1. Can you tell us about When We Lived in Uncle’s Hat?
It’s the story (written in book form by Peter Stamm and illustrated by Jutta Bauer) of a family who is unsettled, and resolves to move from place to place until they find something that feels like a home. So diving into the surreal, we are taken to live on a bus, in a cinema, on the moon, nowhere, and in Uncle’s hat. And in beautiful Tutti Frutti style, director Wendy Harris has elected to make the family a band of wandering musicians, so a lovely progressive score will help to carry the action.
2. Where did the idea for the play originate and how did it develop?
To my knowledge, Wendy chanced upon the book and having worked together very enjoyably before (on If Only The Lonely Were Home), she offered me the commission to rewrite it for the stage. My first memory of properly discussing it with her was two years ago as we walked through Yorkshire Sculpture Park, truly the landscape for new imaginings to occur in.
3. Can you tell us more about your own creative process?
As I’ve always been a commissioned playwright, the impetus is generally one of meeting a producer/director/actor and us liking each other and deciding to make a play together. Sometimes they have a book that needs adapting, or they give me free rein, or a simple premise to respond to. With our last collaboration, Wendy asked for a play about love. One producer showed me a picture as inspiration, another gave me a title, and a third sat me down with children and let the themes grow from those conversations.
I then sit at my computer in Hobart, and begin to write – because there’s nothing as uninspiring as an empty screen. So the first ideas are usually flawed, but at least they’re ideas, and at least they’re in front of me. And eventually one comes along which seems interesting, and I sit with that for a bit, and start building out incrementally, until I have a protagonist who I can access the world of the piece through. And via their logic and the clues they offer, I come to understand the world of the play. Once that’s known, I fill it with events and other characters. And one day I write ‘The End’, and that’s a first draft done. The creative team then responds to that and adds their own beautiful magic and one day I get to sit in a theatre and see it fully developed – a great, great pleasure.
That’s a very simplistic explanation of what can sometimes feel far more complicated.
4. How are children’s plays different to ones primarily aimed at adults?
I’d say the greatest difference for many theatre-makers is one of intention. With works for adults, they think about the art, but with children’s theatre they think about the audience: ‘Will they understand this? Is it pitched wrongly? How best to communicate?’ And I believe too much of that can actually be to the detriment of the play itself. One of the key things I’ve come to learn (as much from folly as success) is that any audience, irrespective of their age (except possibly infants), will enjoy a good story well told.
So aside from certain thematic and linguistic sensitivities (relating more to how to express things, than whether to), I honestly don’t consider the age spectrum too much, but focus on trying to write theatre that is good. The best work I’ve seen for young people could be accessed by adults as well, simply because it was artistically strong.
5. What difficulties and rewards are involved in writing for children?
The difficulty lies in overcoming the mental hurdle mentioned above – about not being too sensitive to who you are writing for, but rather writing something which works. And the rewards are many – I’ve been a fulltime writer for five years, but only in the last two have I come to understand how liberating TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) can be. The scope of stories allowed is far broader. The audience (though many think the opposite) is far more critical – if they don’t like it, they won’t be shy about yawning or telling you afterwards – that keeps you on your toes. And the community of TYA creatives and producers the world over is amazing – I have never before experienced so much mentorship and support and shared appreciation as in this sector.
6. As an Irish playwright living in Tasmania, your formative experiences in theatre occurred in South Australia. How do your experiences of different cultures shape your work?
You make me sound far worldlier than I am! But I think it’s interesting that you’ve named these three eras of my life, as they’re emblematic of quite distinct stages.
Ireland (which I left when I was eight) is firmly associated with childhood – and the faraway geographically-foreign type of childhood that seems all the more magical, because it’s harder to disprove. South Australia is absolutely about adolescence, learning, and the successes and failures that define teenagehood and early twenties. And Tasmania is about settling down, and marriage and love and the future and writing, and a bit more knowledge of who one is, and the pleasure that evokes.
So far more than culturally, the three places feed my work referentially through the emotional scores each age offers. Imagining childhood I think of Ireland, adolescence is Adelaide, and adulthood is Hobart. Of course elements of one carry over to the next, but it feels helpful to delineate in this way.
7. Your work is commissioned for performance across Europe, Asia and America. Would you consider your plays universal?
Yes, inasmuch as audiences are. It’s less when having a work commissioned elsewhere, than when one show travels between countries, that I really see the equivalency of people’s responses. And because the world of a fictional play is inherently made-up, the common denominator is that it’s foreign to all of us when we come in and sit down, no matter where we’re from – we meet that place and its characters together, so our actual location is far less important.
8. Many of your plays are united by similar themes, such as loneliness and parental abandonment. Why do these particular themes inspire you?
In truth, those themes sit alongside many other themes in all my plays, such as adventure and humour and love and destiny and redemption – I think they’re just more noticeable because they’re less common in work for young audiences. And I try to provide a broad emotional spectrum within a script so that no work is wholly light or wholly heavy, just as no person’s life ever is. That balance heightens things and makes the moments of trauma or success all the more affecting.
And with the absence of parents, comes the opportunity for the child character to truly become important and in charge of their own destiny. As long as adults are around, the expectation is that they will solve the problems, but when they are disappeared or dead or just down the shops, then it falls to the child to act.
9. You’ve won many awards for your work. What does this kind of recognition mean to you?
It means that audiences are enjoying my play, which is the main thing. Whether I feel a work is successful or not doesn’t really matter. But if it’s received well (whether through good houses or awards or tours or reviews), then evidently that one has worked. And it can also mean that I get more commissions, which is good, because I really love writing.
10. Do you have a particular favourite of your plays? If so, why?
I usually start to notice the cracks in scripts the older they get, I think because I’m always trying to improve as a writer and because it’s natural to feel most excited by what you’re doing currently. So of course ones from this year feel the strongest. Man Covets Bird (Slingsby, Australia) is important to me because it’s about my brother and that particular journey from teenagehood to adulthood, which he seems to have navigated so impressively. The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly (The Ark/Theatre Lovett, Ireland) was very fun to make and beautifully realized by Louis Lovett and the team. And When We Lived in Uncle’s Hat, because I’ve sat with it so recently and can’t wait to see what it becomes.
– Lydia Onyett
When We Lived in Uncle's Hat plays at York Theatre Royal from 30 September–16 October. Visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or call 01904 623568 for more information. It will also play at the Ilkley Literature Festival on 17 October. Visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk or call 01943 816714 for more information.