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From the magazine Amateur Stage (April/May 2008)

Someone asked me why I had never attempted writing a novel. Why had I spent the best part of four decades writing plays? One reason, I suppose, is that I crave an immediate response – hopefully approval.

Sitting in an audience, witnessing their reactions, is a luxury denied to the novelist.  I remember reading about an author who was overjoyed to sit opposite someone on the train reading a book of his and smiling.  Playwrights can experience this first-hand reaction much more easily.  In my own case, because I write plays for children, this feedback is essential.  The children’s reaction is mercilessly honest.  From it I can often tell if the play needs tweaking, or if a strand of the plot is unclear.

Such experiences, however, are almost invariably limited to professional productions of my work, some of which I have directed myself, some of which I automatically get invited to.  Sadly I don’t often see amateur, community or school productions of my plays.  Other playwrights say the same thing.  We seldom know about such productions until several months after they have taken place – when the royalty statement arrives.  Many’s the time I have received information in this way and wished I could have seen the production.  Please note, everyone who is putting on a production, that when you apply for a licence to Samuel French or Josef Weinberger, news of your forthcoming show is not automatically passed on to the playwright.  Not unless you send a letter and ask for it to be forwarded, will the playwright know about it.

Having said that, technology has changed things a little.  Now I have a website, and visitors are encouraged to leave a message.  As a result, over the last couple of years, I have been lucky enough to receive messages from all over the world.  Sometimes the sender asks for information.  Sometimes advice is sought.  Sometimes Iget invited to a production.  Sometimes I receive a report of a production.  This has brightened up my life no end!  Contact with practitioners at the sharp end, especially when they write positively, makes it all seem worthwhile and real!  When what is often a fairly hard grind at the desk turns into something that gives people pleasure performing and watching, the process doesn’t seem quite as lonely. 

Here are a few examples.  Nick Strudwick recently wrote:  “I have just had the pleasure of directing a very successful production of James and the Giant Peach at the Abbey Theatre St Albans. I had a wonderful cast and a designer and construction team who created an innovative and believable set. We gave 15 performances in our 230 seat theatre and averaged around 80 percent for the run. It was one our most enjoyable and enjoyed Christmas shows.”
He says they are now thinking of doing another one of my titles, THE GINGERBREAD MAN, for Christmas 2008. 

Justin Joseph teaches drama at the Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith.  He wrote:  “ I am a drama teacher and put on your version of Babe the Sheep Pig last year, which proved hugely enjoyable. We had the trial sheep as bolshy super-models in white coats, black wigs and dark glasses, a Russell Brand cockerel and a Pavarotti turkey. Great fun.”

This was very encouraging, because I have always felt that BABE, THE SHEEP-PIG was ideal for school productions.  It has a large cast of animals, which are great fun to play.

Lisbeth Rake contacted me about her production of TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN at the Chesil Theatre, Winchester.  I was able to see this production, which was delightful, and only the second non-professional production of the play I had seen.  What was particularly interesting was that there were more adults in the audience than children.  And the story certainly seemed to appeal to them.  It reaffirmed what I have often felt – children’s plays are not only for children’s audiences.  First, there is a child in all of us, who responds to good stories.  Second, if the children are enjoying something, the adults tend to enjoy it even more, BECAUSE the children are enjoying it.

A young man called Daniel told me he was in a youth group presenting SAVE THE HUMAN.  This play, in my biased opinion, doesn’t get performed enough!  Daniel pointed out that his youth group chose it because it had somethingimportant to say, but was fun to perform as well.  That comment was very reassuring. 

Lucy McKee shared with me her concerns about putting on a school production of DINOSAURS AND ALL THAT RUBBISH.  I was able, I hope, to reassure her.  Aaron Davies asked if there was a band score for THE SELFISH SHELLFISH.  Sadly I couldn’t help him there.  There is a piano score only.  Maybe he was able to do his own arrangements.

Su Swann is doing a production of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE..., one of my earliest plays, but still a favourite.  She wanted to know if any costumes were available for hire.  I suggested she contact the Brentwood Theatre, who were about to mount a professional production.  This made me wonder if someone ought to start a service for amateur theatre, whereby societies and other groups could giveinformation to a central point, offering for hire specialist props and costumes from their own productions to other groups thinking of mounting the same play.  Maybe this already exists?  But I know that several people have approached me over the years asking if I knew of a giant flowerpot available for hire, to use in my play THE PLOTTERS OF CABBAGE PATCH CORNER.

In the summer of 2007 I was lucky enough to direct a production of my own adaptation of Roald Dahl’s FANTASTIC MR FOX at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park.  We all had a great time, and it convinced me that this play is ideal for schools and amateur societies who want a play with a large cast.  It was originally written as a community play for the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.  6 professional actors were joined by 70 local performers, ranging in age from 8 to 80!  At Regent’s Park we augmented the 6 professionals with 7 splendid drama students and 24 children.  They all played family groups of animals.  The play is performed as a play within a play, watched by all the animals, who are therefore on stage all the time, and often take part in the scenes too.  In some ways it reminded me of the adaptation of ROBIN HOOD I worked on some years ago, with Dave and Toni Arthur.  Again, this involves a large cast of villagers, celebrating May Day by telling the traditional Robin Hood stories.

2007 finished on an upbeat for me, going to see the Youth Theatre based at Chichester Festival Theatre, performing, on the main stage, my adaptation of Roald Dahl’s JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.  72 young performers strutted their stuff, splendidly supported by a professional creative team, including 6 musicians.  Chichester put this production on as its only Christmas show.  It played for two weeks, and was seen by 20,000 people.  Not only was the production splendidly directed by Dale Rooks, it was very exciting to see that number of actors on the stage!  How often does that happen in the professional theatre?

Leave me a messageGood luck to you all with whatever you are planning for Christmas 2008.  Please remember that this is the best time of the year to introduce children to the magic of theatre.  Not only will you and your audiences have a happy time, but, if you decide to do something for a young audience, you will be sowing the seeds for the success of your company in years to come by creating the audience of tomorrow.

And don’t hesitate to let the playwright know you are putting on his or her play!  I promise you they will be flattered and will make every effort to attend a performance, should they get an invitation!


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