Mike Kenny is a leading British playwright specialising in theatre for young audiences; his adaptation of The Railway Children won an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. This Christmas, The Boy Who Cried Wolf is on at The Lawrence Batley Theatre from 12th-28th December.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf toured very successfully last year, but this is a new, updated version: what’s different?
When we originally did it we aimed it at the very young, and their friends and families. So, keeping bladders and concentration spans in mind, it was shorter, and strove not to outstay its welcome. But Wendy (the director) and I always felt there was more in it, so we decided to put an interval into it, let the story breathe a bit and take a bit more time over the telling. The real killer was the sheep. The sheep in this play are hilarious. I hadn’t even scratched the surface of how many jokes you can base on BAAAAA. I could write a whole play just about them.
Lots of your plays are based on stories that people will recognise – fairytales, fables and books. How do you choose stories to work with?
That’s quite a hard one to answer. Partly it’s this – a play needs a motor. That motor is often a child with a problem. Cinderella – your parents have died, you’re bullied, abused, shut in the kitchen with the rats, solve that. Hansel and Gretel – your parents abandon you in the forest, where you meet a woman who wants to eat you! You see where I’m going with this? You need something meaty and serious as a starting point. Children deserve it. And fairy tales often offer some of the best starting points.
How do you adapt stories to become inventive scripts for theatre?
Oh, crikey. I learned my craft working in Leeds Playhouse Theatre in Education, in the days when we had a government and local education authorities who thought it was important that ordinary children, whatever their background, had access to plays, books and art. We created theatre pieces that we took into Leeds schools. Playwrighting is a craft. It takes a long time to get good at it, and I learned it by acting in plays in chilly school halls between assembly and dinner. If the children were bored, they let us know, and if they were moved they did too, and if they were stimulated they talked to us afterwards.
What is it about writing plays for young people that you enjoy so much?
I was a kid who grew up on a council estate far away from a theatre (three hours drive, and we didn’t have a car.) I benefited from great teachers and a free public library. The first proper play I saw, at 17, was ‘Hair’ on a Littlewoods works outing with my mum (who worked in their canteen) At that moment, I decided I want to do that! It was ten years later when I actually managed it, by which time I had trained as a teacher (training as an actor didn’t seem an option) At that time Theatre for children and in education was the most exciting thing that was going on in the country. In form, in content, everything. I still write plays for the kid I was. I write plays for people who don’t usually go to the theatre. It kills me that it has been appropriated as a middle class form when it’s just about telling stories. You don’t need to know anything to access good theatre, you just need to be a human being. I write for children because I still find them the most honest audience out there.
Are you ever involved beyond the script-writing stage?
A bit. I’m lucky in that I often work with the same people. We have a relationship built up over years and we trust each other to do our job and to do it well. Rehearsal is actually the part I enjoy most. A rehearsal room is a fantastically concentrated and creative place.
There’s an ongoing debate about adaptations for children’s books overshadowing new writing in theatre for young audiences – how do you respond to that?
I have mixed feelings about this. I enjoy adapting good stories. And, ofcourse, Shakespeare didn’t actually make up his own stories, so who am I to complain? But I do worry that we are the Cinderella profession. I think we need to be allowed to tell new stories. My feeling is that there is a bit of a safety first mentality around at the moment. Parents like to know what they’re getting for their children. I can understand that but personally I feel it’s essential to go off piste occasionally. When I was browsing the shelves of that library when I was a child nobody was censoring me. If I have an ambition as a playwright, it’s to be able to say, come and see a play by me, not because you already know the title, but because you trust me to tell a good tale.
There are seven of your plays being performed across the UK this Christmas which is incredible. Generally, there seems to be a greater number and a greater focus on plays for children at this time of year. Why isn’t theatre for young audiences taken this seriously throughout the year?
Frankly, I don’t know. It’s deeply embedded in our culture. Christmas is when you take children to the theatre. Nowhere else in the world is that the case. We have the tradition of Panto and it casts a long shadow. If you come to see one of my plays you won’t see a Panto. I love them, but I don’t write them. From me you’ll get something a bit different.
You have won an Olivier Award for The Railway Children and were included in the Independent on Sunday’s list of Top 10 living playwrights. Theatre for young audiences unfortunately doesn’t often get this level of mainstream recognition – what do you think has set you apart?
Personally, I still think there are glass ceilings to break. When the National Theatre, or the RSC have a children’s play to do, they tend not to put it in the hands of a children’s playwright. We still don’t consistently get recognition.
Why is theatre for children and young people so important?
I think there is nothing quite like live entertainment. Especially in an age when so many people spend so much time with their noses stuck in their own separate screens, to gather together in a theatre space reminds us we’re human. And theatre combines all of the arts. It has story, spectacle, imagination, design, colour, sound, light, dance and music and it has it all at the same time. And at any moment, anything can go wrong – because it’s live! You don’t need to be able to read or write, or sometimes even speak the language. It can happen in a purpose built theatre with state of the art equipment, in a school hall or on a carpet in a village square. And it’s never too young to start.
What are you working on next?
I have two things on the go at the moment. One is a large scale community play which is part of a collaboration between York Theatre Royal and the National Railway Museum. It deals with start of the Railways and the mania surrounding it. It will involve two hundred people swarming all over the museum. The other is another adaptation, this time of the Winnie the Witch books, for Birmingham Rep. And I’m working with a magician to do the stunts. How cool is that?!
Read an interview with Wendy Harris, director of The Boy Who Cried Wolf
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