Beneath the Surface is a testament to how incredible generation Z are. The show highlights how much of an impact young people can have when given space, time, and resources to use their voices creatively. To hear their versions of reality, we have to be willing to listen.
I spoke to Nima Taleghani – an associate of the National Student Drama Festival and a facilitator for Big Creative Academy's Beneath the Surface to gain behind-the-scenes information about how this Zoom-Facetime-texting hybrid show developed from initial idea to end product in just two weeks. We also dove into how much more the industry can do to make young people's voices heard.
Big Creative Academy should have been involved in the 2019 National Student Drama Festival but planning and logistics made it impossible to get to Leicester. They also should have been at the 2020 festival, but Covid-19 happened. Finally, with Beneath the Surface we get a short, intense, and intimate glimpse into the issues faced by five black teenagers from a college in Walthamstow. We follow them as they navigate life in a virtual world. Of NSDF Creates, and NSDF Lab – the initiatives which helped birth the show, Nima said “it’s part of the initiative that James [Phillips, Festival Director] set up to make the festival truly national”. On NSDF previously, Nima explained, “in the past, it has been primarily Russell Group universities with drama societies who are informed and have the finances to come to the festival and we wanted to change that”.
Andre Davis, Rebecca Opesanwo, Serena Ajiginni, Jeremie Kuyu-Tshiosbi, and Jael Godwin-Mekwuye – all drama students at Big Creative Academy “devised the whole thing, with all the content, all the ideas, everything in just twelve days” explained Nima. On the show's quick turnaround time, he added “it was a brush against time to make a piece of work when you’ve never made a piece of work before”.
Creating and performing a piece that existed entirely on Zoom was a challenge, but one that these inspiring young people rose to. On creation of this digital hybrid show, Nima elaborated “they would film record a lot of the content every day and send it over to me and Ray virtually every evening”. He continued: “they would send loads of videos, and voice notes and content”. This ended up forming Beneath the Surface which “tells the story they want to tell”. This focus on short snippets of digital content allowed the stories of characters Crystal, Joshua, Naomi, Ruth, and TJ to resonate with an audience. Nima explained, “the reason they chose to do that is that it’s their reality". Big Creative Academy’s students did not want to stray too far from their reality nor do something pretend, which is very commendable. Beneath the Surface allowed Andre, Rebecca, Serena, Jeremie, and Jael to realise “their stories are stories that aren’t normally told: this is what is beneath the surface for them”.
One question that has stuck in my head since experiencing Beneath the Surface is what more can the industry do to allow all young people equality of opportunity in theatre? For both Nima and I, this was an exhilarating question. The young people of Big Creative Academy, according to Nima, are “used to having to work twice as hard for half as much”. As, frustratingly, “that’s how the industry is structured, for them not to thrive”. As we head towards theatres opening back up again, in Nima’s words, equality of opportunity is about “creating free and accessible tickets”. Some people are lucky enough to inherit culture, but it also boils down to the vibe in the theatre and the staffs' attitudes towards you. As Nima puts it so well “We need to do the things you can’t tweet about and the things that you can’t get a pat on the back for".
For the students of Big Creative Academy, the journey to get here might have been difficult but the payoff was phenomenal. Beneath the Surface is a show that both Nima and I firmly believe, can, and will go anywhere and everywhere after NSDF draws to a close.