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NESTS – The trials and tribulations of casting a boy

By Heather Fulton, Artistic Director Frozen Charlotte Productions

I am delighted that NESTS will be touring Scotland in September this year. It’s been rather a long process to make it happen. Xana Marwick, Writer, first created the script in 2012. More development was done in 2013 and in 2014 Xana directed a reading of NESTS - my first introduction to the play and The Boy.

The Boy in NESTS fascinates me. He is strong and vulnerable, lost and in control and above all so, so familiar.

Immediately before seeing the reading I had heard a story on the radio raising the question of who baby P, Peter Connelly, might have become if he had had the chance to grown up.

The presenter proposed that a child that had suffered this much abuse would have been very likely to have grown up into an extremely damaged, troubled young person.

She said an abused toddler people have to help – we are horrified by even the thought of a young child being mistreated. But what about a teenager? A hard, hooded, skinny, dangerous looking teenager. They have been and may still be going through abuse, neglect, loss, depression – who wants to help them? Is it just easier to dub them feral youths and write them off?

NESTS reading at Summerhall 2014 - image by Sheila Masson

Nicola Jo Cully (aka Penguina from Too Many Penguins?) Played The boy for this reading – she was amazing as always – but I wanted it to be more real; the script is so close to the bone, so real. I wanted the actors to be as close to the parts as possible.

So when Xana approached me to direct the next incarnation of NESTS presented in 2016 we cast a boy – Tom aged 12 – as The Boy.

We had little time to rehearse but enough to get a flavor of how the show could work with a child in the part. It was exciting – the response from the reading was positive and a lot of people were interested to see a young person cast in a serious and moving piece of theatre.

2016 Rehearsed Reading - Image by Jassy Earl

We spent two years looking for a way of funding a full production of NESTS, when finally it happened the decision was made to cast a boy as The Boy.

We had carefully considered the logistics - double cast for camaraderie also to split the load not to exhaust our young people. Chaperones available and over night stays and days of school missed kept to an absolute minimum.

We began auditions in Edinburgh. We went to schools, youth theatres, professional agents and did general call outs. Anyone who has ever done any work with young folk will appreciate it can be like herding cats.

List of things that can go wrong:

  • They forget to turn up

  • They do turn up but they can’t do the dates

  • They get through to the next round and then don’t want to do any more

  • Their voice might break at any time

  • They are totally brilliant but don’t fit the brief in any way

  • They grow (by September they could have doubled in height)

We always new it would be a big ask – the script is incredibly demanding for an accomplished actor, it’s a two hander and both characters are on stage for the entire time and it’s a month long tour with, on occasion, two shows a day.

We started to worry – we had not seen any one young person (let alone two) who completely fit the brief. Xana raised the idea of working with a female actor again – not an idea I was keen to hear. It felt like failing, letting myself and the show down after years of picturing it with the perfect, Ken Loach style youngster.

The actual reality though was that the young people I was excited about all had aspects that needed work – sometimes they were naturally like the character but lacked any performance experience, others had lots of experience but didn’t get the boy or his life. We have limited rehearsal time with the young people and rehearsing in two meant this was, in effect, split in half.

We started seeing some short, young looking women on the side. I was blown away by many of them, having been convinced that it couldn’t work. I still had doubts, still clinging to the power of seeing a young person on stage – the reality of someone that age being that young person. I felt if we cast a young person audiences couldn’t write NESTS off as being a story – the child’s vulnerability and strength would make them think and feel for the young people who live their lives like our protagonist, struggling every day to survive.

So to ensure we gave our young auditionees a fair punt, we ran a two-day workshop audition with two of the amazing young men we recalled from previous castings.

This was so much fun. Both actors treated the process, as would a professional. I was genuinely impressed by their openness, focus and generosity towards each other working on the part. I learned a lot. We brought in our actor playing The Father, to perform with the young people and the female actors we had recalled from previous auditions.

It was such a hard decision. The quality the young people brought was so real and vulnerable but the level of performance the professional actors achieved was beyond match. I called on my friend Louise from Catherine Wheels who joined us as an outside eye and to contribute an objective opinion.

The largest factor in making the decision was time. Both young actors could most probably have got to the place we needed but we would have required much more time. One of the young actors had been in a West End Production and said that the auditioning process took a year. We had 5 sessions over three months and in retrospect rehearsals should have been planned for around 6 months.

So we made the decision to go for one of those young looking, short women who also happens to be extremely talented.

I thought I might be disappointed in losing my Ken Loach boy but I am not. We will do another show with a young person – one of the joys of having a theatre company that produces work for and with children makes this quite likely.

Now that the decision has been made it feels like a new world of possibility has opened up. I am excited about the depth in which we can explore the text; the emotions; the back-stories of both characters and the complex world in which they live.

And because there are no children in the room we can do it all whilst drinking martinis, smoking cigarettes and swearing profusely*

* all of which we probably won’t, but we could…
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