Filskit Theatre report from Theatre Centre’s Write Lines conference on writing for young audiences

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The Write Lines conference celebrated Theatre Centre’s sixtieth anniversary and its dedication to new writing for young audiences. Welcomed by Natalie Wilson, Artistic Director for the past five years, it was clear that the aims of the conference were to focus on both the importance of new works for young people, and on how to support new writers in this sector. Wilson paid particular attention to the need for contemporary works for this ever-changing and developing audience, a unique group that demand relevant and exciting work that speaks directly to them. This was highlighted with a video asking young people directly what they wanted from theatre. As is to be expected the answers were varied to say the least; some wanted drama, some comedy, whilst others demanded a mirror on their lives and a few thought that playwrights were afraid to use surreal and abstract forms with young audiences. With this selection of 5-18-year-olds it was clear there are as many audiences within theatre for young people as there are with adults.

This was echoed by Bryony Lavery, the key note speaker who followed the video. She noted that these young people clearly illustrated why writing for young people is such a daunting task. You cannot predict what young people want to see and debate. You cannot second guess their response and, in her experience, they can often handle more extreme and challenging ideas than adults give them credit for. For Lavery, she did not write with an age group in mind, she wrote the stories she wanted to tell, and worried about the suitability afterwards. What followed was constructive advice, based on a wealth of experience, which was to set the tone for most of the day. This was a day to encourage and support writers, away from the politics of the industry.

All fired up by Lavery’s talk, we went to the first of our breakout sessions. Each delegate experienced two of the three events on offer: Adaptation for young audiences with Amanda Dalton, Throw your pen out the window with Rob Evans or Collaborating with young people with Philip Osment. First up I was with Dalton and looking at the art of adaptation. This is a prolific part of writing for young audiences, covering the traditional adaptations of studied novels for teenagers to the current trend for early years’ book adaptions. This was a lesson in methods of approaching adaptation, investigating both the restrictions and the importance of interpretation when creating from others’ work. During the short workshop were given poems as stimulus and worked in groups to develop alternative settings, theatrical devices and narratives. It was clear there could be a multitude of ideas and concepts from a simple stimulus. For many of the writers in the group, the act of working with others offered as big a challenge as the creation of ideas; some groups offering cohesive reactions, others finding individual responses.

This was an integral part of the day: to challenge the current practices of our writers and to see how they could develop their work, and produce new and exciting pieces. This challenge might be in how you work, what you write about or the tools you use. This was extended in the next breakout session, led by Rob Evans. He gave us an insight into an activity he uses to help inspire him and connect with the world of the characters he is writing about. At first we focused our minds, and spent a few minutes writing a stream of consciousness about a place of importance to us when we were about 10 years old. From this we were given access to a whole host of materials and told to build an installation reminiscent of the place we had remembered. It appeared that as well as informing themselves of the sense of the place, the act of playing was helpful to engage with a more childlike outlook with which to approach putting pen to paper.

This felt like the most integral aspect of the day, with encouragement, inspiration and support of writers to go and create. It was a series of practical ideas and methods of working which could be taken, tried, adapted and developed by the delegates in attendance. This in itself makes it quite different to a number of the conferences on theatre for young audiences. Quite often, these meetings focus on the position of the sector and are mostly attended by theatre programmers and the main houses. This conference still had elements of the on-going debates but the flavour of the event was on the making of work and the challenges that writers faced. This was amplified by the large attendance of writers and theatre makers at Write Lines. Most of the people I spoke to were writers or representatives from companies, rather than producers and programmers. As a result the questions and discussions were quite different, and probably more positive than the more industry orientated seminars.

One important part of the day was the sharing of three of the Theatre Centre’s Skylines winners. Supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Skylines is a project to support and develop new writers for young audiences. Writers from across the country were asked to write 15 minute pieces for their choice of age group between 4 and 17. We saw the three winning entries, bought to life by three actors and directed by Natalie Wilson. It was great to see the process of work being bought to life, however, in the post-performance Q&A I was disappointed to hear that the works had not been performed to their target audience and this was the culmination of the project. When we spend the day advocating the interaction of young people and encourage their involvement with the creative process, I think it is a failing within the industry that work is not previewed and performed to target audiences until it is complete.

The day finished with a continuation of the Theatre for Young Audiences debate Whose title is it anyway? This panel discussion was hosted by Evan Placey, an award-winning writer for young audiences, alongside Wilson, Purni Morell (Artistic Director of The Unicorn) Jonathon Lloyd (Artistic Director of Polka Theatre) and Anthony Banks (Associate Director for National Theatre Learning). Placey put the spotlight on ‘gatekeepers’, whether they are parents or programmers, restricting the access young people have to new and innovative work. It is fair to say that the panel’s differing experiences and attitudes resulted in a number of contrasting viewpoints. Lloyd did not have such a negative experience of ‘gatekeepers’; in his experience most of the parents taking their children to the Polka Theatre were supportive of new and challenging ideas, as the venue had built a relationship with his audience, and they trusted him to put on shows that both the children and their parents could identify with. Morell was more concerned with the conservatism in both style and content of a lot of new writing, both in and out of the children’s sector. This was echoed by Banks, who was looking for more abstract structures in new work. Wilson, however, focused on the need for new writing as opposed to adaptations, and on tailoring work to the current generation of young audiences. It was clear that our panel had as many conflicting ideas and principles as the young people interviewed in the opening video.

The overriding thing I gained from the conference was to create work that you felt was true, honest and that you were excited about. Although it is true that there is a craft in tailoring your work for specific age groups, creators should not be afraid to use any story, any topic or any style of theatre for this diverse and rich audience. In fact, the first conversation I had at the conference, with tea in hand as we were finding our seats, was with The Stage’s Education and Training Editor, Susan Elkin, who summed up the message of the event nicely. Elkin made it clear that we need to stop patronising young people. She believes they are just as interested in the world as adults, except they haven’t made their minds up yet, so are open to more. They want to be challenged and excited. This is the gauntlet laid down. It is up to writers and theatre makers to meet this challenge and it is the responsibility of the industry to help them make it happen.

Photo of the Unicorn Theatre by Flickr user Flickr2864 under a Creative Commons Licence.