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Director, Emma Willatts on our 2023 NT Connections play

10 Jan 2023

Every year Gulbenkian enters NT Connections, with a group of 13-19 year olds performing a new play written by a leading playwright. This year’s play, (Circle Dreams Around) the Terrible Terrible Past by Simon Longman will be performed at Gulbenkian on Sun 12 and Mon 13 March. Before then we caught up with Director Emma Willatts to find out more….

Hi Emma, can you introduce NT Connections for us?

NT Connections is a project run by the National Theatre. Every year they commission playwrights to write 10 new plays specifically for young people aged 13 to 19. As a company we select one of the plays, and spend a day working with the playwright to understand it. You rehearse the play, and you perform it at your home venue, which for us is the Gulbenkian Theatre – which is amazing. When we perform, a director from the National Theatre comes, watches and gives us some face to face development feedback plus notes afterwards. And then you use the feedback to improve the production before it transfers to a regional partner theatre, which for us is The Marlowe in Canterbury. We perform there as part of a festival alongside other groups from our region. Every year they pick 10 companies from across the UK to perform at the National Theatre, so you can end up performing at 3 venues in total.


How do you find your cast and crew?

To reach as many young people as possible, we do a big open audition. We put a call out on all our socials and through our network of schools and youth organisations, to invite anybody who’s interested to come and sign up to it. The number of places depends on the play, but for example this year we auditioned nearly 80 young people and we cast 20 of them. This works really well because we end up with a mixture of people – this year we already know about half from previous projects, including youth theatre or Connections, but half are brand new. That is the cast, but we also have a really lovely crew, made up from people who came to our TECH31 workshops.


What’s it like directing such a young team?

I love it. I absolutely love it. I think what’s tricky is that we don’t all know each other. And we have to work around school and other commitments, so it’s not like rehearsing with an adult or professional cast you can spend whole long days at a time, it’s about catching two or three hours here and there. That makes it quite tricky and it can take a while for people to get to know each other. But every year we develop a great group dynamic and we often get feedback from the assessors that our sense of ensemble and group ownership is really good – and that makes me really proud. It’s something that I spend a lot of time doing.

So we spend a lot of time working away from the script to get to know each other. But I love that kind of problem solving. We’ve got 20 cast members this year and each of them have different experiences and abilities and ways of learning and for me, it’s about getting the best out of each of them individually. I think that keeps me developing too. I think every Connections project we’ve done we’ve always then ended up with it being very much owned by the whole company which is really nice. We problem solve together. I don’t come in knowing all the answers before we start, I just know that I know the right questions to ask in order for us to get there.


As someone involved but not directly I am always excited to see what play you chose each year and how you stage it. Tell us about this year’s play.

This is our 10th year doing Connections and we’re doing a play called (Circle Dreams Around) the Terrible Terrible Past by Simon Longman. Each year we try and give ourselves a new challenge. Last year we did a play with a tiny cast that was very still and very quiet and very beautiful. And this year we’ve gone the opposite way! We’ve picked the biggest show we’ve ever done, that is absolutely bonkers and all about dreams – so anything can and does happen including Mars exploding, so it couldn’t be more different.


Tell us what audiences who have not seen an NT Connections play should expect.

What we want is for people to come and see a really good show that just happens to have young people as the actors. I think a lot of people have preconceptions about coming to watch a youth theatre show, and I would hope that every year we break those preconceptions. We put a lot of effort and heart and soul and time and energy into each performance, we work to make the best possible show that we can do. I know that’s really important to every member of the company. And that’s why it’s really exciting to get feedback from the National Theatre director and they compliment us on our sense of ensemble and ownership as a group or, as happened a couple of years ago, the playwright told us that we had managed fill in holes in the script that even he didn’t have the answers too. That is when you think, yeah – that’s pretty cool.


(Circle Dreams Around) the Terrible Terrible Past will be performed at Gulbenkian on Sun 12 and Mon 13 March, 7.30pmYou can find out more and book tickets here.


ART31 takes its name from Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, which states that ‘Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities’.

ART31 is a vision created with, by, and for young people in Kent, championing the belief that all children and young people have an entitlement to access high quality arts and culture, to empower them to achieve their creative potential, and to genuinely engage young people as equal partners in any decision making that affects them.

The ART31 Youth Board is made up of young people from across Kent aged 13-25 who steer its governance, and influence policy and practice across the county and beyond, challenging the creative sector to examine existing ways of working and integrate young people into the core of their practice.

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