A Q&A with: Christopher Duthie, YPT Apprentice Resident Artist Educator (2015/16) & Playwright; Stephen Colella, YPT Associate Artistic Director & Dramaturg; Kevin Dyer, Associate Writer for Action Transport Theatre
Christopher: When approaching difficult material in a play, what are some of the considerations you would make for a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) play versus a play for a grownup audience? Is there a difference?
Stephen: I think the fundamental difference is that there is no terminology that we really use as “plays for grownups” and I think that’s because most of the time, when plays that adults are going to see are created, they aren’t created with anyone particular in mind. They can be a bit focused on the artist as opposed to the audience. When we make theatre for young audiences, I want to think about what is immediate and relevant to their world, to their stage of development, where they’re at, and I want a piece of theatre to speak at or above their level of experience. Never below.
That is about respecting the audience and making sure that they are treated as whole and unique people – not just as people who will grow up to be a good audience. That’s part of what I’m thinking about. I don’t make it more specific than that because I want to be open to whatever any playwright or creator might offer or bring us. There is such a large range in what we do at YPT, from plays for six-month-olds (with One Thing Leads to Another) to shows for 18-year-olds. That’s a wide range of what a piece of theatre could be. Sometimes it takes us a couple of drafts of a play to really figure out if it’s even for a young audience or not. Often we know quite early on, but not always.
Kevin: Well, I think…no I know, to start with, that children are interested in difficult, complicated things, more so, often, than many adults. Because by the time we get to a certain stage, we have realized that some of the questions are just too big and too difficult for us. Like what happens after we die? Is there a God? Most of us, by the time we’re 21, know there either is or there isn’t and the rest of us are in the middle somewhere, but we don’t very often change our views on what happens to us after we die, for example. Or even questions on what’s right and wrong. What can I change? What can I not change? Children are still interested in all that stuff. So, that gives me permission to make work for children about all the big things. I’m never worried about a play that has, for example, death or loss in it because I know that children are interested in those things from when they’re tiny. The question is just how do we frame the story? I think if you’re writing for people over the age of consent you can write anything. You can use violence and you can use sex and you can use swearing, especially, to get an effect, but if I’m writing for someone who’s seven I can’t use those things. I still have to use jeopardy and threat and conflict, but I can’t be as…lazy, if you like, as a Hollywood writer knowing that I can make people excited by putting lots of cars in for example.
Stephen: I think too, on the same question, that it’s not so much about what subjects we go to, but where we leave our audience. I think that’s a very critical point and that we should always leave them with hope or an option or possibility. If it is a play about drugs we don’t have to have a Pollyanna ending, but we do have to have the possibility that things could improve. What’s critical to me is that there is choice at the end, and there’s the possibility of escape. There are many places you can go and there is not a lot to be afraid of when writing TYA. [When] you talk about death, if the place that you leave them is “Death is a horrible and inescapable thing that comes for us all and you should be terrified of it” that is not a play for young audiences. (laughing)
Kevin: Yeah. No.
Stephen: But if the play says, “Death is something that comes for us, but what we should do is appreciate the life that we live until that point” – that’s a very different message. So I don’t think it’s about not going there. How you leave the subject is what’s important.
Kevin: Some years ago I was asked by a theatre company – a young people’s theatre company – to write a play. They were commissioning me to write a play, and they said “You can write whatever you like”, which is always a terrifying thing. I’ve got two boys so I said to one of them: “I’ve been asked by a theatre company to write a play. What shall I write about?” My son said: “Anything you like just don’t try and teach us anything.” I find it’s very important that theatre – even though it’s called theatre in education in some circles – still isn’t theatre that educates. People talk about the morality of work and the values of work…I think we all take our own values in when we watch something. When we watch King Lear or when we watch any of the Arthur Miller plays we take our own morality with us, so the writer doesn’t have to tell us the morality – doesn’t have to tell us what’s good and bad behaviour. It’s the same with children. We can put situations in front of them and trust them to measure what they see in front of them with their own life.
I once was in a theatre company, and we asked someone what sort of plays they would like to make and someone said, “Oh I want to do a play about dental hygiene because it’s very important that we all have clean teeth.” And it is, it’s very important that we all have clean teeth, but ….there are other ways of [teaching] that, aren’t there? Plays are not for moderating behaviour, and for instructing us about hygiene or not taking drugs. I’ve written plays about drugs and I know that plays that say, “Don’t do drugs!” are not the most interesting to young audiences.
Stephen: I think it’s more about opening the conversation around the subject. You don’t leave with a specific viewpoint, or you shouldn’t.
Kevin: Whilst having a completely finished story. That’s the trick isn’t it? How do you have an open conversation with a story that’s finished? Structurally, if you like. A beginning, middle and end thing.
Christopher: What makes playwrights and dramaturgs want to educate? Does that come from the industry? Since a lot of theatre is happening in schools, do we associate plays with education? Do we try to make our plays fit that environment or is it a part of something different? Is it a part of the process of actually writing the play?
Stephen: Well it’s funny, I don’t think about plays as educating. I think about plays as an opportunity for learning, the difference for me being that education provides you with information and ways to think, and learning is you figuring things out for yourself. There is a synergy between the two, but I feel like good theatre for young audiences is more about the potential to learn about yourself and about others, than to be educated in ways of thinking. I can’t speak for all playwrights and dramaturgs, but I think that idea is attractive because it’s a chance to have a genuine conversation in a way that might affect the way people learn about the world. I think that’s what I find exciting about it.
Kevin: Also it’s political in that often adult theatre-goers are of a certain social class and status of wealth. If you play to young people you can play to all people. You can give something to people that don’t have much money and don’t have much opportunity. And also, children are playful. I like writing plays for young people because I can be playful in their presence. You can make this playful thing. And also we don’t only learn with our brains. When I go watch a play I feel as much as I think. I’m interested in setting up something with young people where they feel…they feel what it’s like…It’s a safe place where they can feel, isn’t it? Where they can feel excited, they can feel a bit scared, they can feel a bit worried, they can feel a bit confused, but at the end of it we bring them back. This is what Stephen was talking about. I think that’s important, really. It’s a good place to learn about how to live. The theatre.
Stephen: I think that’s a good line to end on.