There’s a storm brewing at the Lyric Hammersmith, the original British venue to host the revolutionary teen rock musical Spring Awakening.
The intrepid crew at this youth saturated theatre will be one of the first to debut Alice by Heart, the long awaited sequel to Spring Awakening by the award winning creators Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the play is almost guaranteed to shake up musical theatre in the same way as its predecessor, with its juxtaposition of rock songs and a classic tale.
The work was commissioned by the National Theatre through its innovative Connections Program which annually injects a multitude of youth theatres with dramatic amphetamine by giving them freshly penned
plays by established writers. The result is an array of platforms for future acting stars and artistic directors as well as the wider engagement of a new theatre generation.
Playwright and lyricist Steven Sater crafted Alice by Heart as a coming of age story "Letting go of childhood yet holding on to what is beautiful.”
The musical imparts a sense of journey instead of being entirely journey-centric just as, Sater asserts, the source material has a beginning and end without a conventional middle. Lewis Carroll’s “incredible manic power of language” and “syntax of nonsense” provided Sater with ample material. Sater chose to set Alice by Heart during a period of great historical significance as he believes that we “see better through a metaphor.” “We can lack a perspective on the present,” he explains.
Although the idea for the project had been in Sater’s head for a time, his “moment of joyful illumination” occurred in the summer of 2009 as he watched a troop of 15 and 16 year olds, the self styled Theatre Geeks of America, perform Spring Awakening numbers for a charity event. His concept of a show based on Alice in Wonderland similarly done with “really young people” was born. He and his collaborator Duncan Sheik set about to devise a 90 minute play which they started to develop with students in California over
the school holidays.
Anticipating a long development period such as the seven years required for Spring Awakening, Sater’s agent suggested they take it to Connections in London. Previously, Sater had met Anthony Banks, the Director of Connections, when newly flush with the success of Spring Awakening. Excited by the idea, Banks offered to commission a shortened version of the play. After a couple of weeks of read-throughs and rehearsals in London with the National Youth Theatre, Alice by Heart was ready to be presented to participating youth theatres around the U.K. and Ireland at the November 2011 workshop.
Sater expects to attend one of the March performances at the Lyric Hammersmith. “I love the Lyric and also did the Tempest there in 2000.”
Over the summer, he will study DVD footage of all the separate productions by the participating theatres which are sure to incorporate a range of creative approaches. Although Sater is not involved in the rehearsals or casting himself as in a traditional single development workshop, he will be able to see several
variations of the “show on its feet.”
Sater hopes to “touch the heart of youth around the world” with Alice by Heart as he has with Spring Awakening. His MySpace and Facebook pages are filled with emails and messages from young people expressing their gratitude to Sater and Sheik for giving them the strength to face their personal struggles.
Sater initially “found my place in the world” when as a high school sophomore, his Speech Teacher asked him to step in to a school play at the last minute after one of the cast was “kicked out for getting stoned or something.” Many parts in community theatre and college productions followed.
The National Theatre founded Connections in 1993 after identifying a need to create plays for young people rather than youth theatres and schools adapting “adult” plays. Since then, with the support from a succession of corporate sponsors, Connections has commissioned a slate of plays from established playwrights written specifically for young performers. Currently 4000 young people are taking part in Connections; over 180 youth theatre companies across the country have chosen to produce one of this year’s 10 plays. Once they have performed in their school or youth theatre they then transfer to one of 20 Regional Partner Theatres (including Bristol Old Vic, Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and Soho Theatre). Connections Directors from the National Theatre visit each of these performances to offer feedback and
professional support in transferring to regional Partner Theatres.
Once all the Regional Connections Festivals have taken place, one production of each play is selected to be staged at the National Theatre.
A relatively unsung hero, Connections can truly be described as a nationwide celebration of young theatre talent. Several of the Connections plays have subsequently been professionally produced. In 2006, three were produced by the National Theatre, “Burn” by Deborah Gearing, “Chatroom” by Enda Walsh and “Citizenship” by Mark Ravenhill. The young and then relatively unknown Matt Smith, Andrea Riseborough and Andrew Garfield were among the cast.
Chatroom was later developed into a feature film. In 2008, “Baby Girl” by Roy Williams, “DNA” by Dennis Kelly and “The Miracle” by Lin Coghlan also received professional productions in the Cottesloe. A myriad of other young actors, playwrights and directors can trace the beginnings of their career to Connections.
The current Lyric Hammersmith production is brimming with talent. One of the two co-directors, Stef O’Driscoll, won Best Production at the Fringe Report Awards for Yard Gal. Her directorial debut was described as “confidence packed and gripping from the opening seconds.” Her other directorial
half, the “unstoppable young director” Ashley Scott-Layton, was named one of the “People Securing the Future of Theatre” in the Sunday Times.
Together, they direct a cast drawn from the Lyric’s own Youth Company.
Scarlett Billham, who plays Alice, is an aspiring actress with a smattering of professional credits already and a member of the alternative rock band Siren. The male lead is 17 year old George Pelham, who recently signed with a leading agent after training with both the National Youth Theatre and National Youth Music Theatre. These young artists are ones to watch.
The National Theatre Connections’ manifesto proclaims that “the experience of creating, producing and performing live theatre can transform young people's aspirations, skills and life chances.” Connections embodies Steven Sater’s call to arms to “empower the youth.” As a result, the entire theatre world, both
young and old, benefits.
Performances of Alice by Heart at the Lyric Hammersmith from 8th to 10th March, 2012. Tickets available from: http://www.lyric.co.uk/whats-on/production/alice-by-heart/book-tickets/?pes=2012-03-01#production-content
Full List of Theatres Participating in National Theatre Connections in 2012 - see page 2
Artsdepot, Finchley www.artsdepot.co.uk
Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal www.breweryarts.co.uk
Bristol Old Vic www.bristololdvic.org.uk
Chichester Festival Theatre www.cft.org.uk
The Garage, Norwich www.thegarage.org.uk
Grand Opera House, Belfast www.goh.co.uk
The Lowry, Salford www.thelowry.com
Lyric Hammersmith www.lyric.co.uk
Oxford Playhouse www.oxfordplayhouse.com
Northern Stage www.northernstage.co.uk
Norwich Playhouse www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk
Soho Theatre www.sohotheatre.com
Sheffield Theatres www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk
Rose Theatre Kingston www.rosetheatrekingston.org
Royal & Derngate, Northampton www.royalandderngate.co.uk
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh www.lyceum.org.uk
Theatre Royal Plymouth www.theatreroyal.com