02 Aug 2018

Young Writers Project

Post written by: Erin Walcon

In August/September 2018, we ran a Young Writers Project for the first time. A company of 14 young people worked with 3 professional artists to co-create an original piece of theatre, titled The Boy in the Makeshift Boat.

As this was our first time running a writing-focused project, we had a lot of learnings and experimentings.

We had previous run lots of large-scale productions with mixed-age companies before, but we wanted to try it out with a smaller company to see how it would work. So we capped the group size at 14 participants and opened the project out to young people aged 8-18. This age spread proved really interesting in the development stages.  Our oldest participants were 15-16 and our youngest were 8, and the result was a lot of peer-teaching and across-ages socialising, which felt like a lovely outcome.

Similarly, the focus specifically on writing was a new foray. While all of our previous devised productions (Grit, The Woods) involved original writing in the development, this was the first Doorstep project where the whole aim of the exercise was writing, and participants were specifically called who had a writing interest. This meant we worked with a group of young people who didn’t all identify as performers… and this changed how we thought about the final sharing/performance of the piece itself.

We began the project with a 3-day intensive at Paignton Library in the summer holidays.

The library was the perfect place to do the initial writing stages, and it was so lovely to be able to give the group full-run of the upstairs space. We would send them out to do ‘independent solo writes’, and they would claim their own space in the library, curled up in corners and generally taking it over.

In the initial 3-day intensive, we did a lot of Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing Practice, flow writing and live improvisations, with lots of share circles so each writer could read excerpts of their work aloud. Sometimes we staged scenes from the pieces, sometimes we played with characters (or drew them!) At the end of the 3 days,  we took a pause while everyone had a summer holiday break.

During that summer break time in August, Associate Artist Sam Parker took piles of papers away and compiled a script, which included elements of each person’s writing, characters we’d collaboratively invented, and shared settings/worlds we’d co-constructed. It was a bit of an epic feat and Sam did an amazing job.

We came back together for 3 Sunday rehearsals in late August and early September to bring the story to life as a live performance.

Not all of the young people who took part were confident writers at the start of the intensive. Not all of the young people saw the project through to the final performance end in September. And not all of them were keen on performing – which meant the final performance of the ‘Scory’ (Script/Story) had to be adapted, to give space for the non-performers to have a role.

The final sharing involved live music, shadow puppetry, narration read from the page, and a small bit of live performance at the centre… this felt like the right way to honour the group and their strengths and the heartbeat of their story. It was a kind of a staged reading, and I think it made me reflect on how best to perform written work which might not be a dialogue-facing script… I’d love to play more with digital elements next time, i.e. animation, live drawing, etc. (Maybe I’m just still inspired by The Paper Cinema’s work…)

I think my favourite moment from the project was on the final performance day, where the company came together with a Plymouth-based youth company Beyond Face, to share their work in an exchange platform for the International Agatha Christie Festival at the Palace Theatre.

On this final day, we did some reflection and final flow-writing in the Palace Avenue Gardens just before their final performance. They took over the small garden space. There were writers climbing up trees and hiding in shrubbery and lying on the grass in the sun, scribbling away. An older lady stopped me and asked what was going on. ‘It’s a Young Writers’ Project,’ I said, ‘They’re all doing creative writing.’

She smiled at me – ‘I wondered what they were so excited about.’

The tree above me rustled as Joe settled in further to finish his story, perched on a branch. I was struck by how much this project was providing the space that school should be able to provide but can’t. In other words, freedom to write, space to work with those younger and older than yourself, space to climb trees and play and to be given a challenging and ambitious task – to be trusted to tackle it well and with creative imagination.

Later that afternoon, we joined two performers from Beyond Face to share work and learn from each other. Both pieces had been inspired by Hawa Jande Golokai’s Zombieland, a reflection on the writer’s push and pull relationship with her home town of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia on the West African coast.  Both pieces were hugely varied and different from each other – which is the whole point of a youth exchange, to see the different roads you can take from the same stimulus material.

We’re hoping to run another Young Writers’ Project in Summer 2019 – plans should be announced soon. It will be an exchange project, with at least 1 other youth company involved, hopefully more. Building new traditions like this in Torbay feels important – and I know, having read and listened to their work, that these young writers have incredible imaginations and potentials. It feels like a privilege and responsibility to think about how we can help to craft stepping stones to support their progression.