The play shining a light on the student mind

Gracia Kayindo & Serafina Willow-Edwards

Gracia Kayindo & Serafina Willow-Edwards - Credit: Archant

Anna Behrmann catches up with Brainstorm’s writers and actors to see why the play is making parents cry

In an innovative new play examining the workings of the adolescent brain, a cast of ten teenagers will act out their personal stories on stage at the National Theatre.

Speaking with the writers Ned Glasier and Emily Lim from the Islington Community Theatre and two of the cast members, it’s clear the teenagers were central to the creative process.

The journey of this performance started at a residential week in Norfolk, where the teenagers improvised and shared their ideas and histories. Since then, the cast, aged between 14 and 18, have spent hundreds of hours rehearsing and talking with the writers.

“We’re always trying to find those little moments that contain the real essence and meat of their journeys,” writer Emily Lim says. “Sometimes it’s been conversations we’ve had over pizza, or something someone said when they were walking back to the train station.”

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Some of the teenages even volunteered to have their brains scanned, as part of the play’s collaboration with leading cognitive neuroscientists Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Kate Mills.

With the advent of MRI scans, we can now see that our brain continues to change into adolescence. Changes to the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain apparently offers an insight into behaviours such as risk-taking.

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“The teenage brain is full of this incredible potential and the socially difficult behaviours that teenagers can sometimes demonstrate can be traced back to the changes that are happening inside our heads,” Lim explains.

All of the teenage cast are trained by the Islington Community Theatre, based at Islington Central Library in Fieldway Crescent, which works with young people referred by teachers, youth workers or social workers.

In Brainstorm, the teenagers explore the delicate relationships they can have with their parents. Serafina Willow-Edwards, 14, describes how her mother came to visit her in a rehearsal. In one scene, all the teenagers hold up placards with the things that they feel that they cannot say to their parents’ faces. “After my mum saw that scene she was crying to me, saying, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, sorry I treated you this way,” she says.

Yaamin Chowdhury, 16, has been part of the theatre group since he was 11. He acts out a scene where he has a huge fight with his mum about going to the shop and buying the wrong type of chicken, which starts out as funny but turns out a lot more serious.

“It’s a very kind of cathartic and hard moment,” says writer Ned Glasier. Yaamin came up with his lines by himself while improvising in one of the rehearsals. “We changed about six words of it,” Glasier says. “We just wrote it down as he said it.”

The writers hope that teenagers come to see the play, but also that their parents come. “The trickiest things the play throws up are about the strongest, most vulnerable relationships we have at that age – which are primarily with our parents,” Glasier says. “The cast have been unbelievably honest and brave about sharing all the good and the difficult things about those relationships.

“What’s been really beautiful is the response from the company’s parents has been so supportive. And in some cases the act of doing the play has really helped develop their relationships in really amazing ways.”

The play has a short life-span – the cast are playing themselves, and are growing older. As Glasier puts it, “It’s never the same every night and it can never be the same play.”

Brainstorm runs in the temporary space outside the National Theatre from July 23- 25. To book

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