TASHI Gore and Jess Thorpe are two of the UK’s leading experts in the art of imagined theatre. Founders of Glass Performance, Glasgow’s acclaimed intergenerational community company, they have a particularly notable track record in theater with young people, with companies such as Junction 25 in Glasgow and young offender group Polmont Youth Theater (PYT) .
Co-authors of the book A Beginner’s Guide To Devising Theatre, the duo have been recruited as the new directors of the Dundee Rep Young Company in 2020, just in time to see Scottish society go into lockdown following the Covid-19 pandemic. Undeterred, the duo set to work within the confines of Covid protocols to lay the groundwork for their first stage show at the Rep.
Production began, typically of Thorpe and Gore, with the youngsters themselves. “We’ve just started our design process, which involves asking young people what matters to them, what interests them, and what they feel are the issues they’re living with right now,” says Thorpe.
There has been no shortage of major world events and massive social issues that have arisen over the past 24 months. Not only was the piece created in the midst of the biggest global pandemic in over a century, but the COP26 conference in Glasgow also brought the climate crisis to the fore.
Add to that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – which raises the very real danger of a wider conflict between the nuclear armed camps of the Russian Federation and NATO – and it is clear that the world is placing a heavy burden of anxiety on the shoulders of our young people.
“When it feels like everything is relevant [to the show]you know you’ve found the right starting point,” comments Thorpe.
The young company meets weekly to design its own stage work, under the expert and caring guidance of Thorpe and Gore. It’s a very successful method which turns out, the director tells me, just as fruitful on Tayside.
The origins of Dundee’s new show lie, Thorpe recalls, in young people “talking about their uncertainty about the future. When you’re young, you feel like you can do anything and go anywhere.
However, continues the director, thanks to the Covid crisis, this feeling of freedom “has totally changed”. Having faced the restrictions and worries of lockdown, members of the Dundee Rep Young Company have had to “reprogram their sense of what they have to do in the world”.
The result of two years of channeling those conversations (often through online meetings) into a creative process is a show called Optimism. The title seems brilliantly counterintuitive, given the current state of the world.
It’s a fact young people are well aware of, says Thorpe. One of the main reasons for the naming of the show was precisely the pleasure members of the youth theater company would take in seeing posters with the word ‘Optimism’ displayed in public spaces in the City of Dundee.
Dundee Rep audiences can expect a show that confronts a deeply challenging world with the kind of refreshing, positive attitude that only young people can have. That said, Thorpe was impressed with young people’s awareness of the dangers of foolish optimism.
“They were really keen on not doing a show that would become like a beauty pageant,” she says. In other words, there won’t be a dodgy 1970s-style “swimwear section” in which company members express their desire to achieve world peace and work with children in Africa (or, if there is one, it will be defiantly -cheek).
“There is a very fine border between the way we say everything and the way we say nothing”, observes the director. The key is that the work be honest and sincere.
“It has to be really personal for the things they [the members of the Dundee Rep Young Company] feel and think,” says Thorpe. The show was made, she says, by “placing the autobiography at the center of the process”.
At the heart of the Thorpe-Gore method – whether with Glass Performance, Junction 25 or PYT – are the collective values of ensemble theatre. They have, says Thorpe, had no problem instilling these values in Dundee Rep.
The Tayside Theater has for many years been home to Scotland’s only permanent ensemble of professional actors. It’s no surprise, then, that the rep’s fledgling firm is proving so receptive to Thorpe and Gore’s approach.
The practice of creating ensemble theater involves young people “holding workshops, having creative dialogues and turning conversations into performances”. The members of the young company also wrote material for the show, as well as selected the music to be incorporated into the piece.
“A very big part of the show is TikTok and how young people get information now,” notes Thorpe. “It’s in their phones, it’s fast bursts, and it’s all image-based and designed to get straight to the point of things. There’s something about it that’s quite overwhelming and over-stimulating at times.
However, while Optimism responds to concerns about the impact of social media on young people, it also expresses the thoughts of young theater makers on the more promising topic of youth activism. The question of how young people develop political awareness and transition into activism is also a significant part of the show.
The beauty of Thorpe and Gore’s role in all of this is that they help edit and shape the work without undermining the young people’s sense of ownership of the production. The artistic results of this process have been remarkably and consistently impressive for many years.
The directors create interesting and enriching works, not only for the young people themselves, but also for the public. As Optimism promises to attest, Dundee Rep’s recruitment of Thorpe and Gore is truly a good deed in a wicked world.
Optimism is at Dundee Rep, March 25-26: dundeerep.co.uk