Theatre Centre is a company committed to serving the younger generations – for almost 60 years it has been commissioning new writing and touring theatre for young audiences. But now, Artistic Director Natalie Wilson is expanding its focus beyond commissions, which present “quite small gateways because you can only take in one or two writers at a time”. The solution to expanding? Skylines, Theatre Centre’s new free-of-charge professional development programme, which aims to bring together writers from across the country who are interested in writing for young audiences. Skylines will use workshops and online content to encourage the playwrights to “consider, investigate and explore younger audiences”, developing their writing “to make sure that younger audiences are still being served by the best, most talented writers this country has”.
Evidently, Skylines’ aims are as much focused on creating opportunities for playwrights as serving the best writing to their target demographic. As Wilson highlights, “I think this is very much the first [initiative] that’s looking at developing writers – not necessarily just the writing – that’s opening the doors to a mass of writers that wouldn’t necessarily at this point in their career be able to access the more developed programmes.”
Because, as Wilson explains, great theatre requires great writers: “When we tour a show, which is really at the heart of what Theatre Centre does, we are very committed to creating the theatre experiences for audiences, but to do that we need writers to be committed too […] There’s a clear pathway, a thread of continuum, between the Skylines project and our touring shows.”
And if the writing of those involved in Skylines makes it onto Theatre Centre’s touring schedule, their work may end up being shown in schools – but definitely not in a “dry and didactic” manner. As Wilson asserts, “the theatre element should come first. Good theatre, whatever age you are, is always a learning experience. And I think unless you’ve got good theatre – the art – within the work, the learning won’t be as enriched as it could be. Obviously by going into a school community, a school context, we have to push the learning element of the work because that’s what the school is there to do, but I think in order for the theatre to be a learning experience it has to have great art at the heart of it.”
So will Skylines be encouraging their writers to take a different approach to theatre – what is unique about the ‘great art at the heart’ of children’s theatre? “There’s lots of fundamental similarities [between writing for adults and writing for children], but when you write for young audiences I think you’re writing within different contexts; you’re not necessarily writing for a theatre context. You also have to really work with your audience to understand them in a way that I don’t think writing for adult audiences necessarily has to do. Adult audiences, if they’re interested, will make choices about going to see theatre, whereas a young audience is often watching theatre without having made the choice. Therefore it’s the writer’s responsibility to really understand the context, the language, and the concerns of their audience to make sure that it speaks to them.”
And in order for their writers to be able to understand the language of young people, Skylines is utilising all its resources – including digital ones. An integral part the initiative is the creation of an online community, allowing participants to remain connected to the project and access exclusive content wherever they are based in the UK. “I didn’t want to have a writing group located in one place,” Wilson explains. “By having an online community, we can work with writing groups across regions, and bring them together as separate entities into a community on our digital platform […] It’s a big experiment for us and we’ve worked quite hard – we’ve done a lot of consultation with writers about what works, what doesn’t work, what kind of content they want, how they might use it and how we can keep presenting an incentive for them to use it.”
It’s clear that Skylines has the needs of young people at its heart, encouraging playwrights to develop their writing for younger audiences and utilise online resources in order to remain constantly connected to the project. As Wilson states: “I’m a great believer that new writing can be responsive to the world around us and the world around young people, which is changing and needs redefining. I think writers are very well placed to investigate that in collaboration with young people, and I think that sort of relevance and responsiveness that new writing can have must be very compelling and engaging for a young audience.”
And as someone involved in A Younger Theatre – also a platform and resource for young audiences – I can’t help but agree.
Skylines will be using workshops and an online platform to develop the writing of playwrights for young audiences, culminating in a public writer’s conference in June 2013. The programme will be delivered in conjunction with five regional partners: the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead Theatre, New Writing South, The Royal Exchange and The University of East Anglia. For more information, see the website or Twitter.
Image of Natalie Wilson by Camilla Greenwell.