Germ Free Adolescent – a house seed funded project

Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, whose support has enabled house to invest in over forty projects in the last three years, have teamed up with Day for Night Films to create this short film about Root Theatre’s Germ Free Adolescent; a project that house seeded in partnership with LV21 and The Brook Theatre. Watch the film and read a blog by the play’s writer, Natalie Mitchell, about her experience of creating work with and for the community she group up in.

Germ Free Adolescent‘s writer, Natalie Mitchell, on creating the play
From a speech for Share the Space, 
The Unicorn Theatre, London

When I was asked to speak today I tried to work out exactly why I feel quite so strongly about the importance of creating work with and for my own community.

And I think the answer lies in the experiences I’ve had in trying to access an industry that still, even after ten years, successfully makes me, as a working class woman,  feel like my voice doesn’t matter.

To give some context: I’m here because I grew up in Medway. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, it’s a unitary authority in Kent, made up of a chain of separate towns. Takes about 35 minutes to an hour to get there from London, depending on how much you’re willing to pay for the train.

In the 2015 index of deprivation, Medway was ranked 118th most deprived Local Authority of 326 in England, not too bad I hear you saying. However 12 neighbourhoods ranked in the top 10% most deprived, ranking particularly poorly in education, skills and training.

For me, this is absolutely key when we’re looking at arts access, and explains why Medway was identified as a priority area for arts investment under the Arts Council’s creative people and places scheme.

When I was seventeen, back before Tony Blair’s education education education mantra had really kicked in, I was encouraged to apply for university. At that time, no one from my school really went to university, so I was sent for extra lessons at the grammar school down the road to help me. I only went to one as they were really patronising, but anyway.

Although I was encouraged to continue studying, I was explicitly told not to apply for a drama degree because, to quote my music teacher Fiona Clandillon, “You will NEVER have a career in the arts.”

That’s a powerful message to give to a young person.

That art doesn’t belong to people like me. Why?

Because I am a working class woman from Medway.

And we’re probably all sitting here, particularly the educators among us, feeling confident that things like that don’t happen anymore. Perhaps not on an individual level, but I believe the industry is regressing in terms of diversity, becoming insidiously more elitist.

A recent study by the Sutton Trust revealed that 73% of actors who were surveyed were from backgrounds that qualify sociologically as “middle-class”. 42% of British Bafta winners went to a fee-paying school.

Of course, it’s not just actors who are affected by this. It permeates the whole industry. Director Derek Bond wrote an article recently about how many directors need to have second or even third jobs in order to stay afloat.

For the first six years of my writing career I had a full time job that I had to write around. Not easy when you’re sometimes doing 70 hour weeks.

So, what has all this got to do with working with young people in the Eastern region?

I believe that we, as artists, producers and theatre makers, have a responsibility to counter this trend.

To strive to ensure any young person, from anywhere in the country can feel like theatre and the arts IS for them.

Rather than liberal hand wringing and rhetoric, we are the people who can get out there and make this change at a grassroots level.

For me as an artist, the big turning point, the moment that made me realise that maybe I could be a writer, and that people might want to listen to me was seeing a production of Country Music by Simon Stephens in 2004. By that point I’d already ignored Fiona Clandillon and gone on to study drama.

But the thing about that production that resonated with me, was that the characters joyride a car to Gravesend. Not just a place I’d heard of, but a place I’d been to.

Suddenly, the world as I knew it was being reflected back to me from onstage. And for that small moment, I felt relevant.

And that’s when I realised how important it was for me to somehow represent my community onstage.  To allow young people, like me, to see themselves reflected back.

And this is the thing that has essentially motivated all my work over the last decade, culminating in the most exciting project I’ve done to date, which was to develop a new play with and for young people in Medway.

Germ Free Adolescent was developed over the course of a year with over 100 young people from all over Medway, before touring to community venues across a week.

That makes it sound very grand, what we actually did was rock up at youth centres, boats and other bonkers places, saying ‘do you want to see a play, and sometimes hauling audiences in from parks and pool games. Doorstep drama in action.

This is work that Root Theatre, and many other companies in this room and outside, are doing on a daily basis, and not getting the wider recognition they deserve.

Perhaps because they’re working outside of London, outside of the traditional theatre hubs?

Or perhaps it’s because this work is still being dismissed as community work rather than the high quality art it is- just one that roots itself in the unheard voices of the regions.

And today’s election result has shown us what happens when people feel they don’t have a voice. In Medway, there were 88,997 people who voted leave, compared to 49,889 who voted remain. This is the cost of inequality.

If we want truly believe in, and want diversity in our theatre makers and theatre audiences, we need to ensure everyone from Aberystwyth to Medway feels that theatre is for people like them. They are relevant.

And that is by working with them, and for them.

And also encouraging the wider theatre industry to give these voices a bigger platform, that these stories can and do resonate far beyond the communities they come from.

If, through my work, I can provide access to high quality opportunity, and inspire young people to have the courage to aspire, then I’ll be happy.

Nick Hand’s soundslide about the early stages of the project’s development

Eye Opening Films is an Esmée Fairbairn Foundation project