It is a rare privilege to experience the work of a new generation of talented writers up-close, especially in an age of funding cuts for arts subjects in schools and ongoing cost of living crises. The National Theatre’s New Views festival places youth talent centre stage and confirms that the future of British theatre is in capable and imaginative hands.
The annual New Views competition is a chance for young writers, aged 14-19, to write a play alongside the support of mentor playwrights. Teaming up with schools across the country for this programme, the National Theatre's judging panel choose one winning student and give them the opportunity to have their play produced on a stage at the National Theatre. Fifteen-year-old Kiera Grierson, New Views’ 2023 winner, makes a leaping start to her career as a writer, joining a remarkable few who can call the Olivier Theatre home to their debut play. Even so, the sophistication of poetic form and personality shown in Grierson’s 3.2.1. makes it a deeply worthy occupant of the space.
3.2.1 follows the trials of a group of teenagers navigating school crushes, beauty standards and peer pressure, with social media acting as the unnamed character present in all areas of these young people’s lives. Tackling the patriarchal influences that shape the social conditioning of all genders, Grierson does an impressive job at stepping into the male psyche as well as that of the central female figure, Brynn. The dialogue is colloquial and authentic without leaning into satire, and Grierson uses multiple, reminiscently Greek, choruses to represent social norms and the harmful cycles perpetuated within British high school culture. Refreshingly in-touch, it is noticeably a play written about teenagers by a teenager, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
During the following Q&A session, an audience member praised the play’s sense of authenticity before asking how Grierson worked to avoid stepping into the realm of cliches. It was a justified question, yet one the playwright struggled to answer. It came naturally, as Grierson is, of course, a high school student herself. It is a testament to the importance of giving a new generation of young playwrights the chance to explore the craft, enabling fresh and immersive perspectives of modern youth culture that even the most skilled mature writer would struggle to capture.
Truly, it is often the curse of any reference that is acutely contemporary to become immediately dated the moment it is ‘referenced.’ The time between the writing process and production forces the work to become frozen in its moment, a phenomenon which often reads like a literary attempt to be ‘down with the kids.’ However, Grierson’s play skilfully avoids this time capsule; there is no reference to everchanging hashtags or TikTok trends. Rather, Grierson highlights feelings that are universal, yet explores them through a contemporary world of social media. Instead of referencing a cliché fad, Grierson writes about the feeling of waiting a few minutes to reply to your crush’s message, or the thought process behind a high school girl taking a selfie: legs tilted, chest out, t-shirt lower- not that low. Like any impactful play, 3.2.1 is an examination of universal human behaviour, and Grierson does a unique job at delving into the psyche of a generation of social media users, for whom life online has become just as real and integral to the human experience as anything outside of the screen.
‘Living half-lives’ is how Grierson describes modern society, a phrase which captures how the play articulates the human experience within a digital landscape. As director Ian Rickson pointed out, the use of space was crucial in staging 3.2.1; costuming and fleeting lines may imply that the scenes take place in school or home settings, but the overarching ambiguity and open spatial dynamics on stage mimic the social media ‘half-lives’ Grierson discusses. The actions of the play exist in a non-physical and dislocated arena, yet the consequences are no less dire and real for those involved. Several audience members, including a school counsellor, commented during the Q&A that the play ought to be shown to students and parents in schools across the country - a testament to the relevance and reality Grierson manages capture in her work.
A group of young actors also made their National Theatre debut with 3.2.1, doing so with only three days of rehearsals. Three days of preparation is a mighty feat for any acting and production team to conquer, yet to debut on the Olivier stage under those circumstances is undeniably impressive. Due praise must be granted to the cast and BSL interpreter who performed authentically and without falter under such pressure. Through their acting, the sophistication of Grierson’s poetic form shone through, a component that Grierson discussed as being integral to the play’s formation. During the Q&A, Grierson fascinatingly revealed that her writing process began with crafting a long poem that she later assigned dialogue and characters to. The writer’s passion for poetic form was unmissable, as was the creative dynamic between Grierson and Rickson when discussing their production.
It is clear to see the value that the New Views programme had for Grierson, not only through the opportunity of exposure but moreover through what she gained from the mentorship. It was an opportunity to learn her craft with expert guidance, and the sophisticated, personal play that was produced serves as proof of that journey’s success. Yet, the competition’s influence reached further than Grierson; New Views saw hundreds of submissions and resulted in 8 shortlisted plays in 2023, all of which demonstrate the promising future of UK theatre.
It is an opportunity I can only wish to have had in high school, and one that schools nationwide should take advantage of to nurture the talents of a deeply necessary new generation of creative students. To keep updated with New Views, and to apply for a place on their 2023/24 programme, visit the National Theatre’s website here: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/learn-explore/schools/new-views/
Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.