Joyce McMillan: Dispatches from surveillance society

Juntion 25 Youth Theatre Group at Tramway. Picture: Contributed
Juntion 25 Youth Theatre Group at Tramway. Picture: Contributed
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Our theatre critic Joyce McMillan applauds youth theatre group Junction 25 performing at Tramway

As we file in, in small groups of four, the main theatre space at the Tramway looks mysterious, yet somehow gorgeous. In the middle, there’s a great circular swathe of black curtain with, every few yards, an entrance through which we are led into a booth-sized space, to experience one of the ten scenes that make up the show; and along the outer walls, light glimmers soft and gold, showing up the texture of this remarkable space.

The show is 5.9 Million, the latest production by Tramway’s award-winning youth theatre company Junction 25. The theme – hammered out through discussion among the 25 11-18 year-olds who make up the company – is the surveillance society in which we increasingly live; 5.9 million is the number of CCTV cameras currently installed in Britain. And if we add to the CCTV phenomenon the intrusive power of photo-sharing and public chat on social media, then we have the material that drives a series of ten unforgettable short scenes, from the two girls – bully and victim – indulging in an ever-more-cruel online conversation in a dimly-lit bedroom, to the room that only contains a small live camera, and our group reactions to its watching eye. Then at the end, there’s a brief moment of choreographed reflection on all the precious, weird, unmeasurable, creative and silly things we do when we know no-one else is watching; and Junction 25 once again leave us with a sense both of something precious in imminent danger of being lost, and of a hugely energetic response to that loss, from the generation most affected by it.

Junction 25 was founded in 2005 by Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore, two Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates who wanted – through their company, Glas(s) Performance – to work closely with communities, including young people; and in the last half-decade, the company has shot to international fame with shows like From Where I Am Standing – about teenagers and their parents – and I Hope My Heart Goes First, about love and the body. Junction 25 has been acclaimed by Guardian critic Lyn Gardner as creating some of the finest theatre she has ever seen, and has appeared on the Edinburgh Fringe, in London and Norway, and – recently – in Brazil, where their 2012 show Anoesis, about school exam anxiety, was performed by youth theatre groups across the country.

“The key to Junction 25’s success is that unique combination Jess and Tashi first brought to the project,” says Viviane Hullin, one of Junction 25’s first teenage members, and now, at 25, its producer. “The shows are absolutely owned and driven by the young company, by their priorities, their thoughts. Then we reach that amazing point in rehearsal where we know we have to shape it into a show, with the best possible light, sound, movement; and Jess and Tashi move almost imperceptibly into the role of directors.”

So how do people get into Junction 25? “We only have 25 places, and the waiting list is very long,” says Hullin. “But it’s absolutely first come first served; we never audition, and it’s all about working with the people who are in the room, some of whom may want a career in theatre, while others definitely don’t.

“And while we know that this is not the only way to do youth theatre, we feel we’re adding something significant to Scotland’s theatre life; and we’re delighted that we’re in a position to carry on doing that, with each new generation of performers.”

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