JOYCE MCMILLAN on CLASS ACT 21 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 27.1.11
HERE ARE THREE SHORT scenes, all taken from the last ten years of the Traverse Theatre’s Class Act project, which celebrates its 21st birthday in this week with performances in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well as a special Gala event at the Traverse. In the first scene, we are in a classroom in the Russian city of Tolyatti, along with two playwright from Scotland, Douglas Maxwell and Nicola McCartney. The year is 2004, and for the first time in their lives, a group of students from the local comprehensive are meeting, and preparing to work with, fifteen young people from one of the city’s orphanages.
Some of the comprehensive kids are reluctant to sit next to their new classmates; they have often been told that they will “catch something” if they do. But among those students from the orphanage is a girl called Xusha, who briefly glows as the finest and fiercest young playwright of them all; and sets Nicola McCartney on the path towards a new life as a foster-parent to troubled teenagers, before she slips back into the darkness that claims the lives of most young Russians brought up in care, before they reach the age of 21.
In scene two, it is 2006, and we are in a shopping street in Moscow, where two Scottish writers and a group of Moscow kids are walking in a circle around their new-found friends from schools in the Caucuses regions of Ingushetia and South Ossetia, so that they will not be attacked or arrested. Some of the Moscow students are absent, withdrawn from the project when their parents discovered that they would be working with “blacks” from the Caucasus, who are victims of fierce ethnic prejudice; but the work goes on.
And finally, we are in the Tron Theatre in Glasgow on Tuesday of this week, where an excited audience of school students, parents and teachers gather in the main auditorium to watch the lights go up on a two-hour whirlwind of theatrical invention, in the shape of 13 short plays – each about five or six minutes long- by students from Shawlands Academy and Lochend Community High School, two of the four Glasgow schools involved in this year’s project.
Founded at the Traverse 21 years ago, by the theatre’s education boss of the time, Jane Ellis, Class Act is based around the simple but powerful idea of encouraging senior school students to write their own plays, and offering them the opportunity to work like theatre professionals, with theatre professionals; with playwrights who help them develop their short plays, then with top-flight actors, and finally with professional directors. In the last few years, thanks to generous funding from the Ayrshire-based Barcapel Foundation – as well as the Moffat Trust, the John Thaw Foundation, and both Glasgow and Edinburgh City Councils – Class Act has become a Glasgow as well as an Edinburgh event, with the Tron Theatre as its Glasgow base. And this is only the latest stage in its evolution, which has – over the years – also involved that powerful strand of international work in Russia, and a playwriting project for much younger children, known as Articulate.
“I’ve been involved in the project in ten different years since 1997,” says Nicola McCartney, who joins Gregory Burke, and Alan Wilkins, among others, in this year’s team of playwright-mentors, “and I do it partly because I’ve always had a deliberate commitment to working with young people. I’m working with a big group at Notre Dame High School this year, and I think what I love most is just the feeling of children and young people finding their own voice. Every year, there’s at least one student who just goes like a rocket, from a complete lack of self-esteem, to a real belief in their own work. It gives them a voice, and helps them to structure their self-expression in a completel new way.”
To judge by the first batch unveiled at the Tron on Tuesday, this year’s plays are funny, tragic, and often intensely theatrical, ranging from a surreal post-school encounter with a classroom Superman, to a heart-stopping moment in a pub, when a middle-aged man who seems like the average old fool pestering younger women is suddenly revealed as a heartbroken father, yearning to rediscover the daughter he lost many years ago.
“For some reason, we seem to have less teenage angst this year than we’ve had in the past, and a slightly wider range of themes,” says the Traverse’s Head of Learning, Noelle O’Donoghue, who has been running the Class Act project for the last four years. “And as for Saturday’s Gala – well, we hope that is going to be an amazing Traverse night. We’re presenting one play from each of the 21 years, directed overall by Philip Howard, and since there have been almost 700 Class Act plays over the years, choosing the right ones has been a huge job – we had a reading panel of 14 people. The evening is going to be compered by Greg McHugh, best known as Gary Tank Commander, who is a Class Act graduate; and we’ll have a cast of 24 actors – perhaps the biggest company the Traverse has ever seen – along with as many Class Act alumni as we can gather, to help make it an amazing party.”
And young playwright Linda Radley, in her first year as a Class Act mentor, agrees. “I think this project is a real cause for celebration,” she says, “and I think the key to it is that the student writers are treated as if we are expecting maturity from them, and that is what we get. These are 16-17 year olds about to leave school, and they are just waiting to be treated like adults; so when you give them that opportunity, there’s almost no limit to what they can achieve.”
At the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Friday; with the special Class Act 21 Gala at the Traverse on Saturday, 29 January.