Katrina Cornwall is the founder and Artistic Director of Riot Stage Youth Theatre Company whose latest work F. is about to have it's premiere as part of the 2016 Poppy Seed Theatre Festival. When she spoke with Jan Chandler she was clearly excited at the prospect.

Katrina CornwallKatrina was working as a teacher with Zen Zen Zo in Brisbane when they threw her 'kicking and screaming' into a school residency. Then in her early twenties, she thought of herself as an actor and wasn't sure if she could be a director, but things quickly changed; 'Everything clicked into place once I was working collaboratively with young people … they are so creative, so bold and have so much to say that it's always inspiring.' Believing that young artists need to be heard, given a voice and a platform to express their ideas, she went on to found Riot Stage in 2010. 'Theatre is such a tool for communication … young people are hungry to have their voices heard' and they should be taken seriously.

F. has been more than two years in the making. Katrina and writer Morgan Rose had the idea of looking at Spring Awakening, a German expressionist play from the early 1900s which is now a Broadway musical. They wanted to update the play so they did a development with a group of young people. Their response? 'It's not that relevant 'cos it's really different now'. The play deals with themes surrounding young people's sexuality at a time when parents told their children little or nothing about sex and, for its time, was really progressive, looking at issues such as consent, sexual preference, mental health and suicide. Beginning with these they started unpacking the ideas and then asked the young people: What else is there? What else is happening? What does the internet throw into the mix? Together they developed the show through a combination of staged improvisations, cast discussions, and anonymous online surveys completed by the cast and members of their networks offering them a safer place to talk about their responses to more sensitive topics.

The performers come from all over Melbourne, suburbs as diverse as Elwood, Frankston, and Moreland. Some of the young people have worked with Riot Stage before, others were selected via audition, the first Riot Stage has ever held. Katrina and Rose wanted a big ensemble made up of diverse personalities who would express a wide range of opinions and viewpoints; rather than trained performers they wanted people with passion and self belief.

Understanding that sex and sexuality can be a confronting subject for almost anyone, Katrina and Rose arranged for a peer advisor to be present in the rehearsal room during the development process, to offer support for the young people when and if needed. They also took care to seek cast approval for any ideas they wanted to include in the play. 'This takes a lot of time so we have had to be slow in our methodology to allow space for reflection … When you know you're on a clock – I've got to make something. We're on a deadline – it's counter-intuitive to slow down … we've tried to take it slowly and it's really worked; they're really on board with what we've created.'

Some of the discussions they have had have been 'really amazing'. At first both Katrina and Rose hesitated to start certain conversations. To make it easier for everyone they created a space which allowed everyone to approach the work and the conversations in whatever way they felt most comfortable. Some were really vocal; others sat back, waited and threw their comments in at the end. Everything was acceptable and everyone was fully engaged in the process. One of the big discoveries for the director and writer was the 'grey zone' that exists for many young people around relationships and sexual encounters. They often felt they lacked information about how to handle such situations, as well as the right language so that they might effectively express their feelings in the moment. Clearly adults need to learn to become more comfortable when talking about sex with young people.

Being part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival has been really important for all concerned. 'Sometimes it's tough to get people to take youth theatre seriously … so to be accepted into this Festival has given us, and what we're doing, some recognition and some validation ... It feels really empowering for us and also for the young people'. Early production meetings involving the four groups who have works in the Festival, gave them the chance to be involved in making decisions about the production and marketing of the shows, and to share resources. Now that the Festival is up and running they are able to see each of the other performances. This is particularly exciting for this group of young hopefuls, many of whom want to go on to study at the VCA, giving them the opportunity to chat with other young artists, many recent graduates, and experience the different kinds of theatre that these young people are creating.

F. is 'an emotional roller-coaster, as overwhelming as the internet', with lots of sound and projection, and a large number of characters ensuring that everything moves along very quickly. Katrina hopes that F. will attract a mixed audience. It 'is a very good piece of theatre … not just because you can learn something from the young people [but because] you can also learn something from their very bold theatre making choices'. The themes in the show are important and relevant for people of all ages, but Katrina really wants the older audience members to 'question the world that we've created for these young people, and also to be hopeful about these young people we have created who are so smart and so intelligent.'

Riot Stage presents
World premiere
30 November – 11 December 2016
Poppy Seed Theatre Festival

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