What kind of art were you making at 16 years old? Probably nothing like this. Students from the Big Creative Academy showcased a devised piece about life in school this NSDF, taking us through the lives and difficulties of a dozen students over 45 minutes or so. Despite the length, this did not feel cursory or laboured in its treatment of issues ranging from homelessness to domestic violence.
Crucial to this was how the issues were integrated into characters’ lives, rather than feeling like pulpit pieces. When one girl referenced having been homeless, it was in the context of a friendship where her couch surfing on the other’s sofa had changed the dynamic. It might not be the most important issue of homelessness, but it is one specific enough in detail and emotive enough in relationship for us to buy into it totally. Nor did the show let the weight of the subject matter hold back the energy pushing the show forward. Ensemble shows are hard to devise – they are even harder with such a large group and such a short amount of time. It is testament to the skill of these students as writers and actors that characters were so clearly drawn, not only in dialogue but in performance, especially physically, which was clear without feeling exaggerated.
Most impressive was the incorporation of rap, music and dance written and choreographed by the group into the piece. Dance was integrated as a storytelling device with ease, in particular separating the strictured world of the classroom from the teenagers’ own world. The raps, in the meantime, normally focusing on the absent Nancy, were an innovative way of representing the sound of schoolyard rumours, spreading and growing to infectious degrees. In the Q&A, we were told that much of this was composed on the spot in rehearsal, in hindsight making it more impressive. Also in hindsight, however, there is something to be learned there about the spontaneity of the creative process. Both that idea of creation on the spot and the fact that the piece was put together in 24 (non-consecutive) hours no doubt contributed to the energy of the piece.
Perhaps it was the age of the actors matching the age of the characters that helped the play to feel so sincere. The play reminded me of how it felt to be 16 - when rows about friendships or crushes felt like the most important problems in the world, until suddenly the seriousness comes crashing down, as in the final scene of this production, and you realise that you are in way over your head with adult life. The scene built in action as everyone has a go at Nancy, with several people taking out their phones to film the fight, until her abuse is revealed. The contrast between the noise of the childish scrap and the sudden silence, kids turning off their phones, recognising something they don’t know how to handle, is familiar in all our lives. The other girls don’t even say something to Nancy, because they are so at sea, the antithesis of the show of bravado of just a minute ago.
What I would love to see from this piece going forward is development beyond NSDF. With a longer runtime and more time in a rehearsal room to experiment, not just devise for performance, we could see some really innovative music and dance-based theatre emerge from these creatives. This play felt like a snapshot of one day; with development, it would be exciting to see a play that really lets us into both that narrative and that creative world.