This article, in a slightly shorter version, was written for the book THEATRE FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE, published by Aurora Metro Press in 2005. This book was edited by Stuart Bennett, on behalf of ASSITEJ UK
25 YEARS ON THE WHIRLIGIG:-
AND BEFORE AND SINCE....
David Wood,’ the national children’s dramatist’ (The Times), reflects on his career writing and directing plays for children in the larger theatres.
When I wrote my first play for children in 1967 I had no idea that children’s theatre would takeover my life. My acting career was gaining ground – within a year I would be playing a leading role in Lindsay Anderson’s movie IF…- and my writing had been mainly songs for university revues and a couple of moderately successful musicals for grown-ups Little did I think that nearly four decades later I would have written more than sixty plays and adaptations for young audiences, produced and directed many of them for my own touring children’s theatre company, and helped to pioneer the presentation of plays for children in middle-scale civic theatres and large commercial touring venues.
My acting career has taken a back seat since the early 1980s, although I still perform my own MAGIC AND MUSIC SHOW for children. And my writing now includes children’s books as well as plays. Occasionally I have written plays for children to perform, or to participate in alongside professional actors. But my main passion, as strong now as ever it was, is producing large-scale plays in mainstream theatres, using all the theatrical tricks at my disposal to entertain children, make them laugh, make them think, trigger their imaginations and convince them that the theatre is an exciting place where magical stories unfold and interesting ideas are explored. This is, was, and ever shall be, I believe, a mightily worthwhile challenge. And it never gets easier. Experience helps, but the more I do, the more challenging each project proves to be! But, as all children’s practitioners know, when we get it right, it’s the most rewarding feeling.
The wholehearted gut response of an audience of children is so much more tangible and exciting than the measured sophistication of an audience of adults. The openness, honesty and volatility of children make every performance a roller-coaster ride. The actors are working on a knife edge. And if we get it wrong, if the play isn’t working, children let us know soon enough! No sitting quietly, though bored, and clapping politely at the end, as adults do. Children, when uninvolved, will talk, shuffle and ask to go to the lavatory. I sometimes feel that my entire life’s work has been dedicated to stopping children going to the lavatory, attempting to rivet them to their seats, unable to take their eyes off the stage for fear of missing something. Finding ways to lessen the loo count has undoubtedly contributed to the development of my writing technique and the way I direct the plays and the actors. I tried to describe the process in my book THEATRE FOR CHILDREN : GUIDE TO WRITING, ADAPTING, DIRECTING AND ACTING (Faber 1997).
Over the years I have been aware that my approach, particularly my desire to work in the larger theatres, has caused suspicion amongst my fellow practitioners that my work is too “commercial”. It is true that I have often felt somewhat apart from the national and international children’s theatre movement. My plays have rarely been seen at children’s theatre festivals, because they are too large in scale to travel economically. The cast is often too big. The productions require too much time to get-in and get-out. They require proper theatres with traditional facilities for lighting and sound, and sometimes flying. They need large trucks for transportation. They cannot visit schools or art centres. In spite of these apparent drawbacks, many of my plays, if not my productions, have been seen all over the world, so hopefully I have been getting something right.
Because I am happiest working on a larger scale, perhaps my UK colleagues have felt that I don’t value the work of smaller-scale companies or the qualities of Theatre-In-Education work. This is simply not true. One of my first jobs was in TIE. I loved it. Some of the best plays for children I have ever seen involved just two or three actors working in a small space with the minimum of scenery and props. Such work is inspirational, educational and wonderfully imaginative. But I suppose it is simply not my style.
Perhaps a description of the events leading up to the formation of Whirligig Theatre, a review of how Whirligig developed, and a look at my activities since Whirligig stopped touring, might explain why I believe that theatre for children on a larger scale is valid and worthwhile.
As a child in the fifties I was taken to see pantomimes, the strange, uniquely British hybrid entertainment, supposedly for all the family, in which current comedians and popstars perform a broad version of a traditional story like CINDERELLA or ALADDIN. I found them quite fun, but I far preferred PETER PAN, arguably the first British children’s play. Very early on I decided I wanted to be an actor and work in the theatre. In my teens I acted at school and in youth groups and, perhaps more significantly, began performing magic at children’s birthday parties. This taught me how children react en masse, and explains why, even when it became unfashionable, I used audience participation in my plays. Not gratuitous requests to the audience to tell the goodie in which direction the baddie had gone, rather set pieces whereby the audience could be involved in plotting the downfall of the villain, or creating a storm to avert a catastrophe. Galvanising an audience into an excited whole is something unique to theatre, and children are gloriously willing to enter into the spirit of the entertainment, rather than just sit back and passively listen.
At university I acted a lot and saw many touring adult productions. Once I went to a big commercial pantomime and found myself despairing at how thin the storyline was. The full house – a matinee, mainly made up of children - became restless during lame comedy routines and insipid love songs. Towards the end, the principal comedian cracked an off-colour joke which the children wouldn’t have understood. But several adults cackled appreciatively, whereupon the comedian walked downstage, leant over the footlights, and said, “Let’s get the children out of here, then we can get started”. In the darkened auditorium I blushed and felt my hackles rising! How dare he insult the children so. He was being paid a large amount of money to entertain them, but really longed to be performing his adult cabaret act. I left the theatre thinking of how little real theatre for children was on offer. Occasional productions of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS or THE WIZARD OF OZ were available, but little original writing and virtually nothing to be seen at any time except Christmas.
A couple of years later I was acting and directing at the Swan Theatre, Worcester, a medium-sized repertory theatre in middle England. Asked to produce Saturday morning children’s theatre, I encouraged the actors in the company to join me in presenting storytelling, magic and music, in a light-hearted show which became very popular. Then John Hole, the theatre director, asked me to write the Christmas play, an adaptation of Hans Andersen’s THE TINDERBOX. This was the start! The play wasn’t very good, but did well enough for me to be asked to write another one the following year. This was THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE..., based on the verses and stories of Edward Lear. The reaction of the children to this was wildly enthusiastic. Watching from the back of the auditorium, performance after performance, witnessing the excitement and the total involvement, convinced me that I had found my niche!
I managed to get the play on in London the following year, directed it this time, and thus embarked on what became my life’s work. Although I continued acting as well – for adults – until many years later, my dedication to children’s theatre was total. More plays and more productions followed through the late sixties and early seventies. The plays were published by Samuel French, and repertory companies all over the country performed them. There was even a commercial tour of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE..., presented by a young Cameron Mackintosh. For the first time the play was seen in the large touring houses, and, to my pleasant surprise, even in fifteen hundred-seaters, it still worked. Twelve in the cast. Colourful sets. One musician. Lots of lighting effects. Admittedly I felt it was a little unfair for, say, a six-year-old child to be given his or her first theatre experience sitting in the back row of the circle of the vast Bristol Hippodrome, but the play still got a huge reaction throughout the house. Furthermore, the success of the production, even with a very low seat price, encouraged other theatres, who would never before have dreamt of receiving a children’s play, to make it a regular part of their programming. My aim was to make children’s theatre part of the mainstream fabric of the British theatre scene, not a ghetto activity, barred from proper theatres and restricted to small venues and the Christmas slot.
This is perhaps when other children’s practitioners perceived me as being too commercial an animal. At the same time as I was getting going, the TIE movement had begun, with spectacular success, at the Belgrade, Coventry; actor/teachers were going into schools presenting project plays on contemporary themes. Theatre was becoming an educational tool. Other TIE companies sprung up; evangelists from Coventry travelled to other parts of the UK to spread the word and the work. In 1967 I was in the first production of the Watford TIE company and much enjoyed playing out the drama of the collapse of the Tay Bridge, and then discussing with the audience the notion of collective responsibility.
But I couldn’t help myself wishing that these same children could also experience theatre in a proper theatre building! This became possible when Watford invited me to be in their Christmas pantomime at the Palace Theatre, and I managed to encourage many of the schools we had visited to return the compliment and come and see me on the stage. This behaviour also did not endear me to the purist TIE folk, who really didn’t see themselves as theatre actors, rather as teachers using theatre techniques. Many of them felt that theatre buildings were middle-class institutions, into which children shouldn’t be encouraged to venture. At a children’s theatre/TIE conference I was pilloried for writing THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE... because in it (as in the original Lear poem) the Owl and the Pussycat get married. I was told that marriage was a middle-class institution and that children shouldn’t be encouraged to think of it as automatically “a good thing”. If I was to write a play for children about marriage, I should write it as a project, to be taken into schools, in which the pros and cons of marriage are discussed. Then children could make up their own minds. I have to say this saddened me. It seemed absurd that young children of four or five should have to consider the content of a nonsense poem as an academic exercise (even if theatre techniques were used) rather than be allowed to enjoy themselves seeing the story acted out in a theatre! Furthermore, many of the actor/teachers had themselves entered their careers because they had been taken to the theatre as children, and been inspired by the traditional excitements of the orchestra playing, the curtain going up, and the experiencing of a magical story being played out on stage. But the word “magic” had to them become a dirty word. “Magic” to them was not what theatre for children should be about. I felt the same sadness about the use of the word “drama”, which had become prevalent. To me, “drama” has an academic connotation – a school subject along with History or Physics. To me, the word “theatre” is much more exciting!
So I trod my own path. In 1976 I wrote THE GINGERBREAD MAN, which became my most popular play. It has played ten West End seasons, many repertory seasons, several UK tours, been seen on television (a live version and an animated series) and in book form. For years it was the most performed children’s play in Germany. It toured for ten years in Japan. It opens in China this year (2004). Cynically I can explain its success by saying it has only six in the cast and is performed on one basic set. But I think it also has other qualities. The characters all live on a Welsh Dresser (a kind of cupboard with no doors, but shelves) in a kitchen. The Cuckoo in the clock is losing his voice. The newly-baked Gingerbread Man – an innocent and at first anarchic child, really – helps him find it. A salt pot, a pepper mill, a lonely tea-bag and a scavenging mouse help and hinder. The play uses scale – giant props that children love. The characters are mainly inanimate objects, some with animal connections. They live in their own world – a microcosm of ours. Themes of death (Cuckoo might get thrown away by the human Big Ones, who are heard but never seen) and isolation, as well as the celebration of community life seem to keep audiences worldwide interested and entertained. It is not very deep, but I believe it triggers imaginations and gives pleasure.
The reason there were six actors was partly financial. In the eight years since I had written OWL, the average cast number, even for a regional Christmas show, had been forced down to half the number possible in 1968. Ever since I have rarely been asked to write for more than a cast of eight or ten. But even this number is more than in most smaller-scale productions for children.
By 1979 I had a dream. Rather than produce in London and elsewhere one-off productions for four-week seasons or for repertory Christmas shows, of which I had done several, including THE PLOTTERS OF CABBAGE PATCH CORNER and HIJACK OVER HYGENIA (original plays, incidentally, not adaptations), I wanted to tour, to play full weeks at theatres all over the UK, mainly for school parties. After a successful pilot tour of FLIBBERTY AND THE PENGUIN, my partners and I, thanks to sponsorship from Clarks Shoes, founded Whirligig Theatre, which became “the national children’s touring theatre”, and continued for 25 years. Our London showcase for many years was the prestigious Sadler’s Wells, where we even managed to get some regular national newspaper reviews. We played most of the major UK theatres. The most rewarding thing, apart from building regular schools’ audiences, was that the Whirligig name became trusted and we didn’t have to rely on established titles or adaptations of well-known books. The announcement that “Whirligig is coming” was sufficient to ensure, on the whole, full houses. Funding, however, was always a problem. Clarks Shoes left us after four years. The Arts Council touring department became our main source of income, but frustratingly they only gave us one-off project funding, not guaranteed regular revenue funding. So planning ahead was impossible, as was expansion. We wanted to produce two or three shows a year in different-sized spaces, but this was never to be. We wanted to commission new plays and foster new writers, but we never had the money to do it. There was criticism that Whirligig only produced plays by David Wood, but one reason for this was that I could, and regularly did, waive my royalties if we had financial problems.
In the early years of Whirligig, the plays were an extension of my previous work. THE PLOTTERS OF CABBAGE PATCH CORNER, set in a garden (large props again), featured a cast of insects; NUTCRACKER SWEET was all about nuts! – Monkeynut, Gypsy Brazil, Kernel Walnut and Old Ma Coconut, working in a Nutty May Fair, and threatened by the ghastly Chocolate Squirter, who wanted to transform them into a luxury chocolate assortment; THE IDEAL GNOME EXPEDITION concerned the adventures of two garden gnomes, who experience the dangers and delights of the concrete jungle of the big city. These plays were mainly “entertaining”, but did tackle issues such as road safety. THE PAPERTOWN PAPERCHASE highlighted the dangers of fire. By now we had taken a leaf from the TIE book, and offered an Education Pack and Teachers’ Seminars. But we had neither the resources nor the expertise to give workshops for children.
In the eighties I felt I developed as a playwright, thanks in many ways to the easing of the divisions between children’s theatre and TIE. Children’s theatre was growing and maturing; there was less candyfloss – the plays were entertaining, but also had something to say. TIE had major funding problems, thanks to Mrs Thatcher, and transferred their appeals for cash to the Arts Council rather than the Education Departments. Furthermore, I believe that many TIE practitioners discovered that they needed to entertain more in order to teach better. A cross-fertilisation was taking place. TIE and children’s theatre were assimilating some of each other’s methods, and this was generally mutually beneficial. For my own part, I wrote THE SELFISH SHELLFISH and THE SEE-SAW TREE, both plays about conservation. In the first, the rock pool creatures battle against an invading oil slick. In the second, the inhabitants of an ancient oak tree are in danger of losing their home when a supermarket is scheduled to be built, necessitating the chopping down of the tree. I believe that children “got the point” through identifying with the animal characters – children often prefer animals to human beings! – and became involved, using audience participation, in saving the day. Maybe the solutions offered in the plays are too “easy” and don’t really reflect the harshness of real life, but certainly the response, in the children’s letters and pictures, and the teachers’ comments, suggested they worked on both levels – the theatre experience and the issue awareness. SAVE THE HUMAN went even further; this was a play about animal rights. Rather than depicting grizzly scenes of beagles smoking cigarettes in laboratories, I used role reversal to make the point. In the future, when human beings have ruined everything with wars and pollution, animals “rule the world” and employ the few remaining human beings as work-humans or pets. Becky Bear tries to “Save the Human” in a huge campaign.
So, by the late eighties I really felt we were progressing. The plays were imaginatively staged – SAVE THE HUMAN used back projection – and we tried out a more physical style of acting. Music played a major part – both songs and incidental music. Our actors were rarely beginners; they were not using children’s theatre as a stepping stone to “real” (adult) theatre. They were experienced, dedicated practitioners, who relished working for young audiences; many were regular members of our team.
As a result of our success a number of other companies started touring, some commercial, some non-profit making. Some fell by the wayside after a few years. Somehow we survived. Whirligig was never set up as a charity. But we were certainly not a commercial company! We always budgeted to break even, and sometimes that was hard, especially when we failed to raise sponsorship for my adaptation of HRH The Prince of Wales’ THE OLD MAN OF LOCHNAGAR. For some reason (an anti-monarchy feeling among teachers, perhaps) this play never set the box office alight, although it received great reviews. It featured acrobats, zany characters and a beautiful, ever-changing set; it was transferred to television; it came into the West End. But it never really took off.
Like many other companies, we were almost killed off by the Education Reform Act of 1989. Suddenly, because all education was to be free (an admirable ideal), schools couldn’t ask parents for money for school trips, including theatre. Contributions had to be voluntary. Suddenly our advanced pencilled bookings at Sadler’s Wells that year dropped from 7,000 to 4,000 by the time we arrived to perform. Schools cancelled in droves. It has taken many years for the effects of the Education Reform Act to diminish. It still is the law, but many schools happily “forget” to mention the word “voluntary” in their request for contributions.
Round about the same time, many civic and other theatres, who had formerly included children’s theatre at a low seat price in their regular programming, as a service to the children and schools of their communities, found that they could no longer afford to rob Peter to pay Paul. Balancing the losses on a week of full houses for the children’s show with the big profit from a touring adult musical was no longer an option. Each show had to pay its way. Whirligig became sidelined because the theatres took in more commercial product of the big-title plays. While we struggled on to make Whirligig survive, sometimes doing revivals of THE GINGERBREAD MAN just to tread water, I decided to explore other avenues. When a commercial company, but one of integrity, asked me to adapt and direct Roald Dahl’s THE BFG, I decided to go ahead, using my regular Whirligig team (designer, choreographer, music supervisor etc). It became a major success story – several tours, playing to huge audiences, three West End seasons, and – very significantly – the introduction of early evening performances. The public – families – came at 7.00pm. The schools came in the morning or afternoon. Ten performances a week. The theatres were happy because their bars and restaurants did good business as well as the play. And we never had to share the theatre with an adult attraction – some of my worse near-nervous breakdown moments had been trying desperately not to compromise the quality of our daytime shows, when the adult show producer always assumed his evening production was far more important than ours.
THE BFG was not, I feel, a cop-out. I think the show was a valid theatre experience, not a commercial exploitation. And it has led to a string of similar plays and productions – six Dahl adaptations in all, of which THE WITCHES is the best known. I also wrote and directed two NODDY plays, which, again, I truly believed in, and were full of quality, care and integrity. Sadly these proved too expensive. Now there are cheaper models touring, which, perhaps uncharitably, I feel are somewhat cheap and lacking in magic.
Meanwhile the pressures on Whirligig increased. We needed big titles, but didn’t feel they fitted our credo. An exception was BABE, THE SHEEP-PIG, based on Dick King-Smith’s book THE SHEEP-PIG, source of the successful movie BABE. We financed this with sponsorship from Barclays Bank; it was a co-production with the Library Theatre, Manchester and the Birmingham Hippodrome. It was very well received, “employed” fifteen local children in the cast playing puppies and a flock of sheep, but, to be honest, didn’t “do the business” at the box office. After twenty-five years, we decided to rest Whirligig, having achieved much if not all of what we had aimed for. Nowadays there is much more product around for the theatres. Many more practitioners actually want to work in theatre for children. And there is more – not enough yet! – money available from the funding bodies to support the work.
I am working as hard as ever, writing for other companies. For the Oxford Playhouse I adapted SPOT’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for very small children, and THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER'S LUNCH, an exciting project involving five local primary schools working with two professional actors on the main stage. For Unicorn Theatre I adapted TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN, the 50’s classic by Philippa Pearce. This was beautifully directed by Tony Graham, won an award and transferred to Broadway. For Unicorn I also adapted Philip Pullman’s CLOCKWORK as an opera (music by Stephen McNeff), which broke new boundaries for children’s theatre and played successfully at the Linbury Studio (Royal Opera House). I have also adapted Dahl’s JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH for the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, and the highly successful touring Birmingham Stage Company. Also, the Sherman have commissioned DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD for Christmas 2004, plus a tour.
What have I learned over the years about writing and adaptation for children, particularly in larger theatres? One basic premise is to remember that I am writing for children not me. That doesn’t mean playing down. It means taking note of what children like, are interested in and respond to. In my Faber book I list some ingredients for children’s theatre. Story is an obvious one. Children love stories. A story well told will hold their attention and trigger their imaginations. Other ingredients include magic, colour, music, animals and action – children prefer to watch things happen rather than people talking about them. The theme of justice is important to children; by this I don’t necessarily mean morality, right and wrong, rather the fact that children become emotionally involved when a character is being treated unfairly. The story of Cinderella is a classic and universally popular example.
At an ASSITEJ conference in Tromso I was heavily criticised by a Scandinavian delegate for listing my ingredients. She saw my approach as formulaic. She said I should be writing only about the things I felt passionately about. To me this would seem an indulgence. My job is to find the elements that “work” for children. I see nothing cynical about that. Yes, my own views and ideals may occasionally filter through, but I don’t see that as my reason for writing. My ideas stem from an instinctive knowledge of how children react rather than from a desire to preach or improve. I am indeed passionate. My passion is for children’s theatre, not for voicing my opinions or for exorcising my neuroses through drama.
Pace and clarity are important virtues. Pace doesn’t necessarily mean speed. It means keeping the story going in an immediate and exciting way. Just as good children’s authors don’t, like some adult authors, spend four pages telling us the sun has come out, a children’s playwright needs to deftly move the story forward. Clarity does not mean we should be simplistic; it is just a recognition of the fact that to stop the children becoming bored, they must be able to clearly understand what is going on. Cul-de-sac subplots confuse. The main through storyline is paramount.
Just as in classic books for children, a touch of melodrama and the use of heightened characters often helps. The stories shouldn’t be mundane. The characters should be broadly drawn, though not caricatures. Often I have come up with a basic idea – for example creatures living in a rock pool – and then set about thinking of what could be the worst thing that might happen to them. How might they react? Roald Dahl did this. His witches don’t just cast the odd spell to make someone vanish, they want to eradicate all the children in the whole world! A huge idea, made more potent by the fact that the witches’ target is children, the very audience to which the book is aimed.
When looking for a book to adapt I am looking for some of my suggested ingredients plus what I can only describe as theatricality. Fantasy from reality often provides this. PETER PAN is the classic example. A normal (admittedly Edwardian middle-class normal) family’s bedtime is transformed by the arrival of a magical flying boy, who transports the children through the window to Neverland. From a normal picnic, Alice goes down the rabbit hole and emerges into a strange, illogical world. The Narnia children go through the wardrobe towards danger and adventure. The use of scale adds to theatricality. Little Sophie is taken by the BFG to a world of child eating giants. My own GINGERBREAD MAN kitchen characters are threatened by the human big ones. Products of a vivid imagination with themes of life and death, yet often injected with humour. Children love to laugh.
Translating a story from page to stage, whether it be my own story or that of another writer, involves finding a theatrical language to faithfully deliver it to the audience. How many actors can I employ? Can I use doubling or trebling (sometimes the construction of the play becomes almost mathematical, allowing room for actors to make quick changes)? Can songs be used to further the action rather than delay it? Would puppets be appropriate? Can the scene changes be fluent? Can I find a cliff hanger for the interval, to leave the audience excited to know what happens next? Must I change the structure of the book to make it work theatrically? Can I introduce new characters at strategic points to maintain interest? Do I need an exciting climax towards the end before the story resolves itself? Are there sufficient opportunities for interesting lighting and sound? Can audience participation make a valuable contribution? Do the characters offer enough variety in the way they speak and look and move? Will mime and choreography feature?
Directing many of my own plays has taught me much about the actors’ approach to the work. If an actor feels demeaned by playing, say, a slug or a saltpot, he had best not be employed. The actors need to have retained a sense of wonder, almost innocence. Any sign of cynicism will be instantly spotted by the audience. Children won’t sit there thinking the actors are being insincere, they will simply turn off.
I often direct the actors in a stylised manner to reflect the heightened nature of the characters. “Big” performances, brave performances are often necessary. And, to achieve the correct focus, I often freeze those actors not playing a major part in a scene. A child’s range of vision is not as wide as an adult’s. Children often move their heads from side to side when watching the stage. My job is to always make sure they are looking where I want them to look.
Actors sometimes approach the job thinking that a pervasive atmosphere of enforced jollity is required. But “bigness” does not mean “silly”. Sincerity and truth, acting “in the now”, taking it seriously, not coming out of character, and, as it were, winking at the audience, is vital. Complicity with the audience is one thing, patronising them is another. And the actors must realise that acting to children is more of a roller-coaster ride than performing to adults. Responses will differ. Loud voices from the auditorium may be heard – “I don’t like that one!”, or, “She’s funny!”. And crying infants may well interrupt, forced to stay on the laps of the doting parents, who are determined that their offspring will eventually enjoy the experience for which they are probably far too young.
Techniques I have discovered to hold an audience include the use of “suddenlies” and “positive/negative”. Suddenlies are the equivalent of the page-turning moments in good books. They are the staccato interruptions on bedside screens in hospitals. They are moments when a wandering audience can be jolted back. A sudden new idea, a surprise, a new character entering, a sound cue, a lighting cue, a musical sting, a variety of tone, a change of mood. My aim is to have several suddenlies on every page of text. They – not too obviously I hope – are intended to keep the play alive and the audience alert. I am trying to prevent them from getting distracted by making it impossible for them to take their eyes off the stage for fear of missing something.
“Positive/negative” is something I suggest to actors who have something negative to say, for example, “I’ve never been so unhappy in my life”. The naturalistic way to say the line is to play it inwardly and negatively. But if it is spoken positively, with energy, it becomes an outward pronouncement that helps to retain the character’s link with the audience. It helps keep the scene aloft and alive. It prevents the scene “dropping”.
These instinctive aids have hopefully stopped many children in my audiences turning off and going to the lavatory. A crude system of evaluation, but to me an invaluable one.
In conclusion, my faith in children’s theatre in the middle-scale and large theatres is undiminished. I still believe children’s theatre must be done “properly”, using all the theatrical techniques and tricks at our disposal. I still believe in the magic of fantasy stories. But I also try harder to come to terms with some of the big issues and “difficult” subjects – but always in a theatrical and entertaining way. It saddens me when people still think of children’s theatre as being candyfloss and lacking in substance or content. It simply isn’t true. The current work of Polka Theatre and Unicorn Theatre proves this incontrovertibly. But why are these two (and Playbox in Warwick) our only children’s theatre buildings? Why is children’s theatre still not an integral part of every theatre’s programming? Why isn’t it seen as an art form, as important as any other?
Why is theatre for small people still seen as of small significance deserving small funding? The future of live theatre depends on a healthy children’s theatre, introducing children to a theatre-going habit many will enjoy into adulthood. The purveyors of adult theatre should cherish and nurture the work we do to promulgate the idea of theatre as a leisure activity. I wish that the splendid new writing we are witnessing for smaller-scale children’s theatre could extend to more opportunities for writers who want to provide work for the larger spaces. Why isn’t the National Theatre more proactive in this? Or The Royal Shakespeare Theatre? Children need theatre, I believe. They are entitled to it. It still works, in spite of competition from computer games and videos. The communal experience is much more memorable and life-affirming than the solo experience in front of a small screen. Children still, like adults, need stories, both traditional and modern. They still respond to the immediacy and excitement of live theatre. And there is still a need for children to have their own theatre; it isn’t good enough to say “Take them to Shakespeare, CATS or a panto”.
Finally, I would plead for everybody to reconsider their attitude towards children’s theatre. Especially those in our own profession. We need more training for actors, writers and directors in the craft of children’s theatre. Most of my generation of practitioners learnt by doing it. We were never trained. Some of us should be passing on what we have learnt. Children’s theatre should be perceived as a real opportunity, an accepted branch of theatre in which to work, not just a poor, second-division area of theatre in which to cut one’s teeth or mark time. It isn’t easy! It is arguably the most difficult theatre of all. Let’s train the new generation and prepare them for what we hope will be a far more enlightened future – when theatre directors and managers put children’s theatre high on the priority list, newspaper critics attend productions as regularly as they do adult shows, and the funding bodies embrace the work wholeheartedly and understand it costs as much to put on as adult theatre (if not more) and yet yields less revenue, because of the necessary and correct low seat price.
For me, children’s theatre has been a career, a challenge, a frustration, a passion. The rewards (not always financial) have been huge – there is nothing, no nothing, like sitting in a full house of children, listening, laughing, thinking and truly enjoying themselves.
David Wood 2004
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