Photo by Ludovic des Cognets
For this article, I was asked to write a piece about how I make work specifically for a young audience. And after much head scratching about what to type, I’m still a little stumped. It is true that whilst casting a cursory glance over my back catalogue of productions, I’ve directed a lot of plays which have fallen under the ‘theatre for children’ bracket. But when I come to work on each piece, I don’t approach these plays any differently to how I make work for ‘adults’.
This is because I believe two things fundamentally. One, that young audiences aren’t just the audiences of tomorrow but are the audiences of today, and deserve to be treated with respect. Two, that great theatre should be just that. Great theatre. Regardless of who its target audience is. I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that, especially here in the UK, we continue to put work for families and young people into a different box to ‘adult’ work, and keep confining it to festive runs and tiny studio tours.
My instincts about this have been confirmed since taking my own small son to theatre. The more a piece engages his imagination, the more it is rich and complex, even if he doesn’t understand everything, the more he rises to the challenge of the play and is engaged by it. When something is too simple, too dumbed down, too patronising, that’s the only time he’ll wriggle, ask for food and act up because he’s bored.
With all my work, I aim to tell stories that excite and enthral, move and amuse, grip and surprise. I try to create productions where the clarity of the storytelling is key, that are inventive and invite the audience to add the magic ingredient – their imaginations. So I’m always delighted when I cast an eye over an audience, and can see a child and their adult companions having an equally wonderful experience of the same production.
Most recently I’ve been bringing the story of Annie Oakley’s childhood to life in Little Sure Shot, a show that brings together the romp, magic and music of the Wild West whilst also looking at poverty, child abuse, guns, parental death and gender inequality. All of these things happened to a real child, and whilst we tread carefully with such sensitive topics, we don’t shy away from them either. Young people aren’t stupid – they know bad things happen to nice people in the world, and I don’t believe we should sweep these things under the carpet.
If there’s one thing I do take into account more keenly with my work for young audiences, it is this. There is a huge privilege and responsibility that comes with the fact that many of the audience members (and their fellow adults, family or classmates) may be visiting a live theatre event for the very first time. So I do everything in my power to ensure that the experience is visceral, memorable, moving, entertaining and thought provoking in the hope that their first taste of theatre is an experience that young people will want to repeat. They are our audiences of today, but also hopefully of tomorrow.
Little Sure Shot is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 15 – 18 April. For more information click here.