbling to hear what everyone else has planned.
It was nice to see quite a lot of the team there to watch the Tartuffe session this morning - because they're usually too busy to see anything, but we're trying to engage with each others' work a little more. It's so important to remember that everyone plays a part in the whole.
Have you any "wins" in your short time in the job - though I know a lot of it is focused on the long term?
One of the big wins is in minimising our private school work and focusing on our "High Priority" state schools. That's a decision that applies across the board and has made some of our choices so much easier, because we know our rule now. It seems obvious, but it needed a bit of work. We were kind of doing it anyway, but having it as a party line means that I know where we stand.
Another was our Drama Teachers Conference that brought together 140 drama teachers in February. Katie Mitchell spent three hours with them talking about her practice. The teachers came out saying that they'd never worked with a female practitioner before, but now they could go back and teach "Katie".
She also brought Ben Whishaw with her!
Many of the teachers work in one-person departments, so it was great to bring them together - a real privilege.
Photo credit: Emma Hare