Features Published 15 April 2015

Breaking New Ground

The National Youth Theatre recently announced a new partnership with Live Nation Middle East, building on 14 years of international cultural exchange. Here, some of the NYT team and its members reflect on their work in Saudi Arabia.
National Youth Theatre

Paul Roseby, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of National Youth Theatre: 

The term ‘ground-breaking’ is pretty high on my pet-hate list of overused arts jargon, but how else would you describe a project involving young female theatrical talent from the UK travelling to Saudi Arabia to engage young females in the art of performance for the very first time? Working around the world with the NYT, I’ve learnt that to break new ground you have to be prepared to be flexible and to stick your neck out, because it rarely comes without controversy or resistance. The rewards are life-changing; the politics are never ending.   

In 2008 we were the first UK theatre company to be offered the opportunity to perform at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Tiananmen Square. Many legitimately questioned whether we should be performing in China given the controversy around human rights in the lead up to the Olympics and the level of artistic censorship. We were told not to mention the three Ts – Tiananmen, Taiwan and Tibet, with the last being the most sensitive. Our response was to propose a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice performed not just by young NYT actors, but also ten young Chinese actors. 

After consulting with our membership and trustees, we decided that we couldn’t deny the young people from both nations the opportunity to work together. The Chinese cultural authorities also signed off the proposal. Shakespeare survives censorship because it is deemed ‘safe’. However, our production was anything but, with a young black actor playing Shylock. The play’s themes of persecution, racism and inclusion and their relevance undoubtedly rang true to local audiences and our young international cast.

People talk about the world getting smaller through social media networks, cheap air travel and expensive aspirations. However, given recent polarisation and extremist events in politically and socially vulnerable parts of the world, it’s fast becoming apparent that to bridge cultural differences you have to be in the room, not just online. We’re not talking about glamourous international tours or middle-class gap years here. It’s hard fought and hard taught lessons from both sides through true collaboration, friendship and cultural exchange.   

Working with young women in Saudi Arabia presents different culturally specific challenges and opportunities, as testified by the talented and brave young women we have taken to work on the ground out there. What is universal about this work though is that it creates a new generation of truly global citizens. They represent the best of Britain around the world and the international friendships and understanding that they forge bodes for a better the future for all. 

Professional movement director and former NYT member Polly Bennett: 

The majority of the stamps in my passport are because of opportunities provided by the National Youth Theatre. As a member, I represented Britain in the Olympic Handover Ceremony in Beijing and danced in Dubai; as a practitioner, I have run workshops in Sharjah, two theatre training courses in Saudi Arabia, as well as corporate training for adults and young people’s workshops.

Working internationally has had a huge impact on my personal practice. I’ve questioned my expectations and focused my interests, I’ve broadened my politics and developed the ways I articulate ideas and collaborate. In rehearsal rooms on home turf I am always calling on the patience, forward-thinking and resilience I’ve developed from working abroad.

I also saw a huge change in the NYT members who have accompanied me on these trips. In Saudi Arabia in particular, the NYT members and local women fostered an unparalleled relationship; a secret language and understanding of their commonalities, differences and how they could learn from both. The local women were hungry for information, and as a group we engaged them and shared ways of creating and making in a way they had not ever experienced. Women who had never caught a ball were challenged physically, girls who had never spoken publicly raised the roof with their voices, and as a group the performance revealed their aspirations and performed as an honest, unified chorus. 

As a practitioner, working internationally enables me to see the true value of what I do; theatrical discoveries are bigger, personal journeys are greater and the connections made are stronger. The experiences have lingered long after the flights home, creating an attitude that makes me a better professional and a better person. 

22-year-old NYT member Megan Burke: 

Being given the rare opportunity to go to Saudi Arabia on a cultural exchange project to run a female theatre training course is an experience I’ll hold close to my heart forever. I’d been told by the media and well-meaning family and friends that Saudi Arabia did not respect its women, so “why would I want to go somewhere like that?” But I knew this cultural exchange was breaking new ground, so whilst it was safe to say I was nervous, I knew I had to go.

I’d love to say the course went along smoothly, but I can’t. What we were planning got cancelled once we had arrived due to fears that the religious police would shut the entire programme down because of how popular it was. This was frustrating and my first experience of how delicate and sensitive cultural exchange can be.  

Our creative team adapted to these changes and launched a different programme, which is where I met intelligent and determined young women, who – as well as sharing my love of Game of Thrones – taught me that if I wanted change I had to stand up and make it happen. Why should they have to wait for the basic human right to be equal? Saudi Arabia has an untapped resource of talented women who are modest in their cultural beliefs, but also educated, talented and hungry for opportunities. These are not the oppressed women I read about before I went. 

Saudi Arabia was culturally fascinating and the talent out there was as impressive as their shopping malls – it was truly humbling. Out there it felt so important to be culturally open with one another rather than judgmental, which I sometimes worry is the case in British society.      

Overall the project stoked a desire for social change within me and the friends I made across the world. It’s changed what I want to do with my life.     

24-year-old NYT Member Hayley Konadu:

Admittedly I was a little apprehensive before I went to Saudi Arabia. My view of the Middle East was a little distorted. However, spending two weeks in Saudi completely changed my perspective – it was life-changing. Delivering theatre-making skills and working with young girls and boys in Saudi was thrilling. I learnt as much from them as they learnt from me as we introduced them to new theatrical forms of expression and creatively explored their imaginations. They had never experienced performing in such a public forum and I felt truly privileged to be a part of their personal and creative development. Another highlight was having the opportunity to experience a different culture and learning to adapt to another way of living, despite the fact we faced a lot of restrictions because we were female. 

Overall, I learnt the importance of working collaboratively and relishing new experiences, and I now understand the power of theatre to engage people from different cultural backgrounds, introducing people from around the world to ideas they’re not usually exposed to. That’s the magic of cultural exchange and why it’s so important. 

22-year-old NYT member Angela Holmes:

Before I went to Saudi I admit I was a little apprehensive about how I would be treated as a woman and wary of how conservative elements of Saudi were. I was also unsure about how open the girls and women working with us would be. I had no concept of what Saudi Arabian culture was like, so I went without knowing what to expect but also with a readiness to work with whatever they gave us.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Saudi girls were phenomenal. They were all too eager to learn from us and share their lives and experiences. I have never worked with a more enthusiastic and willing group of people. They were vivid, expressive and generous with their stories and emotions, and their generosity was limitless, sharing photos and home cooked food with us and introducing us to their friends.  

I came back from Saudi with a new appreciation for the artistic freedom of the UK, but also with a drive to do more. Those incredible women inspired me to push harder to seek and help create more opportunities for women at home and abroad. My only regret is that we couldn’t stay longer, but I dearly hope to return to Saudi one day to see those inspiring women again and to build upon what we started.

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