Morgan Lloyd Malcolm is a playwright who also does other things with words: “It’s easy to spread yourself too thin, to be a jack-of-all-trades, but it’s useful to flex your writing muscles in different styles… I’ve had a varied trajectory. I started with comedy and slapstick, then I did some more serious stuff by myself, then I went back to comedy with pantomime” [Lloyd Malcolm is writing the Lyric Hammersmith's Christmas show with Joel Horwood]. However, having written since she was at Goldsmiths University, she is clear that she wants to be known as a playwright: “I don’t want to be disingenuous or put down the other things I do, and it’s useful that people know I do those things, so I can be commissioned to do them – writing is writing, and it’s nice to be able make bread-and-butter money. It took me a while to get round to it, but now I’ve done it [written plays] I feel like I’m allowed to call myself a playwright.” Part of this varied career path is her education work, and it’s this that we’re talking about today.
Lloyd Malcolm has written a new play, Health Wealth, for the Old Vic New Voices project. Focusing on obesity, the play is currently touring schools, mostly playing to 11-14-year olds. I ask her how she got involved in the project. “I had a relationship with the Old Vic [from being involved with 24 Hour Plays]. Knowing people in the Old Vic who have contact with these jobs and need a writer… well, I’ve always had to interview for these jobs, but it’s a useful way into that world in the first place. 24 Hour Plays was such a brilliant process for meeting people – people either already working in theatre or about to start.” For those of you concerned about perceived closed doors of the theatre world, or terrified that these opportunities are only available to people who love networking, take heart: “I’m pretty rubbish at networking, but I’m good at going and having a drink with people – which I think is the same. I’m basically saying go and make friends with people in the industry – lots of work comes from those kind of working situations, working with people that you like! It can get stressful and it is hard work, so you want to work with people who are nice.”
So, having made friends and built relationships and earned the work, Lloyd Malcolm found herself commissioned to write this new play for schools, with all of the potential pitfalls that go with writing for teenagers. We talk about why obesity was chosen as the subject of the play: “It’s a big topic for young people. Diet and our attitude towards food, and the foundations we lay when we’re younger… is it parents’ responsibility or schools’ or doctors’ or the media’s? A lot of info gets chucked at young people about how they’re supposed to live and be healthy and eat, and it’s confusing… What was needed was a play that gets them thinking about laying foundations for the rest of their lives.” That’s a big ask for any audience, but especially one made up of traditionally disaffected but image-conscious teenagers. As Lloyd Malcolm says, “It’s difficult because at that age I was ignoring all instruction from adults, so it’s more about getting them thinking themselves. We’re not telling them what to decide, but they have to live in these bodies for the rest of their lives… I remember thinking ‘I’m not going to be old for ages!’ But it happens quickly – I wish I could tell my 15-year-old-self to sort out an exercise regime!” This affinity with her teenage self has helped Lloyd Malcolm to ask “What can I write that’s not going to bore a teenager, piss off a teenager or patronise a teenager? I wanted them to laugh, and to think a bit at the end…”
Is it difficult writing for schools, I wonder? Not just the audience, but the fact that you don’t have the technical advantages of writing for actual theatres? “It’s in sports halls etc, and actually that’s part of the appeal. It came out of Epidemic [the last piece she wrote for OVNV], which was totally different – a big community show, a huge space, a cast of at least 50. I had a bus being stolen and driven through the streets, we had people swimming in the sea – I wrote ludicrous stuff and they tried to make it happen! This was the total opposite – maximum cast of three, minimal costume, no set, few props… and it was great. It took me back to my comedy days, when we’d not change costumes, we’d just pick up a bag or put on a hat, it was very simple, very minimal and relied on good performances.”
The other big difficulty, of course, is maintaining the artistic integrity of the play while getting across the message it needs to convey. Is it a struggle? “Well, you don’t want to end up like a public service announcement disguised by some kind of theatrical conceit – it needs to be a good play that can go into schools, not just saying ‘eat better or you’ll die’. It’s not filler for teachers who need extra marking time, it needs to be good theatre. It’s a play about a boy, and he’s hopefully a character they they can relate to.”
For Lloyd Malcolm, “it’s really important having this kind of things going into schools”. As the curriculum gets packed ever-fuller, and with big changes to exams on the horizon, this kind of work is under threat: “I talked to someone who was doing something around theatre in education at Central [School of Speech and Drama], and she said there needs to be a change in the way we learn and teach and feed information to young people – sitting at desks with paper, learning by rote and being told to concentrate doesn’t work for every child, lots have to learn kinaesthetically, and jump about and touch things and let off energy, and our current system doesn’t cater to different ways of learning. This kind of thing, and art and drama and music, gives kids a taste of this…” She is adamant that we should be “utilising these wonderful physical people – actors are brilliant for delivering education, because they’re good at sending stuff out there. I don’t think we do it right at the moment, and a lot of kids disappear and slip under what they could achieve because they’re not being spoken to or involved in the right way.” Health Wealth and projects like it try to engage students differently, and with the OVNV’s backing each school that invites Health Wealth to perform also gets a workshop for its students. This kind of education work is essential both to keep young people engaged with the issues discussed and to show them that theatre and drama can be serious and useful. Long may it continue.
Health Wealth is currently touring with Old Vic New Voices. To find out more about the show and OVNV itself, visit http://www.ideastap.com/Partners/ovnv/education/education_current/health_wealth.
Image credit: Guilherme Zühlke O´Connor