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Spotlight On: Jacqueline Wilson and Mary Morris

Posted on 13 January 2012 by Laura Turner

Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker, with all her exploits and adventures, is an institution for young readers. After first appearing in Wilson’s novel The Story of Tracy Beaker in 1991, Tracy stepped into the spotlight in a CBBC television series. Now, in a whole new venture for the irrepressible Tracy, she has made her stage debut with Mary Morris’s children’s musical Tracy Beaker Gets Real! Following a successful national theatre tour in 2006 – 2007, the play script and score are now available from Samuel French for theatre groups to perform. Wilson and Morris discuss the challenges, but also the satisfaction, of taking this beloved character from the page onto the stage and seeing her flourish.

Development on the project began when Wilson’s agent approached Morris to script a stage adaptation of Tracy’s story. Morris, responsible for BAFTA-nominated episodes of Tracy’s CBBC show, “chose to write it as a musical because the character was so strong and unusual, and seemingly able to do anything without stretching probability or losing her fan base, so I knew the character Tracy Beaker could carry it off as a musical.” For her part, Wilson talks fondly of going to see Vicky Ireland’s adaptations of her books at the Polka Theatre, but notes that this is an exciting new venture. Somewhat of a literary celebrity, Tracy’s strength as a character undoubtedly stems from Wilson’s original novel. On this subject, Wilson is quick to highlight that she made Tracy up rather than taking inspiration from a real person, even joking, “I’m not sure I could cope with a real-life Tracy!”

Morris’s history of writing “wonderful scripts for the TV series” meant that Wilson was delighted when she agreed to script the adaptation. Yet Morris emphasises that the processes of writing for the stage and the screen are “different in many ways”. Creative independence is perhaps the biggest distinction between the two mediums, with Morris describing how she “was completely in charge of the story I chose to give to Tracy and her friends… as long as Jacqueline was happy with the script, which she was.” Morris reveals that in her experience of television writing, “the writer is only a part of a production team where much consultation goes on during the writing and others have the final decision on where the stories go.” In contrast, Morris could concentrate on her vision when writing the musical, but she does note that “there were some story and character issues that had to be ironed out to make it flow better” between first draft and the final production. She adds, however, that this process of editing and redrafting is “a normal part of writing”.

For Wilson, the strength of the musical lies in Morris’s creation of a piece of theatre that is different to the novels and television series. Watching the musical on stage, Wilson found herself “completely involved in the performance, as if it was a brand new story”. Perhaps this is precisely what an adaptation should achieve: an affectionate tribute to the original with its own distinct voice and style. Morris recalls the nerve-wracking feeling of seeing the production performed for the first time, which included nerves for the performers and musicians: “I want them to be comfortable in their roles and I want the audience to like them as well as the writing and the music.” Tracy Beaker Gets Real! is a play in its own right, but there is always a debt to the original author of an adapted work. Morris certainly felt this pressure, adding, “And of course, I wanted Jacqueline to like what she saw.”

Morris thrived on having the opportunity to embrace the creative freedom of writing for the stage. “Theatre works in a different way to TV: a theatre audience can bring their own imaginations to the play. For example, if I set a scene in a burger bar we can do it on stage with lighting and minimal props – we act like we’re in a burger bar, therefore we are.” Theatre is essentially liberating for writers, actors and audiences alike. Morris and Wilson agree that young performers and theatre groups should embrace this freedom of interpretation. They advise: “forget the TV version and make the characters your own”. Morris is clearly aware of the pitfalls of theatre, describing herself as a fan of “good theatre”. She names her favourite play as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. In her mind, it is “a very risky play to stage and perform. If you don’t get it just right, it doesn’t work as well.” She recognises therefore that young performers putting on Tracy Beaker Gets Real! “must work within the parameters of the actual words in the script, the story and the music”. The power of the imagination must not be neglected, however. For Morris, “the joy of theatre is that other people can use their own creative imagination when they come to do it”.

Audiences should also embrace their creativity when they go to the theatre. Morris pictures the audience as an active force in the theatre because they are constantly engaging with the actors by using their imaginations, whereas “on screen locations have to be represented realistically which makes the audience much more passive”. Both Wilson and Morris attend the theatre, with Wilson commenting that she “admired the recent stage version of Carrie’s War”; goes “to every single Alan Bennett play”; has seen Wicked, Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You; and thinks Billy Elliot is “electrifying”. So what of the benefits for children watching a stage version of a book? A matter of opinion. Morris comments that “dramatising a book that is already loved and widely read can encourage children to take an interest in theatre” whereas Wilson sees the musical as a springboard into Tracy’s story, noting that “if children enjoy a dramatisation they frequently want to read the book afterwards”.

Adapting Tracy Beaker for the stage became a means of debunking some of the myths surrounding theatre and performing for younger audience members. Morris recalls that some young theatregoers “expected to see the actress who played Tracy in the TV series on stage. It was as if they believed only that actress could be Tracy Beaker.” However, it is this process of witnessing other actors play the roles that helps young people to realise that “theatre is a creative art, not a copy of a TV series”. Undoubtedly, this kind of reinvention of a children’s book on stage can only be a positive thing, but it is dependent on having a story that works flawlessly. “Getting kids to read is more about reaching them with the book’s story material. Then word of mouth from their peers who are enthusiastic about the book encourages more kids to read.” Wilson has experienced this as both writer and reader, remembering, “I loved Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. There’s been a brilliant TV adaptation, but I don’t think there’s a stage version yet.”

Like Ballet Shoes for Wilson, The Story of Tracy Beaker has become a rite of passage for countless young readers. Now, with Morris’ new play script and lyrics, a whole new generation of theatregoers are meeting Tracy for the first time. The fruits of Morris and Wilson’s working relationship are an innovative musical adaptation that embraces its connection to its source material whilst taking the story – and Tracy herself – to an exciting new level, paving the way for other new children’s musicals. Exhilarating for writer, adapter, performers, readers and audiences alike, Tracy’s story is also heart-warming and inspirational to both theatregoers and avid readers.

To order a copy of Tracy Beaker Gets Real! or for more information please visit www.samuelfrench-london.co.uk

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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