Peter Mortimer writes about his new book, Playtime
Theatre when I was at school involved swotting up on Shakespeare (incomprehensible at that age), an occasional trip to see a lacklustre performance of a GCE syllabus text, or the annual school play, put together by a English teacher with delusions of dramatic genius. None of this inspired me.
The experience though did inform me when working as a playwright in northern schools during the last 20 years. Several projects were long-term, allowing the luxury of creating entire plays with groups of youngsters who then went on to perform them in public.
So that when the young actors got up on that stage, they were interpreting characters they themselves had helped to create.
And creating these characters could be a lively business; the writing workshops involved heated discussions, the fictional characters often arousing greater emotions in the pupils than real flesh and blood people in their lives.
It was this ownership of the plays that made them special. Often the pupils were also involved in designing the programme and posters, painting the sets, recording sound. And the plays tapped into concerns and issues they themselves had voiced in the workshops. Often the plays were set in pupils’ own locale.
The whole process had a remarkable effect on young people’s development. Next to the thrill of seeing the plays performed, the biggest kick was witnessing how the actors grew visibly, both in theatre skills but also as human beings. By pretending to be other people, we learn a lot about ourselves.
After the 1996 play in Bellingham, Northumberland, Whiter than Wight, the young people went on to form their own youth theatre. And the brace of short plays created and produced in a South Shields school proved so popular they were booked again for the town’s Summer Flower Festival.
The one play not created in a northern school, Croak the King and a Change in the Weather, put together in the basic facilities of Shatila Palestinian refugee Camp in Beirut has now twice seen a young Palestinian cast perform it on UK tours.
Seeing the eight plays gathered in a new book is especially satisfying; corralled together are the end products of exhilarating, often chaotic exasperating, but ultimately rewarding experiences, spread over two decades involving myself and a total of more than 150 young people, Although just published, in some ways the book already seems a period piece, given an education system increasingly of tick-boxes and strictured unimaginative syllabuses. Such projects are now increasingly rare.
Yet the paltry sums involved are repaid times over in the beneficial effect on the participants.
Such benefits alas, cannot be measured in a schools league table. As Einstein once put it, “what you can count, doesn’t always count, and what you can’t count, sometimes does.”
Playtime: Eight Plays For and With Young People is available to buy from Inpress and other online retailers.