Expectations were high when UEA’s Festival of Literature for Young People (FLY) was kicked off last Sunday evening at the Maddermarket Theatre. The 2018 Playwright Project consisted of six plays written mainly by secondary school pupils from Alderman Peel High School, City Academy Norwich, City of Norwich School, King’s Lynn Academy, Ormiston Victory Academy, and Sewell Park Academy. The themes explored were surprisingly varied, from the painful yet heartwarming coming-out story of two young schoolgirls, to the perils of hunting hippopotamuses that take on human form, or finding a match on intergalactic Tinder.
Eight students studying for an MA in scriptwriting at UEA had spent the summer term in six Norfolk secondary schools, helping the young students write six 15-minute plays. These plays were then worked on by the Laughing Mirror Company, a group of UEA drama students and graduates. The actors and directors had only eight days to learn the parts and prepare the plays, which gave the performances a hectic energy that perfectly matched the surplus of imagination found in the young students’ plays. After the festival finished, producer of the Laughing Mirror Company Chad Porter, who also directed several of the short plays, explained to me how working on these plays served as an excellent way for the group of actors to prepare for the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the company will be performing two different plays. “It makes a good start to rehearsals to get everyone to collaborate on something as a team before we take that team up to the Fringe”, he said. “At the same time as being a wonderful experience for the kids, it’s a great preparation for us as a unit.”
Despite a short rehearsal period, the cast never stumbled, and each member seemed confident in their role. Katherine Edwards and Izzy Cutler convinced as a pair of school friends secretly in love with each other in The Waterfall, written by City of Norwich School, while Will Norris delivered a perfect French accent in Sewell Park Academy’s Hippo Like Us. In the same play, George Rennison, wearing a long wig and a revealing red cocktail dress, stole every scene he was in. The young students behind the plays seemed to be preoccupied with a delightful mixture of serious subjects and absolute absurdity – often within the same fifteen-minute play. The intergalactic, hippo-hunting twists and turns were broken up by touching moments between good friends (who often wished to become more than friends), and surprisingly realistic scenes from everyday family life. The plays elegantly tackled the chasm that sometimes exists between parents and teenagers, and a letter read out to a young girl from her deceased father was staggering in its maturity.
Some of the plays laboured under the burden of too much tech – the rapid changes of scenes left the audience with little time to dwell on what had just been said onstage. However, the use of projected images and lights granted each of the plays a distinctive visual profile. “In every play there is one thing that we think ‘how the hell are we going to stage that?’” Chad told me afterwards. The first draft of the play Friends had included a character described as “half dog, half cat.” Another play had to be edited due to it literally containing “buckets of blood.” “We treat it as though it is a professional process in that the plays grow and adapt in rehearsals like we would our own scripts”, Chad explained. “We feel like it’s important to treat the kids’ work exactly the same. We take it seriously.”