Writing for Children's Theatre

27th July 2012
17 min read
7th October 2020

‘Would you write the Christmas play?’ These six words, uttered by John Hole, Director of the Swan Theatre, Worcester, unwittingly changed my life, setting me off on a trail I’m still treading over 40 years later.

David Wood

It wasn’t a totally mad question, even though I was then cutting my teeth as an ‘adult’ actor/director – and indeed I have managed to continue these so-called mainstream activities to a limited degree ever since. No, it had already struck me that children’s audiences were important and, by doing magic at birthday parties since my teens, I had already developed an aptitude for and delight in entertaining children.

At Worcester I had organised Saturday morning children’s theatre, inveigling my fellow repertory actors into helping me tell stories, lead participation songs and perform crazy sketches. And I was still haunted by the memory of seeing, a couple of years earlier, a big commercial panto in which the star comedian cracked an off-colour joke to a matinee house virtually full of children, got an appreciative cackle from a small party of ladies in the stalls, then advanced to the footlights and said, ‘Let’s get the kids out of here, then we can get started!’. In the dark I blushed and my hackles rose. How dare this man show such disdain for the young audience whose parents’ hard-earned cash had contributed towards his doubtless considerable salary? It set me thinking about how few proper plays were then written and performed for children.

There were traditional favourites like Peter Pan in London, the occasional Wizard of Oz, Toad of Toad Hall and Alice in Wonderland in the regions but that was about it. Nothing new. Later I discovered my assessment had been too sweeping. There were several pioneers out there presenting proper plays for children, including Brian Way (Theatre Centre), Caryl Jenner (Unicorn), John Allen (Glyndebourne Children’s Theatre) and John English (Midlands Arts Centre), but their work was not then widely recognised. Their contribution to the development of children’s theatre in the UK cannot be overestimated. Also, in 1965, the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry had created the first theatre-in-education company, touring innovative work into schools; and early in 1967 I had acted in the first production of the TIE Company at the Palace Theatre, Watford.

Writing The Tinder Box for Christmas 1967 seemed a natural opportunity and, although I don’t think it was very good, it paved the way for me to write around 70 (so far) plays that try to trigger the imagination, make children laugh, cry and think, and hopefully lead them towards a love of theatre. The journey hasn’t always been easy. It is frustrating that children’s theatre is still often perceived as third division theatre; funding for it is less than for its adult counterpart, even though it often costs as much, sometimes more, to put on, and always commands a lower seat price; critics generally ignore it; and most theatre folk seem to think it is only for beginners or failures, a ridiculous belief, since children are the most difficult and honest audience of all – and yet the most rewarding when we get it right.

Let’s pause briefly to talk terminology. The phrase ‘children’s theatre’ means different things to different people. Whereas ‘youth theatre’ clearly implies that young people are taking part in the play, ‘children’s theatre’ can mean not only children performing but also (more correctly, in my view) theatre produced by adults for children to watch. And, although I have occasionally, and enjoyably, written plays for children to perform (Lady Lollipop, from Dick King-Smith’s book) or for children to take part in alongside adults (The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, from Ronda and David Armitage’s book and Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish, from Michael Foreman’s book), the vast majority of my plays have been written for professional actors to perform for children. Don’t get me wrong. Participation by children is hugely beneficial and worthwhile, but I like to feel my plays might provide the inspiration to encourage them to want to do it themselves. I believe that children respond to exciting examples that inspire them. I also believe that children are more likely to, say, want to learn to play a musical instrument if they see and hear the best professional musicians playing in a concert. They are more likely to want to excel at football if they see – live or on television – the best professional teams displaying dazzling skills.

So any advice I can offer about children’s theatre is mainly aimed towards writers who would like to create plays for grown-ups to perform for children. Having said that, it has always surprised me that several of my professionally performed plays have been subsequently put on by schools and youth groups who cope, showing tremendous flair and imagination, with tricky technical demands. I sometimes wish I could write more plays specifically for schools and youth groups, but I think I might be tempted to oversimplify (which would be patronising) or to try to write enough roles for a very large cast, which might dilute the content and fail to provide a satisfying structure.

Encouragingly, the professional children’s theatre scene today is much healthier than when I started. There are many more touring companies (see page Touring companies) large and small, producing high-quality work for all ages. There has been an exciting explosion in the amount of work for under-fives. And at last we have two full-time children’s theatre buildings – Unicorn and Polka – who put on their own plays as well as receive other companies’ work. They are both in London, and the big hope is that there will in the future be many more such beacons in other cities and towns. Children are entitled to their own theatre, and creating theatre buildings especially for them, run by committed professionals, is the best way to improve the quantity, quality and status of the work. Alongside that, our major theatres, including the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company, should be setting an example by making children’s theatre an integral part of their programming, rather than occasionally mounting a children’s play as an optional extra. And this means more than coming up with an annual Christmas show.

Study the market

Go and see shows. Which companies are doing what? How many cast members can they afford? Are they looking for original plays as well as adaptations of successful books with big titles and box office appeal? Try to meet the artistic directors, to discuss what they might be looking for. What size spaces are the companies playing in? Studios? Large theatres? Do they have facilities for scene-changes? Is there flying? Incidentally, restrictions on cast size and staging possibilities are not necessarily a bad thing. Well-defined parameters within which to work can be a help not a hindrance. I was asked to write a play for the Towngate, Basildon, a theatre that had no flying, not much stage depth and virtually no wing space. And I was allowed a cast of only six. At first I despaired but then managed to think positively and wrote The Gingerbread Man, which ended up paying the rent for 30 years! The play is set on a giant Welsh dresser. No props or scenery come on or off stage during the show – the basic set is self-contained. And the six characters are joined by the off-stage voices (recorded) of the ‘Big Ones’, the human owners of the dresser.

It may be putting the cart before the horse to worry about where and how your play might be performed – before you’ve written it! But it really is foolish to start before finding out what might be practical and realistic. Quite frankly, a cast of 20, or even a dozen, is going to be out of the question for most professional companies, so if your idea demands such numbers, maybe you should approach a school, a youth drama group or an amateur dramatic society instead.

Rather than rely on others, might you be in a position to create your own openings? Many children’s theatre practitioners, including myself, have had to start by ‘doing it themselves’. I, like Richard Gill, Vicky Ireland and Annie Wood (former artistic directors of the Polka Theatre) not only write but also direct. And Richard Gill, Tim Webb (Oily Cart), Guy Holland (Quicksilver) and I (Whirligig), went as far as to create companies to produce our own work, because we knew we were unlikely to get other companies to put it on. The TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) website (see box) lists most of the companies currently in production, and is a useful first port of call to see the scope of the work.

What ‘works’ for children?

A good, satisfying story makes a helpful start, told with theatrical flair. By that I mean that we should use theatrical techniques to spark the imagination of the audience – scenery, costume, sound, lighting, puppetry, magic, circus skills, masks, mime, dancing and music. The physical as well as the verbal can help to retain the attention and interest of children. Page after page of two characters sitting talking are likely to prove a turn-off. It’s better to see them do something rather than just talk about it. I try to introduce lots of ‘suddenlies’ to help keep the audience riveted to their seats, wanting to know what happens next. I’ve often said that my life’s work has been dedicated to stopping children going to the lavatory. Suddenlies – a new character appearing, a sound effect, a lighting change, a surprise twist, a musical sting – can be a huge help. Compare it to the page-turning appeal of a successful children’s book.

Play ideas can be found in fairy tales, myths and legends, traditional rhymes and popular stories. Be careful, however, not to waste time adapting books in copyright, unless you have got the necessary permission – no public performances, paid or unpaid, can be given without this. Approach the publisher or the author’s agent to discover if the stage ,rights are available and, if they are, how much it might cost to acquire them for a year or two. Or you might use an incident from history, a pertinent modern social issue, such as conservation, or the real life of an inspirational or controversial person. Or you could explore a social problem especially relevant to children, like single-parent families or bullying.

In my book Theatre for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting I identify useful ingredients for children’s plays. They are really fairly obvious – things that we know children respond to. They include animals, toys, fantasy, a quest, goodies and baddies, humour, scale (small characters in large environments and vice versa), a child at the centre of the story. And justice – think Cinderella. Children, like adults, have a strong sense of fairness and will root for the underdog. Roald Dahl’s stories, seven of which I have been lucky enough to adapt, all use this. Sophie (in The BFG), James (in James and the Giant Peach) and Boy (in The Witches) are all disadvantaged orphans whose strength of character leads them through immense difficulties to eventual triumph. They are empowered to succeed in an adult-dominated world, and children identify with them.

The use of audience participation is an option much argued about by children’s theatre practitioners. Many hate it. For some plays, it would, indeed, be totally inappropriate. But for others it can be exciting and fun. I’m not talking about basic panto participation – ‘he’s behind you!’ – though even this can be used on occasion with integrity. I’m talking about what I call ‘positive participation’, in which the audience contribute to the action by helping or hindering, by having ideas or by taking part in a ‘set piece’. In The Selfish Shellfish they create a storm to fool an oil slick. In Meg and Mog Show (for very small children), they make springtime noises and movements to encourage Meg’s garden to grow. In The See-Saw Tree they vote on whether to save an ancient oak or allow it to be cut down to make way for a children’s playground. In The Gingerbread Man they help catch the scavenging Sleek the Mouse under an upturned mug. Their contribution is crucial to the development and resolution of the plot. In The Twits the audience fools Mr and Mrs Twit by making them think that they, the audience, are upside down. They all remove their shoes, put them on their hands and stretch their arms up while lowering their heads! The sight of a thousand children all doing this, with joy and not a shred of cynicism, is pure magic to me.

I don’t believe that a children’s play has to have a moral, a self-improving message for the audience. But I do believe a children’s play should be moral, presenting a positive attitude and an uplifting, hopeful conclusion. And I resent the notion that children’s plays should always be written to tie in with the national curriculum. Many do, but the educationalists shouldn’t dictate our agenda – the tail shouldn’t wag the dog.

Before you start

I strongly recommend that you create a synopsis, outlining the events in story order. This leads to clarity of storytelling, to the disciplined pursuit of a through-line, with not too many subplots that could end up as time-wasting, irrelevant cul-de-sacs. For myself it would be foolish to think I had the brilliance to start a play with only an initial idea and just let my imagination lead me through uncharted waters. I find it far better to let the juices flow during the synopsis stage and, when it comes to writing the play, to conscientiously follow through my original instincts with not too many diversions.

Good luck with getting your first play produced. Getting it published may need determination. It was a very special day for me when Samuel French accepted (after initial rejections) The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See…, my second play, co-written with Sheila Ruskin. After its first production at Worcester, I beavered away to get it on stage in London and, thanks to several friends helping financially, managed to produce it at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre. To save money I directed it myself. We were lucky enough to get two rave reviews. I approached Samuel French again. They came to see it and, hallelujah, offered to publish it. Since then their loyalty has been more than gratifying – they still publish most of my efforts. There are now several specialist children’s play publishers, many of whom also act as licensees of amateur performances. The National Theatre Bookshop and French’s Theatre Bookshop stock a fair number of plays and, when searching for a publisher, it is worth checking out their shelves. The internet can help too. Tap in the names of successful children’s playwrights, like Mike Kenny, Charles Way or the late Adrian Mitchell and see what comes up.

I find that the challenge of writing a play for children never gets easier, however many times I go through the process. It certainly isn’t a soft option, i.e. easier than writing a play for adults. And it carries, I believe, a big responsibility. I always worry that I haven’t the right to fail! The last thing I want to do is write something that might put children off theatre for life. I’m aware that many in the audience will be first-time theatre-goers, some of whom never asked to come! It’s so important to get it right, to enthuse them so much they can’t wait to return. And this is where the passion comes in. Most children’s theatre practitioners are passionate about what they do, with an almost missionary zeal to stimulate and delight their audience. Also, we all know that, unlike adult audiences who tend to sit quietly and clap at the end, even if they’ve hated the play, our children’s audiences won’t be – and shouldn’t be – so polite. It is palpably obvious when we ‘lose’ them. We are dedicated to using our experience and instinct to ‘hold’ them, to help them enjoy the communal experience of a theatre visit and willingly enter the spirit of the performance. The buzz I get from being in an auditorium of children overtly having a great time – listening hard, watching intently, reacting, feeling, letting the play take them on a special, magical, unique journey – is a buzz I constantly strive for. I suppose that’s really why I do it.

David Wood OBE has been dubbed ‘the national children’s dramatist’ by The Times. His plays are performed regularly on tour, in the West End and all over the world. In 2006, for the Queen’s 80th birthday party celebrations, he wrote The Queen’s Handbag, which was broadcast live from Buckingham Palace Gardens and watched by 8 million viewers on BBC1. In 2011, four of his adaptations were seen on tour in the UK: Goodnight Mister Tom, Shaun the Sheep, George's Marvellous Medicine and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. His website is www.davidwood.org.uk.

Further reading

Stuart Bennett (ed.), Theatre for Children and Young People, Aurora Metro Press, 2005

Wood, David, with Janet Grant, Theatre for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting, Faber and Faber, 1997

Writing stage