The Land of Lost Things - Creating a Show With Young People

Last week was taken up with mainly working on 'The Land of Lost Things' with the Beacon Youth Theatre.  This is a devised musical created by myself, Marianne and Megan Yeomans in conjunction with all the young people.  It's a pretty big undertaking with around 110 performers, aged from 4 up to 21 all taking part.

Some of the cast from The Land of Lost Things
One thing that  I have been adamant about since I started running youth theatres over ten years ago (gulp) is that a youth theatre is not a stage school.  It's not about auditioning, it's not about whipping out the same old shows to sell more tickets to the general public and it's not about who is 'talented' and who isn't. That's a different thing and there are various groups around Scotland who do it very well, but what I hope to do is create an environment where all participants can have fun through being creative.  Of course if a student shows a great aptitude towards one thing or the other then we should do our upmost to get the most out of those individuals, but most young people come to drama to have fun, make new friends and to become more confident in themselves and that's what we hope to achieve.

I love creating new work with young people. They will always surprise you.  There are no blocks to their creativity, they say what they are thinking without a filter that adults sub-consciously apply, and what they are thinking is usually absolutely brilliant! It does mean that what you end up with is usually a play that makes perfect sense to a 5 year old and is a confusing mish-mash of craziness to the adults in the audience, but I like how the tables are turned for a change and instead of children being talked at by teachers and parents, they set the rules and get a chance to be the ones in charge!

There's nothing more fun than hiding under a chair and becoming a monster!
The creation of a play like this takes several stages and is a long-term thing. First of all we worked with our different classes in creating short pieces with a eye on an end product of the larger production. So we had groups of around 20-25 working on various plays that were simply stimulated by various random objects that we brought into the room.  There was an old top-hat that the Primary 3-5s thought could have belonged to a tramp-like character called The Gatherer, a character that goes around collecting things that people have lost.  This then developed into there being a place where all lost things go, which then led to the idea of a massive Post Office-esque building that was in a place called the Land of Lost Things.  The initial story was about a Robin who had lost his feathers and a nasty little girl who was rude to all her friends at her birthday party and then lost her presents.  In another class we somehow ended up with a group of dogs who were invaded by cats who loved to wear ridiculous hats (as a side-note, we always encourage our young people to create their own props - it's amazing what they can come up with)!

A hat-loving dog enjoys his new-found head-ware
From these various disparate stories certain colourful characters popped out. The idea of the horrible, grumpy teenager and her doting mother, the evil Dog who is captain of the Dogship Enterprise, the Druid who forgets everything... the list went on and on. We worked on these stories with the young people, discussing with them who they liked and what kind of stories could these characters get caught up in.  It was then up to my colleagues Marianne and Megan and I to take all these ideas and turn them into a play.

Land of The Lost Things is a classic quest story that follows the archetype of Orpheus almost perfectly. The journey into another, dangerous, place and back again.  This kind of structure works perfectly when working with large groups. We cannot possibly work with the group as a whole over a sustained period so basically you end up having a group of travellers who go through various worlds on their quest and the different groups become the different worlds.  This is an excellent way of working in youth theatre as each world can then be tailored to the class.  Our principles (who tended to be older) came along for the full day and would serve as the glue between the disparate worlds. Having three writers is also a bit of a challenge, but using Google docs we could all work on the play at the same time. It was then my job to go through it all and make sure that the characters and tone of the piece were consistent.

The main advantage over writing your own play is that you tweak it towards the people who attend the youth theatre.  This means that young people won't have to play characters that are, for example, too old for them and also means that you can write the correct number of parts so everyone has something to do! We decided to split the grumpy teenager (our hero) in two, so we have a slightly neddy one and a wannabe-goth one.  It's also advantageous to write your own as it allows you to discover new ideas with the cast, if someone has a great idea then it can be thrown in there.  We found out a couple of weeks a go that one of our main actors had a fantastic singing voice that he kept to himself.  I wrote him a song and put that in, you can't do that sort of thing if it's an 'out-of-the-box' show you're dealing with.

Sean Darrah sings his song, inserted with just a few weeks to go
The last couple of weeks is where we ask everyone to come at the same time and we try and slot it all together.  The actual show then becomes a master-class in crowd control! We struggled at our dress rehearsal because we have never done a show at the Beacon before, things like how long it takes a class to get to their changing rooms, get ready and get back to the stage really threw us.  So it's all about keeping calm, noting where things went wrong and working out how to get them right again.  I think being calm is about 90% of the job at this stage in rehearsal!  The young people are freaking out because they are standing on a giant stage, they're unsure what costumes they're wearing etc etc, the last thing they want are the tutors shouting and screaming at them... Luckily we are very experienced at this and we have fantastic volunteers who help usher the children, so after long discussions and drawing up a master plan we managed to get all the children on the stage, on time, no problem. Unfortunately a fire alarm interrupted our first show, this then led to a small amount of re-organisation, but our young people coped admirably.

One new idea we tried out for the first time this year was using the young people's paintings of the various scenes in the show as our backdrop. I cut-up their pictures on photoshop and developed them into layers then animated them so that the pictures will have movement, I'm not a fan of static projections so I think this is definitely something that we can develop. The technology at our disposal wasn't the greatest, so that is something that I am keen for the youth theatre to develop over the years, making sure we have fantastic technical performances complementing the young people.

So there we go.  It's a huge amount of work putting on a show featuring so many people and there are challenges all along the way.  The reward, however, in seeing over a hundred young people having a great time performing a show that they helped create makes it all more than worthwhile.


Jonathan White said…
very interesting insight in to the devising and rehearsal process! :)
Marc Bowker said…
An absolutely brilliant write up from behind the scenes. My two boys both performed in this and since starting their journey with Beacon Youth Theatre in February, they have come on leaps and bounds. They were so animated and enthusiastic about Land of the Lost Things which was just lovely to see. Thanks for sharing your insight into creating and brilliant performance.

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