‘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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See the yearbook for listings of theatre for children.
If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at our other articles on Writing for Children.