Alex Bulmer on what makes an effective play for young audiences

13 February 2014

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Last December we announced that Theatre Centre and playwright Alex Bulmer had successfully applied to the BBC Performing Arts Fund to support a year-long Fellowship. In the first of her blogs tracking her progress throughout her attachment, Alex summarises her activity so far…

This Fellowship enables me, as a developing playwright, to spend time over this year focussed on the art and craft of writing for young audiences, a subject that has intrigued me for some time.

This past month I have been reading scripts, and attending plays and events. Natalie Wilson, Theatre Centre’s Artistic Director, equipped me with loads of reading from the Theatre Centre archives; plays that span all ages and have very distinct approaches.

What is evident is that there is no set tone or style to the work, but the form is highly literate and active. It is interesting to see how writers have relied on the function of sound, repetition of language, rhyme or song – all part of creating a strong acoustic environment for the audience.

As I’ve learned, it is quite important to consider this when plays are touring largely to school halls or non-traditional theatre venues. This doesn’t mean the plays lack a physical life, quite the opposite! Voices and bodies engage in highly physical activity. For example, in Holloway Jones by Evan Placey (produced by Synergy Theatre Project and winner of the Brian Way Award 2012) a young girl jumps a car on her bicycle. In one of the other plays I read an angel travels from a cloud down to earth and plays physical tricks on a couple with a baby.

Thematically, the plays do feel specific to an age range. Questions of identity, gender politics and personal sacrifice seem to appear in the plays for a teenage audience, and questions about fairness and fear / hope and friendship appear more strongly in plays for younger audiences. This is something I’ll be paying close attention to as my Fellowship continues.

This month I also attended a workshop on adapting children’s literature at the National Theatre. The writers featured included Helen Edmundson (who adapted Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy for the National Theatre stage, as well as Swallows and Amazons), Samuel Adamson (The Light Princess) and Carl Miller (Emil and the Detectives).

What struck me was how important it is to resist thinking there is only one right way to adapt an existing text; instead it is vital to discover one’s own relationship with the material, to bring a unique perspective to a theatrical approach, and to think from the child’s perspective as well as from the perspective of our adult self.  I also noted that in some of the examples discussed the speed and pace of events felt specific to its audience, and I hope to discuss this more with the writers who shared their work.

I have also attended three plays for young audiences recently – Emil and The Detectives, The Pardoner’s Tale and The Light Princess.

Each was equally acoustically and physically vivid. I noted the strong imaginative use of body and voice, and the bold use of music and sound. Thematically, The Light Princess really struck me as having truthful insights into self-starvation and the refusal to feel, father-daughter relationships and the relationship between grief and emotional transformation. In addition there were themes of love and sacrifice – creating a play that almost felt more like a theatrical poem or fairy tale.

My note on The Pardoner’s Tale is about how it used the convention of storytelling to its fullest, and created an evocative soundscape which moved the audience through physical environments, emotional space and plot.

Alex’s Fellowship continues throughout the year – she’ll be attending more performances and receiving guidance on her reading and research from Theatre Centre. To follow her blog posts, sign up to the Theatre Centre mailing list. You’ll also receive regular information about our opportunities for writers, actors and teachers.