Originally published on artsawardvoice.com http://goo.gl/H5r24d
‘The National Children’s Dramatist’, David Wood, has written over 70 plays and has more than 40 years experience working in theatre for young audiences. His productions are performed all over the world, and range from new writing such as The Gingerbread Man, to adaptations like The Tiger Who Came To Tea and the Olivier Award Winning Goodnight Mister Tom. He gave fascinating insights into children’s theatre during an ‘In Conversation’ session hosted by the International Festival of Playwriting and Performance.
“In a nutshell,” David Wood told us, he began his career writing plays for puppets when he was just ten years old – “sixty years later I’m doing the same thing!” Though he wanted to go to drama school, Wood went to Oxford University, and ended up doing loads of theatre (“and no work!”) After graduating, he began doing Saturday morning theatre sessions for children at The Swan Theatre in Worcester, including storytelling, songs, and even magic (he is a member of the Magic Circle and still does magic shows). These were so successful, he was asked to write the Christmas play, and ended up doing a children’s play every year whilst also maintaining a successful career in acting.
Eventually, children’s theatre took over. Often asked if he sacrificed his acting career, Wood has a simple answer: “no… I got such a buzz sitting at the back of the audience, watching children’s reactions.” Theatre for children is, to David Wood, arguably more important than theatre for adults: “if we think that theatre is a good and valued thing, than we must make it the absolute best it can be as we introduce it to children.” Theatre for children is always considered second or third rate, despite it being much harder to write. For him, the difference between theatre for adults and for younger audiences is that with children you can really know how it’s going. Adults will sit and politely clap no matter what they are watching, whereas bored children will wander around, kick seats, talk, ask to go to the to loo – “My job for many years has been to stop children going to the lavatory!”
To write a good children’s play, Wood told us, it is really important to understand the different age groups. Economy is vital – children like a good story – so it’s possible to do all sorts of sophisticated theatrical conventions, as long as you tie up the loose ends. And whilst there is no formula for a successful children’s play, there are certain things children react to – humour, animals, injustice, a child protagonist, fantasy & magic. He said the best piece of advice he had received came when he was doing an interview on Canadian TV, alongside the editor of Puffin books. Both guests were asked “What do children like?” The editor responded with a story about her daughter – the little girl had really enjoyed a book, and when her mother asked why, she responded: “Lots of suddenlys!” For David, those three little words changed everything he’s written ever since. Whether it’s lighting, sound, new characters or new ideas, Wood counts the number of ‘suddenlys’ on the page, challenging the young audience not to leave the auditorium, and leaving them desperate to know what happens next.
David Wood began by writing original plays, but has also found great success with adaptations. Initially very sniffy about adaptations, he now believes that if a story is a good story, there’s no problem transferring it to another medium. He described his adaptation process, which begins with reading the book 30 or 40 times, then thinking about how many people you can have in a cast – because of cost, children’s theatre often has actors doubling or trebling parts, and it all becomes a bit mathematical. The aim is always to be faithful to the writer of the book, and he makes sure to send a first draft to the author. All the writers he has adapted so far are living, except for Roald Dahl, who died whilst Wood was adapting the first of many Dahl books, The BFG. Tessa Dahl, Roald’s daughter, told Wood, “You are lucky Daddy died when he did, he would have hated what you did with his books because he hated what everyone did with his books … but we quite like it!”
The physical act of writing itself isn’t something Wood enjoys. The synopsis always takes a long time, and then he tries to get the actual play-writing finished as quickly as possible – hiding away in a hotel room, he wrote The BFG in two and a half days! When asked whether he involves children in his writing process, the short answer was “no”. “Unlike other writers”, he said, “that test out their ideas on their children, I just didn’t really do that. I went into a school once to try out a couple of things – the children’s ideas were wonderful, but useless!” He does try to include audience interaction, and even experimented, as Alan Ayckbourn did, with giving the audience an actual choice of which way the play should go. Ultimately everyone’s responses are the same: always choosing the ‘moral’ thing to do This is Wood’s gift, he thinks – that he has antenna which know what the audience will think. He described one occasion when there was an unexpected response to a particularly sad moment in a play. The Selfish Shellfish is about the environment, and has a scene with a beloved bird dying in an oil slick. “Stupid dead bird”, said a girl loudly at the front, to which Wood’s heart sank. But then there came the sound of lots of other little children telling her to be quiet so they could watch, a most touching moment.
Wood stressed that if you’re going to write children’s theatre, you have to love it – after 46 years, his feelings are clear! “Children,” he told us, “are a different audience, an exciting audience, and if you get it right, it’s very rewarding.”