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FIN KENNEDY tells us about playwrighting in schools, parity of esteem and raw teenage energy.....

Fin Kennedy is an award-winning playwright, freelance dramaturg and producer and Co-Artistic Director of Tamasha. In the UK he has written for Soho Theatre, Sheffield Crucible, Southwark Playhouse, Half Moon, The Red Room and BBC Radio 4. His plays are also produced internationally. Since 2007 Fin has been writer-in-residence at Mulberry School in East London, for whom he has co-founded a theatre company and written seven plays. In 2009 they won a Scotsman Fringe First, the first time a school has received one. Fin is the founder of Schoolwrights, the UK's first playwrights-in-schools training scheme. www.finkennedy.co.uk

What first attracted you to the theatre?
It was joining a youth theatre, aged about 11. I went along because a friend was in it, but I soon got the bug. I acted in all sorts of shows then started to take an interest in directing and design. It wasn’t long before playwriting followed after that. I stayed a member until I was 17, then went off to do Drama and English at University. At Uni I got a runners-up prize in one of the Royal Court's playwriting competitions. It was then that I thought 'I wonder if I could do this for a living?'. I still wonder that sometimes – it isn’t easy making a living as a playwright!

What inspired you to become involved in working with schools?
One of my first jobs when I moved to London was working in the offices of Half Moon Young People's Theatre, where I first came into contact with all the great youth theatre work taking place in East London. After I went off to do an MA in Playwriting I returned to Half Moon as their writer-on-attachment. They ended up producing my first two teenage plays and touring them nationally (Locked In and We Are Shadows in 2006 and 2008). That led to contact with Mulberry School for Girls who invited me to become their writer-in-residence. I initially signed up for one term but nearly ten years later I am still working with them! We’ve created seven plays together, been to the Edinburgh Fringe three times, won a Scotsman Fringe First and had all our plays published by Nick Hern Books. Along the way we’ve given voice to a group of East London Bangladeshi teenagers you rarely hear from in the mainstream. I'm hugely proud of that strand of my work. Schoolwrights is the latest phase – opening Mulberry up as a training base for other writers seeking education experience.

How did Schoolwrights evolve and why did you think it important to start now?
Schoolwrights was an attempt to create a legacy and ongoing life for the work I started at Mulberry – by bringing the school into contact with a new generation of playwrights who they can develop work with. But it also fulfils a demand among playwrights for managed and quality-controlled education training (education work can be very ad hoc and the quality of the experience can vary hugely). Schoolwrights also builds in professional development for teachers – they are asked to direct the plays and receive a masterclass from a professional director to support them in doing so. The principle of Schoolwrights is parity of esteem: the teachers, writers and students are all creative equals and all learn from one another. There is also parity among the venues – the plays are showcased in schools but also at professional venues on their main stages. So it’s very much a hybrid project, aimed at bringing young people’s work into the mainstream on an equal footing. The timing is important too – cuts to the arts mean more unemployed writers, while attacks on arts subjects in schools mean Drama teachers are under pressure and need some support from the professional theatre industry to champion their subject. Schoolwrights aims to capitalise on this by bringing the sectors together to celebrate what can be achieved when theatre and education work together as equal partners.

Is it different from other schools projects?
Yes, Schoolwrights is a playwright-led project. The kids don’t write the plays – other schemes exist to do that. In Schoolwrights the students contribute closely to the creation of the plays by taking part in workshops with the writers, but the writers write the final scripts. I train the writers as workshop leaders, something writers are rarely asked to do but which can really sustain a freelance career. So the resulting plays are a genuine synthesis of professional polish and raw teenage energy. The young people also perform the plays. The process they have been through means they take real ownership of them from the start.

What do you find most interesting about the process?
This is the first full pilot year of the scheme and we have learned a lot! It has been interesting to see the very different energy each writer brings to the process and how that impacts on the ideas generated. We’ve got a hugely diverse bunch of plays and I can’t wait to show them off. All are very different to how I write for young people – but that has been the whole point! Longer term I want Schoolwrights to generate a new movement of playwrights working in schools, with all the glorious diversity of processes, forms and content which that entails. Playwrights and young people get a lot out of working together in this way, but what they can come up with together is infinitely varied, and differs each time you put them together. That’s hugely exciting to me.

Did anything surprise you?
The quality of the work across the board has been outstanding. I thought there might have been one or two duff plays but there really hasn’t been. I’m thrilled – because we want to explore digital publishing opportunities too, so that other schools can benefit. What was a bit of a shock was the insanely complicated logistics of getting seven short plays across five schools rehearsed up and programmed across three venues – but then perhaps I should have foreseen that! Luckily I have an excellent stage manager. A good stage manager is worth their weight in gold.

How did you fundraise?
OffWestEnd.com’s very own Sofie Mason was instrumental in the fundraising. I certainly couldn’t have done it on my own. Sofie got us started by securing an initial gift from a private donor – whose house I had to visit to clinch the deal! But that was an essential kick-start because then we had an amount in the bank which we could ask trusts and foundations to match. It took two years but we got there in the end with a patchwork approach, including the Writers’ Guild Foundation, the Mackintosh Foundation, the Herbert Smith Trust, Tamasha and Arts Council England. Some of OWE’s other loyal supporters like Bill and Nini Aldridge and Steven Prevezer also made generous donations. In future, we hope to grow the scheme by getting a three-year commitment from a larger trust – with probably some private donors in the mix. Watch this space…

What are you the most proud of in your first year of Schoolwrights?
I’m proud to have got the scheme up and running at all in the middle of a recession. We know now that it works. The model I spent years dreaming up and then refining is now up on its feet and generating great plays and great experiences for the young people involved. That’s a great start and we can grow it in all sorts of exciting ways, such as expanding it to schools outside London.

What has been the response from the students and school teachers?
They’ve loved it – can you imagine having a professional playwright come into your school and write a play specially for you and your friends to perform, and get a say in the characters and story? They’re all so excited about the performances coming up at Rich Mix and Soho Theatre. The teachers have had a blast too. It’s a busy time of year for them with exams but they’ve never given less than 100%. There’s a huge appetite for this sort of crossover work among Drama teachers, and for meaningful contact with the professional theatre industry.

Do you hope to continue the project?
Definitely. We’re taking a break for the next school year because I want to properly evaluate this year’s scheme, plus we need to do a whole load more fundraising. But from September 2015 we will be starting it again – probably outside of London too. We’re in discussion with a consortium of theatres in the north-west who are keen to run a Manchester-based version. I’ve also had interest from getting a Scottish version off the ground… We will basically do it as often as we can afford to. I’d also like to multiply myself, by having writers who have been through the scheme once project manage future versions. My ambition is for Schoolwrights to become Tamasha's flagship education programme.

During the launch year of Schoolwrights, you were appointed co-director of Tamasha – congratulations! Can you tell our readers a bit about your plans for the company?
Tamasha is at a really exciting moment in its history. We’re a national touring company with a 25-year history telling stories and nurturing artists overlooked by the mainstream – historically from the British Asian diaspora. Tamasha commissioned and toured the original production of East Is East and more recently has launched the careers of writers like Ishy Din whose play Snookered we toured nationally in 2012. The British Asian focus had already started to widen prior to my arrival, and while that will always be the bedrock of the company, the focus will continue to broaden.

We’re interested in making work located along what I call the ‘cultural fault lines’ of contemporary society; new plays of social significance which chart the great tectonic forces of our time, and how they impact individual lives. Culture is the buzz-word because everything and everyone has a culture, from ethnic groups, to social classes, to UK regions, to powerful institutions. We’ve just had a clutch of rave reviews for My Name Is, a powerful verbatim play by my co-Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar about the real-life Molly Campbell case. That will be touring nationally in September and October.

Our projects for 2015-18 haven’t been announced yet but there’s a lot been going on behind the scenes. I’m incredibly excited with how my first season is shaping up. Watch this space for an announcement – OffWestEnd.com will be the first to know!

TO BOOK TICKETS FOR SCHOOLWRIGHTS please go to:

Rich Mix 2.30pm amd 7.30pm Saturday 21 June:
http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/schoolwrights-a-festival-of-short-plays-from-east-london and 020 7613 7498

Soho 7.30pm Monday 23 June:
http://sohotheatre.com/whats-on/schoolwrights and 020 7478 0100






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