Young people deserve theatre that asks complex questions, 20 Stories High co-founder Julia Samuels tells Laura Davis.
EVERY 20 Stories High play starts with a conversation between young people. This time it was a frank discussion about sex – Is it right to have sex before marriage? Is it acceptable to sleep around? Where does homosexuality fit in?
There’s currently an interesting dynamic in the organisation’s young actors company. One half is made up of Liverpool-born young people from a mixture of racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. The other half, who are deeply committed Christians, were born in various African countries before their families settled here.
The collision of two different cultures is eye-opening, not just for the young people but for 20 Stories High co-founders Julia Samuels and Keith Saha.
“Our African young people have not just been brought up in a Christian environment but have taken those beliefs on themselves as young adults so they can have quite strong opinions about sex being something that happens within marriage and that promiscuity is not the way to behave,” says Samuels.
“And for some of them there are struggles to reconcile homosexuality because there are seen to be contradictions within the Bible.
“They are very passionate that they’re not homophobic and that they don’t have a problem with gay people but they can’t quite see how that works with Christianity.”
Their conversation with the Liverpool-born members of the group, who tend to be more relaxed about these issues, formed one of the starting points of Whole, which opens at The Unity next week featuring “sex, death, love and dubstep”.
It’s the story of Holly, who has had a tough childhood, spending a period in care and coping with her mum’s health issues. She is coping though, thanks to her friendship with Dylan and Chantal – but then things get complicated.
“It’s funny and moving in places,” says Samuels. “It’s a story that young people and the not so young need to see. It raises a lot of tricky and interesting questions.”
The script has been written by Philip Osment, an award-winning writer who has been working as an artistic mentor and dramaturge to Samuels and Saha for several years.
“We were really interested in approaching sexuality as a theme because of the conversations that kept coming up with the young people and we thought that Philip, as a gay writer, would be a good person to bring on board,” says Samuels, who is directing Whole.
“The young people are really good at standing up for what they believe in but also at listening respectfully and being ready to be flexible and seeing it’s positive to see something from someone else’s point of view.”
After working together at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, Samuels and Saha realised they were jointly passionate about young people having access to high quality theatre.
In 2006, they moved to Liverpool to establish 20 Stories High to create professional theatre pieces that tour to venues across the UK as well as participatory projects with young people, which includes a youth theatre and young actors company.
As a British Asian, Liverpool-born Saha felt the city’s theatres were not sufficiently culturally diverse when he had been growing up in the area.
This is also something 20 Stories High seeks to redress. Its work is rooted in cultural diversity and aims to involve reach young people from excluded communities. It targets the geographical areas of Kensington, Wavertree and Toxteth but is also open to those from across the city.
Its productions include the Capital of Culture-commissioned play Babul and the Blue Bear; Ghost Boy, which used dance, physical theatre, masks, graffiti, a cellist and a beat boxer to tell the story of a young offender at the Liverpool Everyman; Blackberry Trout Face by Liverpool writer Laurence Wilson and, most recently, the verbatim theatre piece Tales from the MP3.
Last year, 20 Stories High’s hard work was rewarded when it was named an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation, guaranteeing funding until 2015.
“We’re both really passionate about how a lot of theatre is very white and middle class and for a restricted audience and wanted to make it possible for other audiences, particularly young people and culturally diverse audiences to engage,” says Samuels.
“We would have conversations with teachers asking ‘have you had any work in schools?’ and they’d say ‘oh yeah, we had a play about sunbeds last year’.
“There’s such a lot of work going out about giving a message for one agency or another and that some of might be really valuable.
“But we were really interested in making theatre that asked very complex questions.”
WHOLE is at The Unity from January 31 to February 2.