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Vicky Ireland on writing for child and family audiences

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Why do you choose to write plays for children rather that for adults?
Well the field sort-of chose me. I was just about to leave The Central School of Speech and Drama, having trained to be a drama teacher, and the college put me up for a job which (very luckily) I got, as the youngest member of the first TIE (Theatre-in-Education) team at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. It was a marvellous start to a career which would put children at the centre of my world, exploring what they read, listen to and watch, alongside their hopes, dreams and fears.

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?
It’s horses for courses. If you have a large budget and cast, then stories like Matilda have a wonderful scope. If you only have three performers, it’s best to find a story which doesn’t require actors to change roles every few seconds to accommodate many characters. This is tiring on the performers, although children often fail to spot this happening and ask: “Where are all the rest of the actors?” at the curtain call.

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?
If the children see a television show on stage, it’s usually very similar to the screen version. This is because the TV producers have kept hold of the artistic vision and want to ensure good sales of both tickets and merchandise. If the artistic vision is handed over to the theatre-makers, they will create a very different product with much more of an aesthetic heart – but it’s also a more risky one, as it may not be what the adult punters are expecting or want.

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?
My television writing has been very enjoyable, especially the Happy Families series, which were twelve adaptations of books by Ahlberg. Although in theatre we had long used colour-blind casting, it was the first time the BBC had kept a small repertory company for the two series and employed actors with a range of ethnic origins within family groups. A coup I am very proud of. I also really enjoyed writing episodes of Pipkins, about a mad crew of animals led by very tatty Hartley the Hare.

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).


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