Theatrevoice Forum: Children’s Theatre (3/3)
11th February 2005
DEBATE: CHILDRENS THEATRE (3/3)
Q&A: John Retallack, David Wood and Annie Wood conclude their discussion. Heather Neill hosts. Recorded live.
There’s not a sufficiently engaged philosophy from the National Theatre about young people’s work.
CHILDREN’S THEATRE: THEATREVOICE FORUM
A discussion with John Retallack, David Wood and Annie Wood. Heather Neill hosts.
Recorded: 11 February 2005. © theatreVOICE.
Heather Neill: Welcome to the Theatre Voice Forum on children’s theatre at The Theatre Museum in Covent Garden in London. My name’s Heather Neill, I’m a journalist and critic and I was for a number of years Arts Editor of The TimesEducational Supplement. I think a lot of the people here are very well-versed in children’s theatre, so I’m very pleased to see so many distinguished and expert people, and I hope you will take part in the discussion afterwards. But on my right I have a panel of very well-known practitioners in children’s theatre, furthest away is John Retallack who is Artistic Director of Company of Angels. He was a teacher before he began the Actor’s Touring Company in 1977, in 1989 he became Artistic Director of The Oxford Stage Company, and while he was there he introduced Making the Future, programmes of work for young people. In 1996 he hosted a series of labs for writers for young people at the Arts Lab, which led to some forty new scripts, many of which have been produced since. And in the 2001 he founded The Company of Angels specifically to produce new and experimental work for young audiences. There have been many successful productions already from Company of Angels but Hannah and Hannah has had an international success and is already well-known by audiences, not just those normally interested in young people’s theatre. It’s about conflict between locals and asylum seekers in Margate, as seen through the eyes of two teenage girls. Sitting next to John is David Wood, probably one of the best known people in children’s theatre I would think, the author of over fifty plays, an actor, member of The Magic Circle, founder of the touring company WhirlyGig. He’s the author of Theatre of Children, a guide to writing, adapting, adapting, directing and acting, which just about covers it, doesn’t it? It’s everything you need to know. And he’s also the Chair of Action for Children’s Arts. And next to him is Annie Wood, no relation by the way, who became the Artistic Director of Polka Theatre for children in 2002, having worked in children’s theatre for fifteen years before that. Her productions of The Red Balloon and Martha Travelled to North America Including to Broadway. Polka is a designated children’s theatre and it’s celebrating twenty-five years of working from its base in Wimbledon, but it’s also been touring recently. Bad Girls has just come back to London, Jaclyn Wilson’s book adapted by Vicky Ireland who was the previous Artistic Director of Polka Theatre and is with us in the audience. Your panel, can I ask you first of all each to say, quite briefly, how it was you became hooked on children’s theatre, because you’ve all done a lot of other things. Do it in order, John, start with you as you’re furthest away.
John Retallack: I got, it wasn’t so much children’s theatre. I suppose it was children and teenagers, but there was a grant of about £900 that was offered competitively by the Arts Council in about ‘92 to go to Europe and see theatre for young people there. And I went off for three weeks, and I went to the DenBosh festival amongst other things, and whilst there I saw, I wrote a diary of it at the time and I just saw a range of work for children and adolescents that really knocked me for six. I was in the middle of running Oxford Stage Company and I thought this was some of the most exciting work I, not that I’d just seen that year, had ever seen. And what took me aback was that it was happening in gymnasiums and school halls in the middle of the day with no artificial lighting at all and the school parties watching. I didn’t think I’d rediscover some magic in theatre through that, but ever since then I have found the link between the lives lived by young people and theatre to express it, an irresistible source to create new work and new schemes.
Heather Neill: David, you were an actor, I remember seeing you in If, the film If, you were a rebel boy in If, the Lindsey Anderson film, before all this began.
David Wood: Well, you know, it wasn’t really before it all began. When I was twelve I started doing magic at children’s parties for, you know, a bit of money, and I think that taught me, looking back, how children react on mass, which is very different from the way children react in ones and twos. And I far prefer lots and lots of children in a big room than one or two children in a small room, I’m much better with a lot of them than I am with a few of them. And so that carried on and when I went to, I wanted to go to drama school and the Head Master said don’t go to university, try to go to Bristol and do French and drama. So I didn’t get in there, and he said well we’ll try and get you in to Oxford. And I got in to Oxford, which was very lucky because I did no work at all but managed to do more theatre than I would have ever done even at drama school. And while I was there I went to see a pantomime, a big commercial pantomime at The New Theatre Oxford. And nobody else would go with me, no other students would come with me, it was very, you know, naff to go to a pantomime. But I rather like that sort of entertainment, but as I sat there I thought this one particularly, I mean really you could write the storyline, if there was one, on the back of a postage stamp. I mean there was no story at all and children need a story. And furthermore, towards the end there was a star comedian who, in the obligatory half-hour spot that they gave them those days at the end, started telling a joke. And it was a slightly off-colour joke, it wasn’t blue, the children probably didn’t understand it, but it got a laugh from a group of housewives. And this was a matinee, full house, afternoon show. And these ladies laughed, whereupon this comedian walked forward, leant over the footlights, which there were in the 60s, and he said come on, let’s get the kids out of here then we can get started. And I had a very strange sort of physical reaction to this. I was about nineteen/twenty years old, and my hackles rose literally. I blushed in this… I thought how dare this man, and it was full of children, how dare he say that he would prefer to be doing his late night cabaret act when he’s been paid a lot of money to entertain these children. That made me think, what is there for children for these days. And there was very little, you see, back in the 60s, you could see Peter Pan if you were in London but nowhere else, it wasn’t allowed to be done anywhere else. There was the odd Toad of Toad Hall, there was the odd Wizard of Oz and maybe Alice in Wonderland. Nicholas Stuart Gray had one of two little, I mustn’t say little, little, but they were, they were small-scale productions of fairytales, but there was very little happening. So by the time I got to rep in Worcester in 1967, and somebody actually said would I write a play for children, I was ready and I honestly believe that I was meant to do it, you know, I believe that that was what I was put here to do. I know it sounds very boring, but I’ve never really wanted to do anything else.
Heather Neill: Well we’re very glad that that’s what happened.
David Wood: Well, I don’t know.
Heather Neill: Thank you. Annie?
Annie Wood: Well I’m like John and David, there wasn’t a moment of like inspiration and realization there, I have to work with children’s theatre. I guess I got hooked on it because I just kept getting asked to do it. I trained as a drama teacher and I hadn’t really had any theatre experience at all when I was a child growing up, I lived in the west coast of Scotland. I think somebody came over once and did something in the school, but it’s a vague, distant kind of memory. But when I did the first show it was almost by accident really, you know, that I never went to teaching, I went to young theatre and I did, you know, I did plays with young people and then got, you just get the job. And then, you know, then when you get one job, and if you do something quite well then you get asked to do another one. And then, well what happened then was somebody once said to me when are you going to come and do an adult play then? And I said well actually I don’t really want to do an adult play because, you know, it felt very sort of cerebral and text-based and I’d sort of learnt to love this visual, imaginative world of children’s theatre. And I do think you can, you need to be more visual in children’s theatre, particularly if you’re playing to very young audiences which, you know, I like to create work for that age. So, you know, it allows for more playing, and I guess I also really started to really enjoy the audience. And I think children are the most wonderful audience because they come to the theatre very open-minded and open-hearted and they’re not cynical, they don’t go right, come on now, entertain me. I’m talking about young kids, there is an age that they do, they do get like that, that’s for sure, you know, but they’re very open and they’re very hungry, and they’re very happy when they’re in the theatre. And they’re very honest, and that’s what I love as well, if they’re board, you know, they’ll really let you know, it’ll be like a mass exodus to the toilet or, you know, into the sweetie bag. So, you know, I think that I love the audience and that’s what hooked me really.
Heather Neill: Between you, the three of you, you make theatre for children and adolescents for quite a wide age range in fact, don’t you? And two of you have written a good deal and one of you encourages new writing, and the other two encourage it as well. Is there a problem about programming for young people though, in that you have to address the parent or the teacher first and hook them before you get your young person in? Is it difficult to get people interested in new writing for young people, or is it too easy to fall back on adaptations? I mean we should say that, I mean Polka does some good adaptations some of which are by David who just had James and the Giant Peach at Polka and now you’ve got Bad Girls, but you’ve also done new writing. Is it a problem?
Annie Wood: It’s incredibly difficult, it absolutely is. Yes, you’re right, the parents and the teachers are the people who have got the power to buy the tickets and make the decision for the child. I think the only circumstance where that doesn’t happen is with Jaclyn Wilson where it is complete pressure from the child, they pick up the leaflet, they go I want to go and see this, you know, because I love it so much. I mean at Polka we firmly believe that there is a great place for adaptations of classics and contemporary work, but new writing is the heart of what we’re doing and there’s a lot of underground work happening all the time that’s not seen really, of development of new writing. But it is so hard to get the audience, and I understand all the reasons why, you know, because it’s expensive to go to the theatre and, you know, if you’re going to pay £50 for a family of five to see a show, as a parent you’re maybe more incline to go for something that you know rather than something that you don’t know, it’s that risk factor. So in a way I think we have to find a way to bring families, parents, teachers on a journey with us of exploration and, you know, excitement about new writing, because that’s properly quoted. But it’s the only way to really see what’s happening today, right now for new writing, and that’s why it’s really, really important to us, but it is so hard. When we did a, when John and I did a project early this year and John wrote a new play, Sweet Peter, and it was a play aimed at teenagers as well. But it was a wonderful, wonderful play and it attracted nobody, it was so difficult to get people in and really disheartening, really disheartening to have a theatre that’s empty, to have a show that’s empty, for the actors, for everybody in the theatre. And, you know, everybody wants a buzzy place of work, everybody wants the shows to be popular. But, you know, we will, we have now found a balance where we can afford to do, take two risks a year out of seven with our shows, with new writing, and we’ll keep doing that and maybe there’ll be a change in the tide, I’m not sure, you know, maybe it will happen.
Heather Neill: David, you’ve done both new plays and adaptations…
David Wood: Yes.
Heather Neill: And you’ve actually worked with Cameron Mackintosh, the producer in the West End, haven’t you?
David Wood: Well pre-Cats. Cameron, this strange little man with glasses came up to me at a party once and said are you David Wood? So I said yes, he said well, he said did you write a thing called The Owl and the Pussy Cat Went to Sea? So I said yes, so he said, well he said, it’s the most wonderful children’s show I’ve ever seen, if there’s ever any chance of me working with you I would be so flattered and I would be so honoured. And sure enough we did for about ten years, and we did the Ginger Bread Man in the West End for about seven years. But now, well the point I would make here is, is that yes, we all have this terrible problem, the titles, titles, and we all feel we have to do the big titles. I went through a phase of not wanting to do adaptations at all, because I really felt this was wrong. Even The Ginger Bread Man is not an adaptation, it’s a good commercial title but the story is nothing to do with the fairytale. But when we started Whirly Gig, and Whirly Gig toured for twenty-five years, we finished last year, we decided to call it a day. And what was exciting about it was that when we got a reputation, and in particularly in certain theatres, I mean extraordinary… the Civic Theatre Darlington, for instance, we were very big there. The Palace Theatre Newark, which nobody’s ever heard of, the first year we went there we emptied the place, within three years we were selling-out ten performances for the week. And the reason was, was that they were trusting Whirly Gig and it didn’t matter what the title of the play was. And it was rather like say, you know, Ballet Rambert, people say oh Rambert’s coming next week, and so they all book, it doesn’t matter what the show is or what the ballet is. And my great dream was, was that we could expand that to such an extent that we could do work in all sorts of different size spaces and simply that word Whirly Gig would become a passport to big audiences coming in. Having said that, it doesn’t always work and nobody can really tell you why, and it’s often things that you think are going to do really well. Even, one of the last things with Whirly Gig we did was I adapted The Sheep Pig, which was filmed as you know as Babe. A hugely successful movie, very, very popular, a classic book, all the teachers knew it. And we had fifteen children who were brought in wherever we played, playing the sheep, a flock of sheep, it was a big production and I say it myself, it was really rather good. It got wonderful reviews and it just didn’t work, people just didn’t come and see it. And you’d ring-up schools and say excuse me but, you know, we’ve got this show here, you know, why haven’t you come to see it? And Head Teachers would say oh yes, no, no, no, well we’ve got the video here, they’ve seen the video. And then of course you do despair because you realise that it all comes from the top and it’s got nothing to do with what the children want to see, which is the point that Heather was making beforehand. So there’s no magic formula, but my own wish would be that new writing was not just accepted but became the norm. Because there’s this ridiculous thing whereby the majority of people assume that children’s theatre equals adaptation, full stop, that’s what it is. Which makes the craft of playwriting for children slightly tarnished in people’s view, oh well they’re just, you know, they just cobble together something from the book, and it’s much more of a craft than that. But even more of a craft is the original playwriting, and why shouldn’t children have original plays just as grown-ups do. Grown-ups have adaptations, yes, but they have real original exciting new plays, and why shouldn’t children.
Heather Neill: Well John, your company is devoted to producing new and experimental work so…
John Retallack: Well I think doing new work, new writing or new devised pieces, whatever it might be, is always hard. I mean, of course, whether it’s for children or grown-ups anyway, I mean it’s always, unless you have a fantastically… you know, I mean obviously if a big national company puts on a new play, that will draw a great deal of attention that will bring people in. But, you know, it’s always a struggle to pioneer new work and you have to take that on and make it work in the circumstances that you have. I mean, you know, Annie talks about, you know, in order to keep that theatre functioning and working, you know, it’s very important that it takes in a certain income every year, and that has to work and you actually gave a quality to how you’d work. I mean I’ve run a theatre and I’ve run a touring company, a big and a small one, and I’ve certainly chosen to run a company which is, we describe sometimes as a bit more like an ideas box. I mean we’re just, Teresa Ariosto and I are producer and director, that is really the staff of the company. And we’re aware, when we’ve got something new that we want to promote we have to calculate and think very hard just exactly how we’re going to launch that. I mean I feel that there is now, in the Edinburgh Festival, is the truly probably the great marketplace now. I mean the Edinburgh Festival manages now to be front page news in, you know, at least in the broadsheets, it sustains that over about three weeks. And talking to some people who have been up there this year with new work for children, it’s gone very well and there’s a lot of critical attention. And then they’ve made the route down to London, some, played The Riverside, somewhere like that, and you have to be patient and be prepared to build a reputation for a new piece of work. And it’s interesting to day that Sweet Peter, that was its first phase, it’s playing there in Polka and in fact we’ll be preparing a second phase for that production, and you really do have to take your time over it. And that’s why, I mean, well I love running the theatre and I love theatres, but I prefer the production company because in that way…
Annie Wood: …perception…
Heather Neill: Yes, I was going to ask you about this. You’ve all done work which is reviewed, but not all of it, I mean is here enough of a critical dialogue about young people’s theatre, because whatever practitioners feel about critics, when they’re not there it’s actually even more worrying than when they are.
David Wood: Yes, it’s interesting this. Critics on the whole, apart from you… Lynn Gardener tries very hard but sometimes the sub-editors even cut, you know, she does a review and they don’t put it in. And there are others, it is better now that it was twenty/twenty-five years ago. But the situation still is, is that things will only get reviewed if the critic has time or inclination. It is not an unwritten rule. For instance, I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had things in the West End, and it’s an unwritten rule that every West End play, the number one critic goes to see it and you see it the next day in the paper, that’s, you know. If it’s a children’s play that doesn’t happen. And it’s going to be interesting, I’ve got Witches opening at Wyndams in a couple of week’s time, now I reckon they will go to that. Partly to knock it because Ruby Wax in it and they’ll want to have a go, I think. But in he past they might go and the review might creep in a week or two after the thing’s come off. I mean, it’s very, very frustrating. Why is that? Well I just think it’s back to the attitude thing that children are small people and of small significance, and therefore it’s not very important. What do we do about it? We just have to keep plugging on and keep inviting them. Interesting, Witches was at The Theatre Royal Brighton last week. The Theatre Royal Brighton as a play a week, again, there is always a review in The Evening Argos, and it’s an important review because it comes out say on the Tuesday or the Wednesday when you open and it effects Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The Witches was not reviewed in The Evening Argos, whereas The Holly and The Ivy, staring Tony Britain, straight away, we’ll go and see that, you know. I’m sure it was very good, but they obviously made that decision that it wasn’t as important and so they wouldn’t go. But it’s the cross we have to bear, isn’t it, really?
Annie Wood: I don’t know what my matching partner might think of this, but it doesn’t really bother me that much about getting reviews. You know, I think maybe some of the critics are a bit scared of children’s theatre and they think maybe they need to have a different criteria to be able to judge it or understand it. You know, if they come, you know, fantastic, but if not, you know, the feedback that we get from the public and the schools who come, which we get a lot of, that tells me what I want to know really, you know, as a director and, you know, it’s great, it’s great feedback.
Heather Neill: There are two purposes for reviews, aren’t there, to get audiences in but also to keep a level of debate going, to make sure that people are talking.
David Wood: It’s the status of the work as well, isn’t it? I mean you just feel that what we’re doing is important, I mean we’re all doing it because we want to do it, we’re not doing it as some sort of refuge because we’re failures from adult theatre. You know, this is what always annoys me, there’s this feeling, oh well they’re beginners because they’re doing children’s theatre. Well I’m a very old beginner. But, or you’re a crank, you’re a bit odd if you work in children’s theatre. The failure one is the killer though, you know, say oh well they’re taking refuge… and it’s the hardest job you’ll ever do in your life, you know, to say that you’re…
Annie Wood: It’s also the best job, you know what I mean, it’s the best job. I think I have the best job in the world.
David Wood: Absolutely, absolutely, and one tries to convey that. But I think that is, that’s why we sometimes do get frustrated when critics don’t take it seriously or indeed say yes, I don’t think I’d understand it. How dare they say that, I mean, you know…
Annie Wood: Theatre, it’s the same.
Heather Neill: John, what would you say to this?
John Retallack: Well I think, there’s a review that’s just been done, commissioned by Arts Council East, on the kind of state of play on children’s and young people’s theatre in that region, but the report’s very astutely made, you know, a lot, a very thorough study of every other region to make comparison. And there’s no doubt that in this sector in Great Britain, more than in other Northern European countries, there is low self-esteem in this sector because of a failure or insufficient critical attention and debate, as you say, and not as higher level of funding as would be expected. And underneath that low self-esteem is that, I feel that the Arts Council doesn’t… the Arts Council very clearly, for example to complement them, I mean they have a, their philosophy over cultural diversity in the last decade, I think, has made the performing arts have an incredible impact culturally by promoting and getting everybody to have a multicultural reflex who works in performing arts. They do not have the same philosophy about young people, they don’t have one. They are defensive about it and, if challenged, will indicate a number of ad hoc initiatives that are taking place here and there. But in terms of a coherent from the top philosophy of why work for children and young people, both for the art form, never mind just the children and young people, why that’s important. It’s absent. And I mean I certainly feel I want to say that, and I’m certainly at the moment just agitating and lobbying in that direction, because I think there should be a greater level of recognition. So yes, I mean reviewing is part of that scene, I guess.
Heather Neill: What relationship do you feel that as children’s theatre people you should have with the education system? Is there pressure on you, Annie, as someone who programmes for building to do thing which are curriculum-orientated, and is that a problem or do you just ignore it?
Annie Wood: Well, I certainly don’t sit with a blank sheet when I’m programming and go, now what’s on the curriculum. I’ve never done that and I’ll never do that actually, I don’t think theatre should be led by the curriculum because, you know, who knows if they’re getting it right, for goodness sake, you know, there’s more subjects in the world than the ones that they’re teaching in schools, I’m sure there are more things that children are missing out on. So I’m certainly not led by that, absolutely not. We do have a very vibrant education department in the theatre, and they run parallel projects that support the work that we’re doing and support the development of our audiences as well so that the children and the young people have a more proactive sort of engagement and involvement with the theatres. And that’s their purpose, you know, but it’s not all, it’s not always about, you know… it’s actually not always specifically about the show either, you know, it’s about the art form. So we’re, you know, the education department are extremely successful, but we shouldn’t be guided by education, we’re not here to subsidise that sector.
Heather Neill: No, but then you do need school groups to come in, don’t you?
Annie Wood: We do, absolutely, there are a number in our audience. And, so in order to do that we have an education department who create fantastic projects for them, you know, and hopefully the shows do entice the teachers as well. And, you know, the stamp of quality that Polka has gained over the last twenty-five years. And, you know, the theatre is educational, you know, everything about it is educational, it doesn’t need to match a certain topic in the curriculum. You know, and sharing something with your peers in educational and seeing your peers outside of the school environment and your teachers outside of the school environment, that’s all educational and, you know, enriching. And also, I mean we also do have packs for teachers, and if there is an obvious angle to anything in the curriculum then we really point it out and make that their way in to the show so they feel they’ve got an avenue that they can…
Heather Neill: Yes, it’s only sensible to do that, isn’t it?
Annie Wood: Well absolutely, and it means the teacher can perhaps justify why they are making that theatre trip in a very busy schedule as well. Say, you know, it hits this in this key stage and that target and, you know, we can do that as well.
David Wood: That’s a very important point. Years ago, because The Ginger Bread Man which for some reason has, I mean it has paid the rent for thirty years, it’s been wonderful to me and it’s done all over the world, this terribly English little play set on a Welsh dresser. And I go and see it in Japan and they don’t have Welsh dressers, they don’t have ginger bread men there, I mean why the hell they do the play… and it’s touring China at the moment, it’s opening in Beijing. It’s ridiculous, I don’t know why it is. And cynically I know that it’s because it’s got one set and six characters and it’s quite cheap to do. But it has gone on and on, it has done very well. But it was very amusing to me when about fifteen years ago, by which time the play was fifteen years old, I was asked to do it at Unicorn. Unicorn had a problem with their Christmas show, something fell through, the rights weren’t there, and I got this phone call saying, you know, is it possible to bring Ginger Bread Man, so I said fine. And so we were rehearsing and this very nice young lady came down one day and said excuse me, I’m the Education Officer. She said now, this play was written with the National Curriculum in mind, was it? So I said well I’m sorry, but the National Curriculum wasn’t around when I wrote this play. She said oh dear, well she said, I better read it. And she came back… she came back after the weekend and she said are you sure you didn’t write this with the National Curriculum, it’s got everything. She said I can do this and I can do that and I can do that, and I said yes. And it’s what you say, I mean anything hopefully with a modicum of integrity or whatever, I mean if it’s got anything, it will be educational with a small ‘e’, and that seems to be what’s important.
Heather Neill: There’s certainly citizenship when we’re…
David Wood: Yes, I would have thought so…
Heather Neill: Almost everything.
David Wood: I mean I don’t want to get into the great debate that has gone on for years between theatre and education and children’s theatre, because I think the wonderful thing is, is that over the years we’ve cross-fertilised a tremendous amount and there’s not need to feel that there’s a schism anymore. The sad thing is that in the process theatre and education has virtually disappeared, which is all to do with money and government funding and coming through the education systems. And there came a point where the TIE people had to suddenly say we’re not educational people anymore, we’re artists, we need money from the Arts Council because we can’t get it through the education people anymore. Now in their case fair enough, you might well tune into the National Curriculum and say we’re coming in to the schools, we’re doing a project about so-and-so which we know is going to tie-in with that. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I see no reason why we should be doing plays in the theatre for which teachers can simply use us to tick boxes and say right, we’ve done that, weve done that. I want them to come in and have a bit of fun, a bit of joy, I want them to think, I want to make them laugh probably, make them cry, I don’t care, but I don’t really want to be dictated by the curriculum. Somebody did actually ring-up once and said would you write a play about water, so I said why? Well it’s on the curriculum, I said I don’t know, I don’t want to… it’s the tail wagging the dog in my view.
Heather Neill: John, have you got anything to add to this? You sort of, you feel completely separate from all of this.
John Retallack: No, I don’t feel separate at all. I agree about the sentiment about theatre and education, you know, that was a fantastic period of theatre and education and it was good, it was what it said. And of course, as soon as something is that, there’s an absolutely amazing very artistic and imaginative show has resulted, you know, and it’s quite well recorded what that movement was about. And I’d certainly wish that it did continue. I think what’s interesting in thinking now is that it’s possible to, really to think freshly about work for children and young people as not educational, that it is actually a form that young theatres makes could… there are so many more people trying to be theatre makers now, can start to look at as a field that they should be able to create new work for. Because as you were all saying, I mean the possibilities, the imaginative possibilities in terms of the performing arts, if you’re looking at playing for children, gosh, what there really are such possibilities there. And I’m not sure that every twenty-four and twenty-five year old who’s coming out of theatre school or whatever courses they might be doing, are thinking that’s the track they want to go down. And I think that that’s important that it should be seen as a field in which they can work. So I see it, education, the relationship to it. It does also fascinate me that, when we sometimes see, when we have a… we just played Greenwich Theatre last week, and you just…
Heather Neill: With Hannah and Hannah?
John Retallack: Yes, and we just had, a couple of afternoons actually, we had very big audiences, turned up out of coaches. It was quite scary standing there, you know, with about three hundred and fifty sixteen and seventeen year olds around you in school parties. I mean this is quite something, you know, we talk about relation to schools, but I’m thinking this is a big deal. When they are crowded into the auditorium, you know, you really check in your mind, is this something you think’s going to survive for the next hour and twenty minutes. And it’s very exciting when it does, and it’s very distressing and would remind you very sharply if you hadn’t done your dermatological work before the show began and you’re casting and got everything right. So I think, I find that whole relationship to schools and education and what’s going on in schools and education, what’s going wrong, what’s going right, what people are saying and what people are thinking, I find it very interesting. And I suppose, as for shows being education, well I mean the kind of, I don’t think any of us are tying to be putting on educational shows in the theatre. But I think that, as you say, is a, what’s the word? A discharge of what we do all the time, sure.
David Wood: See, I think really what the teachers, what I would like the teachers to be thinking is not oh, shall be take them to the theatre because there’s this play which is going to fit the National Curriculum. I would like them to say shall we take them to the theatre as an experience which they might not get because their parents might not take them to it, and this is an experience that they might actually enjoy and might lead to them wanting to do again. And that sounds very simple but it actually doesn’t happen very much.
Heather Neill: Does it happen less that because people are more constrained to answer the requirements of the curriculum and league tables and so on, that they don’t things which are going to take away from the…?
David Wood: That’s right, I think they’re saying well, you know, we’ve got so much work to do and there are so many tests coming up, we haven’t got time for theatre. Whereas really what should be happening is that, in my view, every school, every primary school certainly, should be able to go in their primary school lives to the theatre free at least once, is a suck it and see situation. The sad thing is, is that of course not every school in the country is going to be near enough where the work is going on, because we haven’t yet got enough places doing it. But it should be a child’s right, it should be an entitlement in just the same way as they can get a library book out for nothing or they can learn to swim for nothing, they should be able to go to the theatres for nothing. It’s one of life’s experiences that they should be given, not just because the play happens to be about someone that they’re studying in history or something, you know, that’s an add-on.
Heather Neill: Perhaps we should say, to give the government a bit of a tick in their box, that they have put a lot of money in to creative partnerships and there does seem to be an acknowledgment that the arts are important in a way that there wasn’t until a few years ago after a gap. I mean it used to be taken for granted even more and then… I think it’s not seen to be more important again to have experiences which are not just for the curriculum, although still fitting them in to the timetable is difficult.
David Wood: Yes, but Heather, what they’re doing I think, and I’ve got no objection to it really, what they’re saying is, is that it’s more important that the children should be doing it rather than seeing it or witnessing it. In other words the professional’s role in this is slightly dubious. Yes, the professional goes in, creative partnerships, they all do a project. Now that’s wonderful, nobody’s denying that, absolutely wonderful, but it would be very nice too if they made quite sure that there were enough things going on for the children to be able to experience the professionals doing it, which becomes then, I think, the inspiration. I mean why does a child want to play in an orchestra or play an instrument? Normally it’s because they’ve been taken, I don’t know, to the Albert Hall or whatever it is and they’ve had a concert. And in theatre terms we, you know, the things that are going on in those theatres, I think, are the things which would become the inspirations, but they are not looked upon as important I don’t believe by the government because the funding is not there and put in to that. You know, I always look at it in all sorts of ways. Why should we… why do they get interested in football, why do children get interested in football? Well it’s because they see it on the tele, they see first division teams on the tele, and sometimes they’re taken to see a first division match. People become interested in ballet because they see something at Covent Garden, well these are the professional models and I think children’s theatre should be doing a similar sort of job. It’s not that we want them all to be doing it, it’d be very boring if everybody was wanting to be in plays.
John Retallack: It is one thing about creative partnerships, as far as I understand, I mean they do actually have quite a lot of professional artists working in them.
David Wood: Absolutely, absolutely, yes, but it’s more to do with the children doing it. And I would hope that as a result of that, maybe the professional artists would then encourage them to go and see things.
Heather Neill: This is a contentious point we’ve reached. Is this a good point perhaps for the audience to come up with some questions? Could you wait for the microphone and say who you are please, for the benefit of our listeners.
Audience – Male: My name is Charles Heart, I’m with the Arts Council. And, I mean I just disagree with John, it’s not a matter of being defensive, I just disagree with him. I think that we are at least making an effort to do more than we did before and we have in the past, I mean we have over the past few years tried to put a lot more money and time and effort especially into theatre for children as opposed to theatre for adolescents. We’ve concentrated on that area, we think it’s a very particular area that needs a lot of help. We would like to see more younger people, directors and writers and designers and everyone else attracted to the area, and we’re going to continue our effort in the areas especially with the younger age group. But also the report that Arts Council England Eastern Region came up with, of course is part of the Arts Council, Arts Council England, I mean it’s one organisation, and we will carry this through throughout the country. I mean personally I think theatre for children and adolescents, but theatre for children particularly right now is very, very important and we are trying to put more resources in to it.
David Wood: Can I come back on it?
Heather Neill: Please do.
David Wood: Well, I mean yes, I recognise that there is more, but I think the position within the Arts Council is actually parallel to the situation in the country. What I’m saying is that it would be really… seeing the impact that has been made by the Arts Council in terms of disability and diversity, it’s very impressive. It would be very interesting to see, if looking at work for young people, for children and adolescents, was discussed and a similar level of energy was put in to work for young people. And what I’m thinking there is it’s not just about groups who do work for young people like what us three might represent, but that every theatre group and every dance company and every opera company in the country, this is separate to any educational work they might do, actually put in to their artistic policy new work for young people. I think that would be at a much greater level than you’re speaking of, and that’s what I’m looking for.
Annie Wood: I think what’s happening, what I feel is happening at Polka is that those… well perceived adult companies, regional companies, are all phoning us up and saying what are you doing, we want to work with you, and that there is this kind of shift in attitude about children’s theatre. I mean it’s quite overwhelming really, Northern Stage, Leicester Haymarket, York Theatre Royal. I mean York Theatre Royal have a young people’s theatre company based in their building now, I mean I think that’s a fantastic model, you know, it would be great if more models like that could happen. But I do feel that people are, there’s a shift, you know, Tall Boy Theatre Company, I mean these are just some of the companies we’re co-producing with and they’re companies that have done adult work and now they’re saying oh hold on, this looks really exciting and we want to get in on this as well, you know, which is great.
John Retallack: I agree, I think there is a tide, I think it is moving in a very organic way amongst people, I think that’s true.
David Wood: Yes, I have to agree with that. I mean there are far more people wanting to do this sort of work than there were, let’s face it twenty-five years ago, and let’s hope that there’s enough work for them to do. And I think, and Charles runs a department which was not really there before, I mean there was nobody really in charge of that sort of thing, and I think we’re very lucky that Charles is there because he does take it very seriously. But again, it’s to do, it’s partly to do with training, I think, too. You see, what do we tell these young people coming up as actors, directors, etc, do we actually say anything to them about children’s theatre? I mean there are one or two courses around and I know that there are more things going on than there were, but there’s still this sort of thing, it’s tagged on at the end and well, you know, for a first job it might be an idea to get a job in children’s theatre, you know, you might get your Equity card. That was what they used to say, they don’t say that anymore. But I mean how dare they say that, again, because again, it’s the most difficult job they might have to do. And vary rarely, I don’t know about you, I mean I get asked to go and do mock auditions at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where I go and pretend that I’m casting a children’s play, and some of them get a terrible fright because I’m asking them to do things that they might not normally… you know, I don’t ask them to do their Shakespeare monologue or whatever, I ask them to be a giant or something silly. And, but that is one of the only ones that seems to be interested in their students working on something for children while they are training.
Annie Wood: That’s so interesting.
Heather Neill: You’re doing something about that John, aren’t you?
John Retallack: Yes, we are at the moment trying to build a project that will be called Young Angles and the idea of it is, is to create a scheme for young theatres makers under thirty years of age. In which they would all be funded to create a new piece of work for children… it could be for children and it could be for adolescents. We’ve had Hampstead Theatre already wishing to come onboard with us and we are talking to other, we hope, future partners on this, to give the highest possible profile to young theatres makers doing new and interesting things for young audiences.
Heather Neill: Question?
Annie Wood: I get more letters and CVs from the students from Bristol Old Vic than any other school in the country. That’s probably why.
David Wood: It’s all my fault. They’re good too actually, and they do a schools tour. All the students on the three-year course do a schools tour, it’s great.
Audience – Female: My name’s Abby and I’m from Rose Bruford College doing my masters. I’m particularly interested in pursing a career in children’s theatre when I finish in September. I just wondered if you could recommend any tips on ways to approach children’s theatre. Like, I mean I’m specialising in acting but I’m also interested in the devising side as well.
Annie Wood: Gosh, well…
David Wood: Well we recently, we did a project recently where we raised money through the Esme Fairbairn Foundation for two young directors, and what was interesting is that there were two posts and there were, I think, a hundred and fifty applications.
Annie Wood: A hundred and eighty.
David Wood: A hundred and eighty. And I mean there were some, a lot of very good people in there, again, indicating a higher and unslayic level of interest there. And insofar as, I mean I think that all artistic directors are susceptible to a letter of great interest in what they’re doing, especially if the student has been along to see a show and turned up at something like this and can actually talk about the work, I think that it makes doors open because actually, and that’s true in reps as well. And if anyone’s doing their job in a theatre they are going to listen to that kind of thoughtful and interested letter, they’re certainly going to meet you and then suggest you meet someone else. So I think, and I think, well, I think it’s a good sector because I think that people really do have an interest beyond themselves in what they’re doing in that field, and I think that they will be responsive to interest particularly from a young theatre maker.
John Retallack: I think that’s right. You’ve got to write your letters, you know, write lots and lots of letters, that’s undoubtedly true. And I, looking back, nearly every production when I’ve directed something I have actually used say at least one person from receiving a letter from somebody, rather than being sent by an agent or rather than, you know, in auditions and people getting it, but an actual letter. And it is something to do with the fact that they… well, you know, we’re flattered, aren’t we, a bit when people write to us and say we like your work. You don’t even have to say you like the work, but you say you’re interested. And the only other advice I would give you, children’s theatre has traditionally, not so much now maybe, and sadly it’s got, it’s been a problem, it’s been very much a sort of pioneering world. Most of us who came in in the 60s ended up having to be do-it-yourself Jack of all trades, right. You might say why is it that Vicky Ireland not only was a director at Polka but wrote plays as well, why does Annie Wood write plays as well as direct them, why did I direct my own plays as well as produce in my company, and I often used to write the music. One of the reasons for this is we couldn’t afford to pay anybody else to do it, and the other thing was I became a producer solely because nobody else would produce my plays. So you have to become a sort of pushy pioneer. The sad thing about this is that certainly in the 60s, 70s and 80s, was that the Arts Council didn’t like pushy pioneers, they didn’t like clever people who were trying to say I can do a bit of everything, and so there was a resistance to supporting us as sort of individuals who hadn’t got people around them because they hadn’t got the money to get these people there. I mean I could go on for hours about that, I think it’s better now, I think the situation is better, but I would say to you get some friends together, students, put on something at the Edinburgh Festival yourselves, raise a bit of money, do something, be seen, and then at least you’ve got something on your CV, you’ve done something, you know.
David Wood: I mean just for the record, it’s just interesting historically, the very time that you were doing that, when you were painting the set and writing the music and writing the play and directing and everything. In Holland and in Belgium they decided, really post ‘68, that they really, that young people really should, that the performing arts were very important. They built theatres and they poured an enormous amount of money in to it. And so there’s a whole group of writers now in their mid fifties, writers and directors, and a lot of them I must say are still going very strong too in that scene, and a lot of young people coming up. So the two, where Holland and Belgium went and where we went at that point in cultural history, went in completely different directions. But they’re in Holland now, and I do find this sort of interesting, they really have been so nurtured and so watered and so looked after with so many workshops and retreats now, that they’ve almost run out of anything to write about except being on a retreat. And they are now looking, of course, often they are coming over and looking at what’s going on in England and some of the work that’s coming. So some of our work’s now beginning to cross over to there and it’s beginning to be performed there. And they look with interest at what’s going on and the more, in the rough and tumble of our more free market systems. So, you know, I don’t believe it’s everything, you know, it’s just interesting to look, and if anyone is really interested it’s just so worth a trip across the water just to see how it happens there.
Heather Neill: But you are arguing for tough times being good for you really.
David Wood: Well I mean, you know, I love the place I live in, you know.
Annie Wood: Can I just say to Abby, I think there’s something about being inquisitive at the right time as well, you know, because in any year an artistic director is immensely busy at certain times and just can’t deal with anything but the play that they’re in. But, so be persistent I guess and, you know, and do go and see the work, and then there’s a reference point. I mean recently a girl who I met at the theatre, she’d been seeing the show with her young children, she said I really want to get involved in children’s theatre, can I talk to you? I said yes, let’s talk, and then she came on, we had a three-day, a week’s development workshops on two new plays, I said well why don’t you just come along to that. So she’s involved in the development, you know, of the plays just as a way back in. So Polka are always developing new plays, always looking for actors, devisers to come and get involved. The 4th March is a date in your diary, so you can come along and help with that one. I was talking about with Roman my associate today about, you know, it would be good to work with students as well as professional actors, you know, in the development of… So, there you go, so it is about being around at the right time in the theatre, and I really say get to the theatre and get to know the theatre so there is a shared understanding and conversation there.
Heather Neill: I think there’s somebody else wanting to… yes?
Audience – Male: Howard Loxton, Society of Theatre Research. John began by saying how excited he was at seeing the theatre in European gyms and school halls, I just wondered what the differences were both in getting bookings and on the experience between taking a show in to a school and taking the kids out of the school in to a theatre.
John Retallack: Yes, it’s a very interesting, this one. I mean the theatre company that influenced me most of all in Holland, Vaderzed, actually only play in schools, but they’re the only one, they only do that and they go in to gyms and they do it all sorts of different ways, sometimes they build their own theatre and so on. And they actually have actors who have worked with them a long time, and even get real first night nerves, you know, in one of those gyms at 12 o’clock, 12 noon when they open. They are a complete theatre life form who just works in the day in those gyms, and it seems to work. But it’s also true that… I always feel this, when I was working at Polka doing that Young Europe project, I like children’s theatres because you go in there about half past nine and have a cup of coffee before work, it’s absolutely packed with human beings, it’s absolutely full up. And the show starts at ten o’clock, and it’s very curious, when you come down sometimes at six o’clock and it’s closing down at that time of the day. So I don’t, I think both are vital and I think my best story about people going around schools in a really exciting way was that Ad De Bont actually wrote a play called Mirrad Boy from Bosnia, a wonderful two-hander that many people would have heard of that he wrote in the middle of the Bosnia war. A very, no one wrote about it in the middle, no one could understand it enough. He wrote this play and it very quickly got translated in to other European languages and Susan Austin, probably the most famous of all directors in children and young people’s theatre in Europe, runs Unger Clara in Stockholm, got hold of it and thought this is such an important play everyone has to see it. And she had about eighteen in her repertory company, so she took nine women and nine men and she rehearsed all eighteen of them at the same time in this two-hander play. And then created a schedule where they went out to every school within a hundred miles of Stockholm over a three-week period, but on Tuesday you didn’t know who you were going go play it with, so you’d always turn up and play with the opposite number with a new person every single time. So in this way, and quite fast, in about a month every single child in that wider Stockholm area had seen Mirrad Boy from Bosnia. You know, so that’s really a great thing to me about going out to schools and being ready to make theatre out there. So they both matter I think.
Annie Wood: Yes, it’s a completely different experience, isn’t it, you know. I worked at Tag Theatre Company early on and, you know, we took shows in to schools all the time, I mean it was a nightmare. Six o’clock calls in the morning to get through to Edinburgh and, you know, it was really tough especially when you were like, you know, in your early twenties and maybe not just, maybe not even just getting home at that time anyway. That was my case anyway, I can’t speak for the other directors. But, you know, I’ve seen, you know, gym halls, you know, with Dinner Ladies opening the shutters behind it, transformed with a moment of magic in theatre, you know, and that is so vital and so valid. And I think the children who go in to those halls and experience something different, something great, it’s absolute magic. But it’s the same coming to a theatre, you know, the whole excitement of going to a completely new environment, particularly if it’s a children’s theatre, you know it’s just for them, you know, I think they’re both really equal and I’ve had great times in both.
John Retallack: A lot of people think I’ve knocked theatre and education, I used to get criticised. I’m going back now a long, long time, and it just wasn’t true. My first professional job was in TIE at the very first year of the Watford Theatre and Education Company, and we did the Tay Bridge Disaster as a lot of people did then. It was all about collective responsibility, who made the bridge fall down. And we had a very good company, Bill Bryden, the director later with The National, he was in the cast, and we went round schools and I had a wonderful time. And we talked, we had discussions and I loved it. But there was always this feeling that I wanted them to come to me as well as me go to them, I always felt we’re in this hall, we’re not able to do anything with lighting. We had a bit of sound I remember, which was good, we were in the round, we used to get spat at in the secondary schools as I remember, as you came on through one edge. But, for me, I just wanted them to have the chance of, if you like, the magic. Now that was a very dirty word in the late 60s and 70s, the magic of theatre. A lot of people were saying well, you know, there’s nothing to do with magic at all, far better for them to see something in the school. And I just, I couldn’t accept that, I wanted to be in charge of all the tricks and show them the tricks of what theatre could do. And I suppose it’s slightly…
David Wood: The conjurer.
John Retallack: Yes, probably the conjurer in me, yes, or maybe the sentimental thing. I mean, you know, the thing of looking back to when I was what, four, five, six, and the orchestra starting and the lights going down and the curtain going up, and all those things which people reminisce about it, but are actually rather potent. But nevertheless I firmly believe that work in schools is incredibly valid and I do it myself now, I mean I work as a storyteller in schools a lot and I absolutely love it.
Heather Neill: They’re not mutually exclusive, anyway one isn’t necessarily better than the other, you wouldn’t like people to have both of them.
Annie Wood: I guess for teachers in some schools it’s easier to have companies, you know, coming in to your school, it’s less expensive probably as well.
Heather Neill: And it is rather nice to see children coming in to their usual environment and looking round wide-eyed because it becomes something else.
Annie Wood: Yes, it’s something else, yes. I think what kills it is that if afterwards you have to then be subject to like a whole tirade of questions about, you know, what you saw in the play and like how much did you really understand it and what was going on. I mean if we went to see it, as adults if we went to see a show and then had to sit down and answer questions on it, it does kill it. And I know my son went to see a, he was going to see a show in our local theatre, not Polka, he went oh no, I said what’s wrong? And he said I don’t want to go back there, we had to write about it the next day and I had to answer all these questions. And I though oh gosh, no, they just can’t go and enjoy it, like, you know, for like one day in their whole lifetime of education, can’t they just be allowed to just take a piece of theatre and just let it breath instead of having to write an essay on it, you know.
John Retallack: I think there was a view that at one point that theatres, and I mean grown-up theatres, were rather dead places, that they were shut through the day and they were open for this two and half hours where people could go and get their bourgeois entertainment in the evening, and then they shut again. And there was a feeling that actually the school is a very living place, all day long an impoundingly living, pulsating place, and that, you know, as you say, this capacity. I mean I actually don’t find it very magic if the Dinner Ladies are all at work at the same time. But assuming, assuming the school actually welcomes you and creates some kind of a space for you to be able to perform in, I mean it is exciting to do. And whenever you arrive, I always thing why the hell have I done this, I wish I wasn’t here, you know, if I could do that thing from Bedazzle, that film, sort of blow and disappear, I would. And yet, and yet when you do it and you get in there it’s often very exciting, very satisfying.
David Wood: Oh I love it, and you go in, I do a half-hour, forty minute storytelling based on my Ginger Bread Man which has a bit of magic in it and a bit of music and they sing a song in it, and I do it for the whole school, for primary school, apart from sometimes the top class, they don’t come in and sometimes the infants, the tiny ones don’t. And it’s that thing, you go in, you’re your own boss, you know, I arrive at eight o’clock in the morning, and you look round the hall and you try to find your space. Now, where am I going to go? And you look for where there’s a plug, a socket, that’s quite important. Sometimes I go in a corner, sometimes there’s a bit of artwork up there and you think that’ll be quite good, sometimes there’s a terrible mess on a wall and you think well no… then you suddenly see there are a couple of lights up there and oh marvellous, could we see them? And the Caretaker is brought out, he says oh no, it means getting up the ladder, I don’t think I… we only have that for the nativity play and we don’t have that anymore. But there is something very exciting about working in a school, I totally agree with that, it’s lovely, but theatre’s…
John Retallack: And it’s not necessarily educational when you go in a school, is it?
David Wood: No.
John Retallack: And that’s what…
David Wood: No.
Audience – Male: Can I just interject very quickly as a critic, because that sort of circles back to that point you were making about oh well, critics don’t really get out enough to see… I mean clearly there is an enchanting process involved in going in to the schools, it’s much harder for critics to following productions in to schools…
David Wood: But why, but why?
Audience – Male: Because I think it’s a different, in a way you could call it a different market. I mean I think if you’re writing for the TES, for example, and you review shows going in to, I don’t know, sixteen comprehensives, then clearly all the teachers, just heavy leadership, but teachers in that case, and they’re going to want to know is that production going on, what should we expect, how can we derive our coursework around it or whatever you want. And I think, you know, primarily critics are writing for paying readers who want to take their children in to something in the West End. And the point I want to make is that it’s quite rare, isn’t it, for all the riches coming to the West End, but that’s a rare event. And don’t you think that maybe rather than saying it’s the critics who aren’t raising the level of debate, it may be that you can look at some of the commercial producers for, you know, a lack of risk taking or even some of the national institutions like The National Theatre, for example, generally has productions on over Christmas for children. I mean I know they have other lessons as well, but that strikes me as one of the reasons why there isn’t very much coverage in national papers because it’s in what we probably call fringe places.
David Wood: Yes, there is a big argument there. The fact that The National Theatre of Great Britain has three auditoria suggests to me that at any one time of the year there should be at least one children’s play going on in one of those three auditoria. So that if someone was coming from abroad they could, on any day there would be a children’s play going on there. It seems to me either scandalous that that doesn’t happen, or that there should be a national children’s theatre which is the equivalent. And therefore I would agree with you on that.
John Retallack: The counterargument that they would put, I think, is that recently the national repertoire has actually been extremely interesting for a young audience, and I don’t see why any group of teenagers wouldn’t go in to see A Minute Too Late and probably have a great time. So, you know, I think in some ways, and with the Travelex £10 season, I think that’s also been a real encouragement, so that the age level has actually dropped.
David Wood: Yes, but not far enough, John.
John Retallack: No, I mean I agree about there not being enough young people…
David Wood: Teenagers fine, but…
Heather Neill: Do you remember when Richard Ayres took over he planned to have a play suitable for children frequently…
Annie Wood: Yes, he said that, he said that in his…
Heather Neill: Once a month, I think. But he eventually had to give up on the idea because they just couldn’t afford to sell seats at the price you had to sell them in order to get children in, that was the argument. The economic argument is always important though, isn’t it, that you can’t sell seats at £20 even.
John Retallack: Well in the West End it is very unusual to get a children’s play because of that, obviously.
Heather Neill: Although people will pay £60 to see a Mary Poppins play.
John Retallack: Yes, well this is, there is this extraordinary culture we have. Disney can do it with Lion King or whatever, and for some reason people are very willing to folk-out forty or fifty quid for their children as well, there are no reductions at all for those shows. Family shows, but that’s family theatre and I think that’s a different area. And in fact I would say that The Witches was family theatre, and I have to say, I mean, you know, it’s not really children’s theatre. But the huge problems in seat prices for that, I mean they’ve got a child’s price of £15 or something.
Heather Neill: Does anyone else want to take-up Dominic’s point about producers not taking enough risks?
John Retallack: Commercially I can understand it because of the financial side, but then you start talking about theatre owners as well, you start talking about the rentals that people charge, there are all sorts of arguments there.
Audience – Male: Should there be a place then in central London where, you know, seven days a week you can see children’s theatre and not just family shows like Mary Poppins?
John Retallack: Well there should be somewhere in every town and in every city.
David Wood: Well there is going, there is about to be one of course.
Audience – Male: That’s a good thing, is that what people are wanting?
John Retallack: Just first of all, I mean there is first… of course there should be, and it’s very striking that there hasn’t been before. I mean the Unicorn of course was in the arts theatre and left that, and Polka is, I think it’s fair to say, more outer London than central London. But of course the Unicorn Theatre is to open, I believe, early next year?
Heather Neill: I think this year.
John Retallack: The end of this year, you know, which is obviously going to be, should be a very striking new building from all I see in the leaflets and its, certainly its position in town is remarkable.
Heather Neill: It’s going to be on the South Bank near…
Annie Wood: City Hall, just next door.
Heather Neill: City Hall, yes.
John Retallack: But what I, I think to your question, you know, it catches a nerve in me, the question that you asked. And one of the things, you know, at the moment, because Company of Angels is only just in receipt of some revenue funding to be able to go out and actually work at developing ourselves and talking. I think it’s also up to us when we know we have something that is seriously interesting for a wider audience, and to go and to lobby theatres more. And I take it as part of our reasonability to lobby for our field and make sure it is seen more. It’s certainly true, I mean I, what you’ve said about the three theatres that are there at The National, just for example, not playing more for a young people’s audience. Yes, I mean it’s true and it is, as I would say, there is not yet a sufficiently engaged philosophy I feel from the Arts Council and from The National Theatre on what is the approach to young people’s work. It tends to get hived-off in to different fields, but there is not as clear a philosophy as you found in other fields.
Heather Neill: Perhaps to be fair we should mention National Theatres Connections, which is all about new writing for young people, but for young people to play, and they do have a festival at The National Theatre every summer where young people take two of the main stages at The National.
John Retallack: I mean that is a sensational festival, it has produced more new work than any other initiative, you know, in the last dozen years, and that is just remarkable how it’s been successful in getting so many leading playwrights to create new work for young people.
Heather Neill: Yes, and leading playwrights are asking to do it because it’s, success breads success obviously.
John Retallack: But if you look at that remarkable repertoire that’s come up, you won’t find that those plays are done a lot overseas, that they have not been or very rarely been picked up and been done in British theatres, which is quite surprising if you think that every year they produce a book with ten more remarkable plays in that.
Heather Neill: I think they’re done by young people though, and one of the reasons is that a lot of them have very big casts, don’t they, because…
Annie Wood: They’re written that way.
Heather Neill: They’re written that way in order to involve a lot of people.
John Retallack: Not all of them do.
Heather Neill: Not all of them do, no, but it is one of the freedoms for writers that they don’t have to consider cast size when they’re writing for National Theatre’s Connections. One more question.
Audience – Female: Hello, my name’s Vicky Ireland. I think we have to remember, this debate’s about children’s theatre and so often the debate gets hived-off towards teenagers and adolescents. And my perception of children finishes at puberty, so I’m talking up to say thirteen. And I do think The National Theatre, it’s a disgrace that it doesn’t actually service children, and I don’t understand why the Arts Council can’t kind of speak to this. If you read the statement under which The National Theatre was conceived, it is to serve the nation and all ages and all people. And it seems to, we let it off the hook constantly, but it hasn’t, to my knowledge, every commissioned one new piece of writing for children. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if it had a head and an attitude that encompassed and felt equally important about theatre for children, it might influence the rest of the nation and other theatre makers and practitioners and reviewers etc, it might influence the whole situation. Meanwhile, there are brilliant people, like the people on the panel, who are making this work.
Heather Neill: Would anyone like to…?
David Wood: Yes, yes, because… the point is, is that everybody was perfectly pleased when they said they were going to do His Dark Materials, nothing wrong with that at all, but you cannot call that a commitment to children’s theatre. I’m not saying it’s a cynical exercise in exploiting something that’s, you know, because everybody does that, but you cannot call that children’s theatre. Because I agree with Vicky, I mean you can say that maybe teenagers are going to be more involved in a thing like that but, again, it’s done as a sort of festive thing in the Christmas slot. Just as when they did Wind in the Willows, which was a sort of three-hour extravaganza about gay Edwardian men, which was quite delightful, I thought it was absolutely wonderful, but it was not a children’s show really, and I think a lot of children probably enjoyed it, particularly children who had been to the theatre before and so on. But I don’t think that’s quite what we’re talking about, that is a different type of theatre. We’re saying that maybe there should be a show in The Cottesloe for five year olds, just the same as there might be in a studio at The Lyric Hammersmith or somewhere like that, but there’s not.
Annie Wood: Well maybe with the new Unicorn being so close by, maybe they will take a bit more note of the good work. And I know Unicorn are going to programme a lot of new work in the new building. I think, I just feel as a parent it will be fantastic to take my children somewhere other than Polka, you know what I mean, that’s not going to cost me £37.50, you know, in the West End. You know, so I love it when theatres put on, you know, work for that age group, it’s fantastic, it should be.
John Retallack: On Dark Materials, I mean, I don’t know, I mean I’ve really, with the children and adolescents, but I certainly can say that it has been extremely popular, that show, with teenagers. I mean it’s really had a credibly good rating with them, it’s been very much enjoyed as have the books.
David Wood: No, I’m very pleased they did it, I really am, but I just wish it would make, it would represent more of a commitment to work as a whole rather than grabbing, cherry picking something and saying we’re going to do that one because it’s a biggie.
Annie Wood: I know they have done development workshops on children’s books in their studio, because an actor friend of mine told me when he gave my kids the book when he’d finished with it. I don’t know if they go anywhere after that, but they have been doing that. I don’t know if anybody knows of anything else they’re doing. Laura, Laura who works at Polka and also The National does.
Heather Neill: Yes, we should… we’re really running out of time, so this will be the last question.
Audience – Female: Just putting in a bit of information really, I work at both Polka and at The National Theatre, and they are developing another show for families at the moment. I have to say it is being described as a show for families, not children.
Heather Neill: And it’s for Christmas as well, isn’t it, it’s going to…?
Audience – Female: I think it’s around Christmas, I’m not sure it’s hitting the actual Christmas period, but I…
Annie Wood: What is it?
Audience – Female: Don’t quote me on that.
Annie Wood: Do you know what it is?
Audience – Female: I think it’s a Michael Morpurgo, but I don’t know the title, but yes.
Heather Neill: Oh, well that certainly hasn’t been announced yet, so there you are, advanced knowledge. Well thank you very much. I think we do have to stop now because we’ve come, we’ve gone beyond the time we were meant to be here. Thank you much to the audience and thank you very much to John, David and Annie, it was very, very interesting. I think we’ve ended with a challenge to The National Theatre and otherwise a fairly positive feeling about the way things are going. There’s such a lot of energy in this sector, isn’t there? So let’s hope it continues to do well in future. Thank you.