Joyce McMillan: Junction 25, the Glasgow theatre group for young people, is taking political debate to London
It’s 12 years, now, since directors Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore – both graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – launched Junction 25 at the Tramway in Glasgow, as a theatre company of 25 young people aged between 11 and 18 who would set their own agenda and shape their own work, and – with the help of a professional team – produce shows of real artistic quality. And in that time, Junction 25 has won recognition as one of the UK’s leading young people’s theatre companies, tackling subjects that range from the trials of school exam culture to the pressures of living in an ever-more-interconnected surveillance society.
Yet co-director Thorpe feels that in all those years, Junction 25 has never known a finer moment than the one it experienced last summer, on the day of the European Union referendum, when it performed the first version of its current show, A Bit of Bite. Partly inspired by the Scottish government’s decision – back in 2012 – to extend the vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum to 16 and 17 year-olds, the show set out to explore how young people themselves feel about politics, about having the vote at 16, and about expressing their political views. And now – in a revised version that confronts post-Brexit realities and deals with the group’s near-universal disappointment at the outcome of that vote, and also reflects on Donald Trump’s election – A Bit Of Bite is about to make the journey to London, where it will appear as part of the UK-wide Homegrown Festival of young people’s theatre at Battersea Arts Centre.
“It’s called A Bit of Bite because of something one of the company members said in rehearsal,” says Thorpe, “about someone with opinions having ‘a bit of bite’ about her. The company chose the title and I think it captures something about getting your blood up about politics, and speaking out rather than keeping quiet. We are living in very politically charged times; and of all the Junction 25 shows I’ve been involved in, this is the one that seems most in synch with the world as it is at this moment, and the most urgent.
“The show adopts a kind of Westminster parliamentary format, with the audience sitting on two opposing sides, and the company all wearing oversized versions of conventional politicians’ suits. At one point, there’s a parody of Question Time; and there are also reflective monologues about individual experiences of the times we’re living through.”
One of those monologues is delivered by Laiqa Umar, who has been involved with Junction 25 since 2013, when Thorpe and Gore put together the Tramway’s huge Albert Drive project, about the astonishingly diverse Glasgow South Side community around the theatre. Laiqa is now 18, and is currently the only member of the company from a Glasgow Muslim background; and at first, she felt unsure about the Bit of Bite project.
“I was a wee bit apprehensive, to be honest,” she explains. “When I was younger, I really hated politics and detested politicians – they were just people talking on television, or whatever. As soon as we started working on the show, though, I realised it wasn’t about politicians. It was about how you feel and how other people feel, about their lives and what’s going to happen in the future.
“So I realised that this is also about me – I can talk about a huge spectrum of things, and say how I really see them. My family were also a bit apprehensive when I first got involved with Junction 25, but when they realised we were making our own work in our own words, and saw how it was helping my confidence, they became very happy about it. It really has opened up the world for me, in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
Laiqa’s monologue in A Bit of Bite is about her own experience of racism in Glasgow, particularly since the EU referendum; about being told to “go back to her own country” even though she was born in Glasgow, or called a “terrorist”.
“It’s something we often don’t talk about, or just try to ignore,” she says. “But in the monologue, I ask why this is still going on, what’s causing racism to continue; and I think some of the people who say these things do feel more confident, because of what’s been happening in politics – not just in Britain, but everywhere.”
Whatever the stresses and strains reflected in the political debate, though, it seems Junction 25 company members have no doubt the extension of the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds was a good thing, and – in an age group who are generally still at school – offered a huge opportunity for young people to learn about politics. Thorpe says the company is now trying to widen its audience among young people, as they become more engaged in public debate, and is looking forward to presenting the show to the other companies in the Homegrown Festival.
“I was actually still too young to vote in the 2014 referendum,” Laiqa says, “but I think it was absolutely amazing. I never realised how involved young people could be in politics until I saw how they were coming to school really asking for information, and to hear both sides of the debate. And in this Bit of Bite project, I think we’re all thinking – well, this is a very scary time we’re living in. But let’s learn all we can, and do our research, and make it clear that young people do have a voice now, and we want it to have some power.”
A Bit of Bite is at Platform, Glasgow, on 29 March, and at Battersea Arts Centre, London, 6-7 April, www.glassperformance.co.uk/main/junction-25