Meet the Practitioners: Chris White
Chris White is a freelance theatre director and drama practitioner. Chris has been working with the Belgrade’s Middle Youth Theatre and Shine On 50+ group to create I Burn, I Pine, I Perish, a piece that explores the theme of love across Shakespeare’s texts and which features verbatim love stories told by the 30 strong cast.
I Burn, I Pine, I Perish is a part of the In Our Own Words: July Festival of Theatre By Young People For Young People, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of Theatre in Education.
Chris is joint Artistic Director of Presence Theatre (with Simon Usher) and joint Artistic Director of The Foxrock Foundation (with Julio Maria Martino). Chris is also an Associate Practitioner and Director for RSC Education and runs the a foundation course in acting at Goldsmiths College, London, called Certificate in Performance Skills and Theatre Studies, as well as the Directing MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham (with Sarah Esdaile).
In this interview, Chris discusses his experience of working with a cross-generational group, their experience of love across the generations and his background working with RSC Education to inspire future generations of young people through drama.
Can you tell us a little more about your involvement in the July Festival?
I’m a freelance director and an associate practitioner for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m directing I Burn, I Pine, I Perish for the festival, along with Hannah and Lucy, which came about after a residency I led last summer. Having worked with all the groups at the Belgrade using a range of text by Shakespeare, I thought it would be really interesting to create a piece exploring love and time and change, and that the best way of doing this would be with a cross-generational group. So, our company brings together the members of Middle Youth Theatre with Shine On.
What previous experience do you/your company have with working with young people? Can you give examples of previous youth and/or community projects you’ve been involved in?
The Director of Education at the RSC, Jacqui O’Hanlon, along with plenty of others, have been responsible for completely changing how Shakespeare is taught across thousands of UK schools. Broadly speaking, our proposition is that they start working on it early in primary school; see it live; and work actively on their feet and with their bodies to best encounter the stories, characters and language. I am lucky as well in that a lot of the plays and projects I have directed are not intended purely to meet existing demands of the curriculum, but are creatively conceived, often with a partner organisation, with the intention of making something original and stimulating for audience and participants alike. Some of the particularly memorable ones have been creating a radio show by having young people from North London primary schools interviewing actors in character from the 2012 production of Twelfth Night, created and recorded at the Roundhouse, in partnership with Tender; and making short films shot in various South London locations based on Titus Andronicus. Young people took roles as cast and crew alongside professional practitioners and the films were screened at BFI to a screaming audience. I am currently working on a brilliant project across 6 regions of the UK where teachers receive training in the practical teaching and directing of Shakespeare which led to 6 festivals this Spring that told the story of the journey of Prince Hal becoming King Henry V. I am now working on the culmination of this three year project which involves going around the country and co-directing scenes with teachers. They will all come together in Stratford for a one-off performance which will involve 100 young people drawn from the 42 schools involved performing on our biggest stage with the support of a professional creative and production team in a piece called The Head that Wears a Crown.
Can you tell us a little more about the devising process? How has the piece been developed and over how long? (e.g. Workshopping, residencies etc)
After a residency last summer for a week the idea began to emerge of twinning the groups and thinking about how love might be perceived and experienced and understood differently by both. In September we worked intensively over a weekend to create a short fragment as part of the Crucible weekend which left us intrigued by the possibility of collective speaking, live singing and simple movement sequences. Then in December we began to introduce different scenes and text from Shakespeare from a range of plays and poems with the primary focus of introducing language. One of the key things we talked about was that the Elizabethan conception of love was not of something soft and gentle, but powerful, potentially violent and something could afflict the sufferer like a virus. Into the new year this led into wider discussions about people’s own experiences of love. MYT wrote a series of questions and developed movement sequences around this area while Shine On began to tell their own stories about love which inevitably became stories about some of the most defining, and idiosyncratic moments of their lives. This became our resource and by the time we prepared another showing in January we knew we wanted to combine their stories with scenes from Shakespeare to create our piece.
The next challenge was to find a narrative and after exploring many scenes over February and March with the groups we wanted to tell an epic tale that covered desire, unrequited love, betrayal, revenge and death. With the help of dramaturg Ola, we decided to simplify this to tell instead the story of two couples falling in love: Romeo and Juliet; and Rita from Shine On with her husband. Over April I created the script while Lucy and Hannah worked in detail on developing the personal stories and some of the chosen Shakespeare scenes. The Shine On stories were carefully transcribed and we started having sessions together with both groups in our attempt to create one company and made a series of pairings across the groups to help this process. In May we worked with Janet to develop the design of the show now that it was starting to find a shape of its own and had a workshop from Frantic Assembly and one from Una to help us develop our movement work and to create a song together. In June, we have been rapidly trying to put everything together!
Tell us about a theatrical experience that changed your life?
Your life can still be changed when you’re grown up so I’ll go for something I saw last summer: Songs of Lear by Piesn Kozla/Song of the Goat at their own space in Wroclaw. A beautiful piece that took us to the heart of King Lear’s journey through songs and incredible physical and emotional connection amongst the acting company.
What is your favourite thing about working with young people?
An absence of knowing some of the ‘rules’ of the professional sector is often a blessing but above all it is their ability to evolve and develop as a group and individuals during the course of a project. I love being surprised by people of any age, and this happens a lot when I work with young people. Recently in Middlesbrough, at Newport Primary School, I was working with a ten year old Czech boy for whom English is a second language and he predicted what the next line was of a dense speech at the beginning of Henry IV Part One. He had never encountered it before, but he was able to respond to it intuitively.
What do you think the participants will take from their experience of being part of the July Festival?
I’m not so sure I should speak for them seeing as they all know their own minds pretty well, but I hope that they have gained pleasure from taking the risk of being open with each other. What’s more I hope by the end of it all they feel it was worth putting commitment in over quite a long time period to create a collective piece.
Why is it important that we continue to invest in the commissioning work for young people, by young people?
Last summer I directed a series of short plays written by ten year olds at Soho Theatre. Myself and the actors were completely taken with how startling, revealing, ambitious and uncomplicated they were. There is no way this kind of work could fit within the demands of the curriculum by itself. It requires a theatre such as Soho, or Belgrade or RSC, to make partnerships so that you don’t simply have professionals going into schools to teach or pass on expertise, but rather they collaborate with young people so that new work is created and can be seen by a wider audience.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the piece?
I’d like them to really feel that they have been in the company of the people on stage, and not that they have been performed at. I imagine there’ll be a whole range of responses to the piece.
What, from your experience of working with this group, do you see as the main benefits of young people’s participation in drama?
With this piece, I see the benefit of all of the people involved working creatively and respectfully with a different generation to their own. One of the strongest memories I have of this process is of the Middle Youth Theatre listening to Rita’s story for the first time and it leaving many of them speechless – a truly rare occurrence. The other benefit with this is working with Shakespeare’s language – which can stretch and effect you simply through the amazing range of sounds and images he places alongside each other.
I Support Drama In Schools because…..
It can help develop a connection between people; it celebrates and demonstrates the strength of the collective over the individual; and it can help people discover their voice without telling them what their voice should be.