Young Court and Cuttin’ It  

Part of the Royal Court’s outreach programme, Susan Elkin finds out about Young Court and the recent schools’ tour of challenging play Cuttin’ It

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an urgent issue. Still widespread in many parts of the world and amongst some immigrant communities, it is illegal in Britain. It is also taboo. Arguably it shouldn’t be. It needs to be confronted and discussed in schools so that eventually enlightenment might spread.

Enter the play Cuttin’ It by Charlene James. Commissioned by the Royal Court and directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour it toured secondary schools last month having first been performed at the Royal Court in 2016 in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and The Yard Theatre. The play was part of, Young Court, the outreach Royal Court’s work does with young people aged 8 to 25.

“We want teenagers to be informed about and aware of FGM so that they might act as advocates” says Romana Flello, Young Court manager. “And we in the theatre industry are in the best place to do that. We can use drama to build bridges.”

Each school visit involved a pre-show workshop followed by a post-show question and answer session with the pupils led by Young Court. Workshop leaders attended training sessions with the organisation Solace Women’s Aid and had the full support of Louise Williams, clinical nurse at the women’s division of University College Hospital.

“In practice we find that the young people we meet don’t want to talk about this and many aren’t comfortable discussing their own genitalia”, says Romana, “so we have to work hard and tread carefully.”

It’s discursive rather than judgemental. One of the topics they discuss, for example, is the positive side of FGM drawing from the students things such as it makes you feel grown up and part of a group.

The classes they’ve worked with have mostly been in mixed schools. How do the boys react? “We’ve had some astonishing responses with some boys being very shocked and upset – even crying” says Romana adding that this is, in part, a testament to the outstanding quality of Cuttin’ It (it won both the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play and the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016) and the two actors, Marième Diouf and Jessica Kennedy who appear in it.

“Many of the young people who see the play lack sex education. FGM is part of the PSHE curriculum for Year 7 but some schools don’t do it.” says Romana. “That’s why it is so powerful for these teenagers to see themselves on stage in Cuttin’ It”

Young Court was set up two and a half years ago and has three strands: work with schools, teachers and young people who come into the Royal Court. There’s a lot of focus (“because this is the Royal Court after all!” says Romana) on young writers.

“We have a Young Script Panel for example” says Romana. “A lot of ideas come from them and they influence programming. There’s also a Young Agitators Group which runs Q&A sessions and other events relating to shows.”

Moreover, The Royal Court also now has a youth theatre for the first time in 20 years. “We began last year and built up to about twenty-six 14 to 19 year olds.” Romana explains. “That is just starting again for this year. We use emerging designers and musicians for the youth theatre shows. It’s all about providing stepping stones and progression for young people”

Overall about 800 young people are involved in Young Court. “They come from all over London and its outskirts” says Romana. It’s targeted recruitment with young people being recommended by schools and other youth organisations. We have partnerships with other theatres too. And that’s important because we don’t want anyone to think that just because we’re in Sloane Square and famous we are in any way distant, stand-offish or unwelcoming”

Participation in Young Court is completely free. “We cover the costs with Arts Council Funding and with support from trusts and foundations” says Romana. “We can help with travel if necessary too.”

There are at present no plans to revive Cuttin’ It but Romana would jump at the chance to tour it again if the opportunity arose. “It’s very important to take the work outside London, for example”, she says, mentioning that when they’ve worked in Birmingham they’ve discovered even higher levels of lack of confidence and need for drama.