Vicky Ireland on writing for child and family audiencesDate: 25 May 2012
Why do you choose to write plays for children rather that for adults?
There are so many writers for adult drama but not so many for children, so once it was known I relished this work, more people asked me to write for them. My time as artistic director of Polka Theatre in Wimbledon gave me a unique opportunity to not only write myself, but to also commission others to create new children’s plays. I also started the children’s productions in Regent’s Park, with specially-written plays commissioned by Ian Talbot.
Children under 12 years-old make up 15 per cent of the population, and yet in terms of theatre and television output, the amount created especially for them rarely reaches one per cent. There’s a great need for courage in new writing for all ages, but especially for children, where expectations are often very low.
It’s an opportunity to stretch the imagination and work with all the wonderful palette theatre has to offer – lights, sound, music, physicality, dance, puppets, circus – rather than relying too much on technology which can sometimes transform the stage into a giant laptop, and yet can’t begin to compete with current video games.
I feel we should trust the magic of theatrical storytelling at its best, which is what we are trying to achieve in my adaptation of Peter Pan for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. It’s a wonderful example of everything unfolding in front of you on a stage, through a sense of play and fun which boldly challenges all the cleverness of the cinema screen.
Which books do you think make the most successful adaptations for stage?
The stage can achieve all sorts of journeys, by calling upon the imagination to fill in and colour the action, rather than delivering every detail. Good writing implies a well rounded plot with interesting characters. My personal favourites have been The Last Noo-Noo by Jill Murphy, The Lottie Project, Secrets and The Suitcase Kid (which are all by Jacqueline Wilson), Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo and the school poems of Allan Ahlberg, which I put into a dramatic shape called Three Cheers for Mrs Butler!
I love good stories which have a strong dramatic shape, plenty of action and which make me both laugh and cry. I also like definite endings. They don’t have to be happy, but they need to send you out very full up and thoughtful.
Do programmes on children’s television whet or diminish their appetites for live shows?
Artistic values are sometimes overlooked by adults who are convinced their child shouting and eating sweets and being hyper for two hours is the manifestation of enjoyment and the show’s success. A quiet, thoughtful reception is often deemed as failing to please. When a good piece of theatre hits home, it is its own art-form, not in competition with television but an entirely different experience.
It is about being live and creating an engagement between performers and audience which is of the moment and subject to change. In this way, the child is drawn into the action, in a completely different and powerful way, and this can be very pleasing for them. Good theatre is memorable. It offers the opportunity for dialogue, the exchange of opinions, and the start of critical appreciation.
It is also very potent and can upset and frighten. We need to challenge young audiences with our work, but be very responsible about how we do this. Children under five in the UK spend roughly a year of their lives watching television. I feel it’s important to offer them the best of theatre alongside the best of television to share with their families.
Which of the two media do you prefer to work in – television or live theatre – and why?
I love both mediums, and also writing for radio. They’re all very different. Television is thrilling when you see the final product, but as a writer, the steps in creating a stage production are so much more exciting and scary. Being part of a theatre team is such a good feeling, whereas in TV, writers hover far more on the peripheries of the production.
What are your next projects?
I’m helping to produce a conference “Putting Children First”, for Action for Children’s Arts at the Unicorn Theatre, which will explore childhood, the place of the arts in the lives of children, and arts funding for children. We have some wonderful speakers, including the authors Lynne Reid Banks and Morpurgo.
With the actress Kumiko Mendl, I am co-artistic director of A Thousand Cranes, and we are both artistic associates of the north London cultural centre, artsdepot. A Thousand Cranes creates theatre for children, inspired by stories from Japan and Europe, to celebrate and unite the two cultures. Our latest show Little Sunshine, Little Rainfall is a production for children aged three years and upwards and their families, set in a magical Japanese garden and featuring a naughty Storm Fox.
Vicky Ireland's adaptation of Peter Pan runs at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch between 26 May and 16 June. Little Sunshine, Little Rainfall is at the artsdepot, North Finchley 15 and 16 June. Putting Children First takes place on 19 June at the Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street (www.childrensarts.org.uk).