What NT Connections 2023 means to us


Last week, we welcomed hundreds of young people into our theatre and studios for NT Connections 2023. We were one of just 36 venues and the only one in East Anglia to host the festival, which champions budding creatives looking to kick-start their career in the arts. 

Entering the industry has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Despite the arts and culture sector being responsible for £21.2billion in direct turnover and 137,250 jobs according to an Arts Council England report commissioned from the Centre for Economic and Business Research.

Covid had an unprecedented effect on future makers and the cultural economy. A graduate market in 2021 report said overall graduate employment was 15% below pandemic targets, the biggest drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

Those looking to enter the creative industries are facing a lack of entry-level opportunities, insufficient paid opportunities, not enough experience to match job requirements, increased uncertainty and increased competition.

The challenges extend backstage too. Leading arts organisations like the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre Scotland have warned of a continuing shortage of digital and technical workers.

For young people taking their very first step into the arts, there’s also continuing cuts to arts courses in both higher and further education.

The working-class is still massively under-represented. According to analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics, the level of working-class actors, musicians and writers has decreased by half since the 1970s. It found 16.4% of those in the industry born in 1953-1962 had a working-class history compared to 7.9% for those born in the Noughties and 2000s. A 2021 Women in Theatre Forum Report also warned of increased gender disparity in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Roberta Zuric is a director and NT Connections mentor. She spent the week with us, watching and guiding the young performers.

She said: “The programme is so important because it’s so wide-reaching. It’s a big part of the ‘national’ in the National Theatre. It’s about fostering talent from around the country that isn’t just London-centric and who might not know they have access to partner venues such as The Garage.

“By having more than 300 companies taking part it’s so broad. It unites everyone. When I go to small towns who feel quite remote, where maybe that’s the only drama they have in their community…

“To suddenly be able to come here, be part of a bigger festival and meet other young people who are doing some other things – it’s something really special and exciting. It’s giving that theatre experience to young people of working in contemporary drama, responding to playwrights that are writing for the young people now.

“With funding cuts in schools and cultural institutions across the country, for anyone who wants to enter the arts, those paths are getting smaller. This is a lifeline. This is us going ‘we’re not giving up’. I feel by cutting the opportunities, you’re cutting sort of an arm off. They have all the STEM subjects, but they also need that empathy and creativity and communication skills. We need to keep not just developing artists, but young people.”

Click the video below to hear more from Roberta, our CEO Adam Taylor, and performers Olivia and Lucy. They were speaking to Sam Day from BBC Radio Norfolk.


 Dominic Whitehead, chairman of Huntingdon Youth Theatre, said one of the most significant things about being involved in NT Connections was the chance to meet and work with a variety of writers and directors from around the country.

He added: “This brings a whole new perspective to our work as the range of different creative inputs is so broad. Both the actors and our young directors have benefitted hugely from the experiences of both the team at the National Theatre and the expertise of the professional partner theatres.

“Taking our young cast outside of their normal, slightly parochial environment, has also been hugely important to us and them. Meeting like-minded and exciting new acquaintances within the theatrical sector has driven them all on to bigger and better things.”

Paul Stone is director of drama at Ipswich High School, home to the Hayworth Players. They love working on new plays by new writers, workshops with new directors…

He added: “You’re always learning. We like coming to The Garage and having that experience of putting on a performance in a professional venue. It makes a huge difference to the pupils that we come out of the school environment. It gives that real sense of occasion to it.

“They love doing plays that are a bit more modern. The issues are always interesting because they’re written for young people. Rather than them trying to play something that’s written for people with a completely different life experience. It’s rooted in in their world.

“Since the pandemic, you still feel lucky each time you get to put on a performance. It’s changed the way you feel about being able to do it.”

Sadie Grist, director of the Westacre Theatre Company, echoed his post-lockdown sentiments.

She said: “It’s important opportunities like this exist. After Covid it was so clear the social skills of these kids had suffered. They were all very separate. It was palpable. When we got into the NT performance, something about the adrenaline and the excitement got them together as a group.

“They were laughing spontaneously with each other. It was absolutely joyful to watch them have this shared experience. One of the things we desperately wanted to do was reinvigorate the youth theatre when we took over…

Connections is a brilliant way to go ‘okay, here’s a here’s a tiny tour, a little bit of competition’. For our older kids to step off into just something a little bit more pro. A [step towards a] potential career or if they decide theatre is something they just want to keep in their lives.”

Marie Cunningham is principal of Wisbech School of Performing Arts, home to Ratzcool. She said being part of NT Connections has been an amazing experience for their young people.

“The whole process has helped so much in terms of them building confidence, creating friendships, and exploring their creativity. Our company has gained a real insight into all aspects of theatre, being part of the many stages of the show’s development.

“Most importantly, it has allowed individuals to celebrate their own talents and creativeness and have their voices heard and valued. It’s been a unique experience and one that allows young people to connect with the arts in a very special and memorable way.”

Katherine Nightingale, creative director of 20Twenty Productions, said working with fresh teenage plays gave the young people it works with the opportunity to do something different.

“Every cast who have been part of this festival have bonded in a way that doesn’t happen with our musical theatre groups. The cast have the opportunity to perform in a different space in a different city.”

Cast members Lexie and Ethan are new to Connections.

Lexie said: “I feel more connected with the audience than I do with musical theatre. I really like my part.”

Ethan said: “It’s been really fun. It’s been great working with a small group of people.”

Reeva Randhawa, a member of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds’ Young Company, had never done anything like this before. She didn’t even take drama at school.

She said: “I was hesitant to join and was really nervous. Everyone quickly made me feel welcome. I really enjoyed the whole process. It gave me a chance to be part of something new. It was a great experience.”

Thank you, Framingham Earl High SchoolIpswich High SchoolHuntingdon Youth TheatrePACT TheatreHayworth PlayersRatzcoolThe Thetford AcademyOne Act Theatre CompanyFisher Youth Theatre GroupTheatre Royal Bury St Edmunds’ Young CompanyNine Lives Theatre Company20Twenty ProductionsSuffolk New College Performing Arts, and Westacre Theatre Company. We hope you had as much fun as we did.

Connections is now in its 28th year. Every year it commissions new plays for young people to perform. Bringing together some of the UK’s most exciting writers with tomorrow’s theatre-makers. It’s open to any company of young people aged 13-19, no matter how much or little experience you have. Applications for 2024 are now open.

If you’ve been inspired by taking part in or watching a Connections performance, find out more about our creative classesGCSEs in Dance and Drama, and our Introduction to the Creative Industries course.

Our friendly front of house team are happy to answer any questions. Give them a call on 01603 283382 or email info@thegarage.org.uk.

Keep up to date with everything we’re up to by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.


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