All About David Wood
Theatre for Children, An Introduction
Taken from Theatre for Children, A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting. (Published in 1997)
Dedicated to everyone for whom working in children's theatre is, was or will be special.
In the mid-sixties, while I was at Oxford, I went to see a big commercial pantomime at the New Theatre. It was a matinee and the audience was mostly children. As a child my favourite theatre treat had for several years been Peter Pan, but I had also enjoyed pantomimes.
having grown up a little, I watched the show rather differently.
I noticed that the story-line was very thin. The entertainment
was really a succession of variety acts. The children in the audience
were often restless.
the story had rather perfunctorily been disposed of, the star
comedian embarked upon his half hour obligatory spot. It was quite
enjoyable, if, in my view, out of context. At one point he cracked
a slightly blue joke. The children didn't understand it. A few
of the adults did and cackled in the stalls. Whereupon the star
walked eagerly down to the footlights, leant over and said: "Oh,
come on, let's get the kids out of here and then we can get started!"
was as though an electric shock had jolted me. I even blushed.
How on earth, I thought, can this man, who is being paid a lot
of money to entertain these children, blatantly tell us that he
would rather be entertaining his late night cabaret audience.
Surely those children deserved better. It struck me that there
was very little theatre aimed at children. That moment was a turning
point in my life.
seeds for my career in children's theatre were sown early. At
first it was Peter Pan and pantomime and then, by the
age of eight, I had developed an interest in conjuring and puppetry.
I loved my Pollock's toy theatre and performed puppet shows in
the back garden. By the age of eleven I was part of a cabaret
act, singing and performing magic tricks.
my teens I started performing magic at children's parties. In
retrospect I realize this taught me a great deal about how children
respond en masse and how to encourage and control audience participation.
interest in magic has continued. I am a member of the Magic
Circle and perform my own Magic and Music Show in theatres. I often try to incorporate magic and illusion into
my children's plays. Incidentally, magic helped me get into Oxford;
Christopher Ricks, my long-suffering tutor, once confessed that
although my academic abilities were no more than average, he thought
I might be useful to have around - he had three young children
at whose birthday parties I entertained.
a teenager I took part in school plays, local amateur theatricals
and youth drama festivals. For several years I attended residential
youth drama courses run by a wonderful teacher / writer /director
called Frank Whitbourn, who at eighty-five is
still my mentor and is the first person to see the first draft
of anything I write.
going to Oxford to read English I was lucky enough to get two
jobs. The first was as a bingo caller in Bognor Regis, where I
developed a rapport with my audience by trying to entertain them
as well as call the numbers. The second was as an extra in the
newly opened Chichester Festival Theatre. Being a small part of
Sir Laurence Olivier's star-studded season added to my resolve
to turn professional. I loved the excitement of dashing off stage
at Chichester, stripping off my Saint Joan soldier's costume,
jumping into a taxi in my underpants, changing en route into my
dinner jacket, then leaping on stage at the Theatre Royal crying,
'Welcome to Bognor's Biggest Bingo.'
Oxford I managed to do more acting and writing than I might ever
have done at a drama school. Plays in the Oxford Playhouse, a
European tour in Shakespeare, several Edinburgh Festivals and,
perhaps the greatest thrill, writing songs for and appearing in Hang Down Your Head and Die, the anti-capital
punishment revue that transferred to London's West End.
scraping through my degree, I co-wrote and appeared in a University
revue called Four Degrees Over, which was also lucky enough to
transfer to the West End. The other performers were John Gould
and Bob (now Sir Robert) Scott, with whom I later presented The
Owl and the Pussycat Went to See ... in London, and Adele
Weston, who, by a strange coincidence, also became a children's
writer, and a highly respected one, under her married name, Adele
a period of enforced 'resting', during which I tutored a prepschool
boy in Latin and a Swiss ski-instructor in English, I co-wrote
a documentary musical for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and
spent a very happy few months doing Theatre in Education at Watford,
sharing in the early days of this new form of theatre which had
been pioneered by the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. It taught me
a hell of a lot about playing to cynical teenagers at 9.30 in
the morning. I also learnt the importance of keeping moving and
having eyes in the back of your head when playing in the round;
one day I didn't and got spat at. Maybe that influenced me later
to concentrate on younger children. For Watford TIE I also wrote
a participatory play about Boadicea. From this I learnt a lot
about taking children seriously.
found me in repertory at the Swan Theatre, Worcester. I directed The Knack and a new musical called A
Present From The Corporation, and as an actor I gave
my Feste in Twelfth Night, played the juvenile
lead in Caste and dragged up for Charley's
Aunt. Then I had my first break as a film actor, playing
Johnny, one of the rebel schoolboys in Lindsay Anderson's If....
which became something of a cult film.
taste of the high life might well have detracted me from any idea
of pursuing a career in children's theatre, but I was inadvertently
hijacked from any thoughts of stardom on the big screen by my
return to Worcester, and by the request of John Hole, the director
of the Swan, to do some children's theatre.
of all it was limited to Saturday mornings. I regularly compered
and performed in a show with the other actors in the company.
We presented a hotchpotch of stories, magic, songs and audience
participation. Audiences grew and soon we were having to do two
performances instead of one. I found that I loved doing these
shows. Indeed I began to wonder whether I was enjoying it too
much. I sensed a feeling of power over the audience. They were
so willing to join in and to follow my lead. I felt that if I
asked them to, they would do absolutely anything. I could understand
how Hitler's youth rallies had been able to brainwash young Nazis
into blind obedience. Children are impressionable. I now realized
how responsibility is a quality vital to the children's entertainer.
John Hole suggested I wrote an adaptation of Hans Andersen's The Tinder Box. He didn't want a pantomime. The
theatre was too small to present a traditional pantomime and in
any case, he didn't really like them. He told me he wanted me
to write a 'proper' play for children. I was not to worry about
the adults in the audience - if the children enjoyed it, the adults
would. He wanted the story clearly and imaginatively told. Audience
participation was fine, but it had to be made part of the story.
There were to be no speciality acts or irrelevancies. It may seem
strange now, but at that time his brief was quite unusual. Most
Christmas entertainments then were jolly romps or extravaganzas.
Even adaptations of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz were
aimed at a wide audience and had to have a broad appeal. John's
insistence that we concentrate on the children was refreshingly
never saw a performance of The Tinder Box - I
was giving my Wishee Washee at Watford at the time - but I don't
think it was very good, even though the cast and director were
very talented and worked
hard on making the story come alive. The writer still had much
to learn. Luckily, John Hole didn't give up on me, and the following
year asked for another musical play. Sonia Davis, his secretary,
suggested The Owl and the Pussycat. This was
the play that got me hooked.
acting career continued. I did a play, After Haggerty, for the
Royal Shakespeare Company. I was in films like Aces High and North Sea Hijack. I did lots of television
including classic serials and even starred opposite Shelley Winters
in a two-hander called The Vamp. In I970 I created the role of
the Son in John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father and was nominated
Best New Actor; later I played the part again in Toronto opposite
Sir Michael Redgrave.
all the time my commitment to children's theatre was developing.
By the time I wrote my fourth play for Worcester we reckoned that
the audiences trusted us and that familiar titles were no longer
necessary. I wrote my first original play, The Plotters
of Cabbage Patch Corner. This subsequently came to London
and was directed spendidly by Jonathan Lynn, who was later to
achieve a wider audience by co-writing Yes, Minister and going
to Hollywood to direct feature films.
work reinforced my belief that children's plays should be directed
seriously. He made the conflict between the insects in the garden
totally real. The success of this production in 1971 and 1972
was also due to Sheila Falconer, the choreographer
and Peter Pontzen, the musical director, both
of whom have worked with me ever since. Their contribution to
the style of my productions has been invaluable. Susie
Caulcutt provided the brilliant set and costume designs.
She had first worked with me on the London Owl and has since designed most of my own productions. Her sympathetic
interpretations of my work have never been equalled.
some years thereafter I rather turned up my nose at the idea of
adaptation, thinking grandly that the original art of children's
playwriting was the be all and end all. For Worcester, I wrote Flibberty and the Penguin, The Papertown
Paperchase and Hijack Over Hygenia.
But when John Hole departed to open the new Queen's Theatre at
Hornchurch he persuaded me that the larger stage and better facilities
now at our disposal might offer openings for adaptations of pantomime
subjects. Also, there were many books and stories which had such
splendid ideas in them that it was foolish to ignore them as subject
matter. I called them my 'pantomime substitutes'. They were conceived
as musical plays for children rather than traditional pantomimes.
They retained certain elements of pantomime, but sometimes, as
in Babes in the Magic Wood and Mother
Goose's Golden Christmas, had original story-lines.
back, John's continued confidence in me had a huge influence on
my development. I ended up writing thirteen Christmas productions
for him. A regular annual commission, a writer's dream.
Mackintosh came into my life in the early seventies,
when he offered to co-produce a Christmas season and national
tour of The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See ... Since then he has often financially supported my productions.
For this I will always be most grateful. But perhaps his major
contribution to my development began in 1976. I had been asked
to write a new children's play for the Towngate Theatre, Basildon.
Presented by the Theatre Royal, Norwich, The Gingerbread
Man was directed by Jonathan Lynn.
came to see the play and immediately offered to coproduce it with
me in London the following year. He secured the Old Vic, which
proved to be a splendid venue, and the play ran there with considerable
success for two Christmas seasons. We subsequently produced the
play in several other West End theatres, as well as on tour.
never sought subsidy and the play was never commercially successful,
mainly because the seat price was kept low to encourage school
parties to come. But the response was always positive and The
Gingerbread Man became my most popular play. It has been
performed all over the world, and one of my happiest memories
is seeing Japanese children reacting to it in exactly the same
way as their English counterparts. I subsequently adapted the
play into a book and a television model animation series.
response of audiences throughout Great Britain to the touring
productions of Owl and The Gingerbread
Man convinced me that touring was the best way to introduce
the work to the widest possible audience. Ideas for a national
touring children's theatre began to be discussed seriously, and
in 1978, WSG Productions, the company I ran with John Gould and
Bob Scott, presented a pilot tour of Flibberty and the
Penguin. The tour was well received, but it proved conclusively
that in order to maintain our standards and in order to keep our
seat prices low, we needed subsidy or sponsorship or both. Commercial
sponsorship was beginning to make its mark on theatrical projects,
and we were lucky enough to secure funding from Clarks Shoes.
They proved ideal sponsors, providing splendid give-aways for
every child and never asking me to write a play all about shoes.
decided to give the touring company a new name, Whirligig
Theatre. It would be run as a public service rather than
a commercial venture. The first tour for the new company was a
revival of The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner.
Arts Council Touring took an interest in our work, and supported
it through the eighties. An average tour would play in middle-scale
and large theatres to over 100,000 children. Most of the performances
were day time matinees to which school parties could come. Teachers
became our allies and we regularly presented seminars for them,
as well as offering Teachers' Packs and competitions.
Whirligig's second production, Nutcracker Sweet,
was safely on the road, I went to Unicorn Theatre and wrote and
directed Meg and Mog Show, based on the books
by Jan Pienkowski and Helen Nicoll. Maureen Lipman made a wonderful
Meg, and the production was revived many times. This play introduced
me to even younger audiences than I had written for before. Although
parties of five to seven year olds came from primary schools,
the show was especially popular with groups of pre-school children
from kindergarten and playgroups.
to teachers in the eighties about children's growing interest
in and concern for the environment led me to write The
Selfish Shellfish, The See-Saw Tree and Save the Human (originally commissioned by
the Cambridge Theatre Company). In these plays many of my own
ideas from children's theatre became fused with some of the aims
of Theatre In Education and led to what I believe is some of my
the nineties, it has become increasingly difficult for Whirligig to maintain its touring programme to the major theatres. In 1989,
the Education Reform Act began to make its impact on theatres
across the country. It stated that school theatre trips that had
been traditionally subsidized by parents, now had to be paid for
by the schools. As schools had no budget for such trips, the Act
allowed them to approach parents for a voluntary contribution.
However, when something is labelled 'voluntary', approximately
one third of people are reluctant to pay. Therefore, many theatre
bookings had to be cancelled.
example, for Whirligig's 1989 Sadler's Wells
season we had seven thousand advance pencilled bookings, but by
the time we opened three thousand had been cancelled. This was
echoed across the country. School party bookings dropped and theatre
managers began wondering whether to include children's theatre
in their programming. Children's theatre companies in turn found
it very hard to survive. The Education Act is still in place,
but many teachers seem to be ignoring this aspect of it, and schools
do seem more willing to bring parties to the theatre. I sense
that the tide has turned. The recent Whirligig production of The Gingerbread Man at the Birmingham
Hippodrome appears to prove this point. The Hippodrome offered
the production to schools at only £5 per ticket, including
was an initiative inspired by the visionary attitude
of Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's Education Chief, who
has stated that every child in Birmingham is entitled to a theatre
visit. In Birmingham, approximately 10,000 children attended the
performance in one week, and the experiment was declared a great
success. The Education Reform Act, therefore, seems to be less
of a deterrent, but nevertheless had a devastating effect, which
children's theatre is only just getting over.
coincided with a shift in attitude by theatres where it was no
longer feasible to present a children's play even as an important
community service because its low seat prices might prevent it
making money or even breaking even. Sponsorship and Arts Council
funding have simultaneously become harder to achieve. The costs
of mounting our relatively large-scale productions have increased,
yet the seat price must be kept low (a third, say, of an average
adult seat price). Thus the gap between expenditure and potential
revenue has increased; filling that gap has proved difficult,
a result, some of my most recent plays have been more commercial
adaptations of very familiar and popular children's books. In
1990 James Woods and Justin Savage of Clarion Productions invited
me to adapt and direct The BFG by Roald Dahl.
This toured successfully and played to well-attended Christmas
seasons in the West End. It was followed up by another Roald Dahl
adaptation, The Witches, which also toured and
played in the West End, and two adaptations based on Enid Blyton's Noddy books. All these productions were mounted
with care and integrity. Many of them employed members of the Whirligig 'team'. I was very pleased with the
I live in hope that it will soon be possible once again to present
plays with lesser known or new titles for school parties. This
does not mean to say that school parties do not come to the more
commercial titles - many do. And it does not mean that the plays
are not suitable for family audiences at the weekends. But the
shift away from public service to pure commercial viability is
a trend that threatens the future of children's theatre.
tally of plays for children stands at approximately forty. I have
been very fortunate in that most of them have been commissioned
and that all of them have been published by Samuel French Ltd.
of the plays are regularly performed by professionals and amateurs
all over Great Britain. Some of them have played successfully
abroad. But so far the costs of transporting one of my own productions
to other countries have proved prohibitive. Even The Gingerbread
Man (one basic set, six actors) was unable to play the
Vancouver Children's Festival because it was 'too big'. It required
a theatre rather than a marquee and a day rather than a couple
of hours to 'set up'.
spite of the problems, I know I was right to concentrate on children's
theatre, even though it has always been something of a crusade
to keep up the momentum and persuade the theatre establishment
to accept the work as important. Writing and directing the plays
takes up far less of my time than trying to arrange productions
or secure funding. But every time I witness an audience reacting
positively to my work I know it has all been worthwhile. And I
am greatly encouraged by the number of young actors, writers and
directors who are now not simply interested but genuinely determined
to make a career in children's theatre, sharing the ideals of
those of us who started in the sixties, and who still believe
that children are the most important audience.
find children's theatre more challenging, and the rewards - though
not necessarily financial - greater. For me, as writer, director
and often producer, the creation of a new piece of work, the writing
and the build-up, via casting, pre-production meetings, and rehearsals
to the opening performance is always a daunting yet exciting journey.
Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to sit in an auditorium
witnessing a full house of children unequivocally approving my
challenge is to give a unique theatrical experience to an audience,
many of whom will be first-time theatre-goers, to involve them
emotionally, to sustain their interest in a story, to inspire
and excite them using theatricality, to make them laugh, to make
them think, to move them, to entertain and educate them by triggering
their imaginations. Over the years the challenge has never faded.
If it had, perhaps my single-minded dedication to children's theatre
would have long since waned. But every new play, every new production
stimulates the adrenalin, brings on the nerves and invites me
to the fray.
Grant is responsible for encouraging me to write the book Theatre
for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting;
she mapped out its structure and scope and helped me analyse the
way I work. I am truly grateful for her patience and persistence
and for her skilful ability to ask me the right questions. Janet
expressed a professional interest in children's theatre which
made me realize how little there is in the way of formal training
available for people seriously interested in children's theatre:
books, courses, and/or workshops.
since I began my career there has undoubtedly been a sharp increase
in the number of young theatre practitioners considering a career
in children's theatre as a serious option. I am also concerned
that the assumption that children's theatre is somehow second-rate
compared to adult theatre is still prevalent. Maybe this is our
own fault. Maybe we haven't banged our drum hard enough. Maybe
we haven't yet convinced our adult theatre colleagues, the critics
or indeed the general public of the importance and vitality of
our work and the enormous improvements it has seen in quality
and variety over recent years. Maybe now is the time for those
of us involved in all aspects of children's theatre to speak up
and wave the flag.
my book I wanted to share my enthusiasm for children's theatre
and encourage others to enter this exciting field. I want to erase
the myth that writing, acting in or directing children's theatre
is an easy option. It is not easy and is often done badly because
there is little about the dramatic theory of theatre for children
in print and therefore theatre practitioners haven't understood
the depth or breadth of the art form. I want to pass on the knowledge
I have gained through many years of practical experience of writing,
directing and performing for children, in order to inspire all
drama practitioners who enter the world of theatre for children
to provide the highest quality theatrical productions possible.
scope of the book has been defined by my own experience. By children's
theatre I mean plays performed in theatres for children by adults,
professional or amateur. I'm not writing about pantomime, although
certain pantomime techniques often come in useful. Nor am I writing
about youth theatre in which young people perform. And, although
I have learnt a great deal from Theatre in Education, toured to
schools by actor/teachers, I have not included a study of it.
But I hope that everybody interested in theatre of all kinds for
children will find I have something relevant to say, and I am
certainly not implying that my particular area of interest means
that I don't value the aims and achievements of other disciplines.
have never received formal training in writing, adapting, acting
or directing. It seems somewhat impertinent to be writing a book
about all four. But by getting up and doing it for so long I feel
I have learnt a lot that might be useful both for teaching purposes
and as a platform for future discussion. There is no one way to
write, adapt, act or direct. This book is not intended to be the
'be all and end all' on the subject of children's theatre. It
is based on one practitioner's experiences, opinions and insights
into what makes theatre for children so very special.
I returned to England in 1993, the Unicorn Theatre in London was
kind enough to invite me to every one of their new productions.
On one occasion, I watched a children's musical that was so cohesive,
I was left mesmerized.
I walked in the lobby, I read the credits and saw that a David
Wood had not only written the play but had written the lyrics
and music too, and directed it. No wonder the play fitted together
like an enchanted piece of Swiss clockwork!
awed was I by the talent I had seen displayed, that for half an
hour I tried to get up the nerve to approach David at the after-show
reception and say, 'Congratulations. What a wonderful play.' Not
normally a shy person, that day words failed me. In the end I
took the easy way out and wrote him a letter. This book is the
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