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‘So unfair’ — that’s the key to entertaining children, says ACA’s David Wood

In conversation at Oxford’s Story Museum, the veteran writer and actor reveals how to win over the world’s toughest audience. Original source, Oxford Today.

Putting on a children’s play ‘is far more difficult than Shakespeare’. That’s the view of David Wood OBE — a man who has been called Britain’s national children’s dramatist — after 50 years creating many of the best-loved children’s plays. In conversation with journalist Libby Purves at the Oxford Story Museum, he said the vast majority of actors would find performing in front of a big audience of children far too frightening. Children are ‘volatile and very difficult. They have no theatre manners.’

But the fact that children don’t clap politely like adults when they’re unimpressed is exactly what drives him. ‘If you ask me why I do it, [the children] are the challenge,’ he said. ‘When you get it right, they’re the most rewarding of all. If they’re quiet, they’re listening, and then you’ve won — and that’s a huge triumph. I find adult audiences very boring.’ He summed it up, ‘My job is to stop children wanting to go to the loo.’

David Wood OBE in conversation with Libby Purves at the Story Museum. Image (c) Olivia Gordon

As an actor, Wood (Worcester, 1963) is best known for playing Johnny in the 1968 film If. But as a writer, his adaptations of classics — from The BFG and The Witches by Roald Dahl to Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce to The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr and Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll — have enchanted generations of children, as have his screenplays, which include adaptations of Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome and Back Home by Michelle Magorian. He had written plays for adults, such as The Go-Between, based on L.P. Hartley’s novel. And he’s the author of many original children’s plays and books, most famous of which is The Gingerbread Man.

But keeping small bottoms on seats is hardly straightforward. Wood (right) has learned that if adults in rehearsals think part of the script is hilarious, children in the audience probably won’t. And children consider themselves part of the action, exploding through the fourth wall. In one performance of The Gingerbread Man, an actor foolishly paused for breath after delivering the phrase ‘something to make him freeze’ and children started shouting ‘ice’ and simply would not stop, leaving the cast on stage confounded. Wood considers it part of his job when writing plays to anticipate what the audience will say, and when, and their words are printed as part of his scripts.

 

Another pivotal realisation for Wood came after he heard of a conversation a mother had with her daughter when the child said she liked a book. The mother asked why, and the daughter replied: ‘Lots of suddenlys.’ ‘That, to me, was magic,’ said Wood. ‘It transformed what I was doing in play writing.’ He started writing with ‘suddenlys’ on every page — from a phone ringing to a change in lighting or music to a new character to a ‘new sting’ in plot.

Wood focuses solely on entertaining the children, not their parents. ‘I don’t think of the adults at all. Taking children to the theatre is a nightmare. The adults will enjoy it if the child enjoys it.’ And he has found a number of things children usually enjoy. Humour, of course; changes in scale from the miniature to the giant; and animals.

But also children are profoundly interested in ‘injustice’. Wood explained: ‘I believe we are all born with an innate sense of justice. The first thing a child learns to say is “It’s not fair”. That relates very much to storytelling — a child will root for an animal character who is mute and can’t defend itself, or Cinderella.’ Roald Dahl, he noted, was a genius in creating child protagonists who face a world with all odds stacked against them. Parents are, in several Dahl novels, killed at the start of the story, leaving the child to cope alone.
The Story Museum, Oxford. Image (c) Steve Daniels via Geograph, under Creative Commons licence

There can be an edge of tremendous sadness in children’s literature and Wood’s plays don’t shy away from showing, for instance, the horrors of war, in his staging of Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. In the film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the boy who has been turned into a mouse by evil witches is turned back into a boy again. But in the novel, and in Wood’s adaptation, the boy is left as a mouse. Films often seek to sanitise the sharp edges of children’s literature with happy endings, Wood noted, and commercial pressures currently threaten original children’s drama in Britain. ‘Everyone wants the big title,’ he said — big musicals or films of bestselling novels are what gets commissioned. But ‘a lot of the best work is small scale’.

‘Terrifyingly’, as Wood put it, Winnie-the-Pooh is now owned by Disney. When Wood was planning a show celebrating children’s literature for the Queen’s 80th birthday in 2006, he wanted to bring the three famous bears together — Pooh, Rupert and Paddington. The people who own the rights for Rupert and Paddington agreed, but, he recounted, Disney took months to consider and ultimately refused to allow Pooh to appear next to the other bears. They eventually specified that the show could go on if there was a fence built around Pooh; the other bears could wave at him from a distance. And that is what Wood had to work around.

 

David Wood’s theatre career was already flourishing during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford in the mid-1960s, reading English. Having loved performing puppet shows and magic acts as a child, he credits his admission to Oxford by Christopher Ricks to his prowess as a magician. ‘At the end of my three years I said to him: “Why me? I’m not the greatest student and I did more theatre than I’d ever have done at drama school,’ Wood told Oxford Today. ‘He said that it was my magic that got me in; I’d been so passionate about it at my interview; he had small children and thought I’d be useful to have around. I did his children’s parties.’

While ‘scraping through’ his degree at Oxford — as he puts it in his seminal book Theatre for Children — Wood acted, directed and wrote for about three shows a term. He was an active member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club, performing not only at venues like the Oxford Playhouse but the West End and the Edinburgh festival.

One particular show he saw as a student, at Oxford’s New Theatre, proved an epiphany. It was a big commercial pantomime of Peter Pan, a book Wood had adored since childhood. The star turn cracked an adult joke over the children’s heads and then said to the parents in the audience: ‘Oh, come on, let’s get the kids out of here and then we can get started!’ For a blushing and irritated Wood, ‘It was as though an electric shock had jolted me.’ He thought: ‘Surely those children deserved better. It struck me that there was very little theatre aimed at children.’ That moment was a turning point in Wood’s life — and he has carried his respect for children throughout his career.

Written by Olivia Gordon.

ACA Supports Bach to Baby

ACA Supports Bach to Baby

The critically acclaimed classical series Bach to Baby, is set up by mum and pianist  Miaomiao Yu after becoming frustrated at not being able to take her children to the sort of quality classical music concerts that she regularly enjoyed as a professional musician.

Miaomiao, an award-winning pianist,  wanted to perform for her son in a concert setting, but found it unrealistic for many reasons, including the late nights.

“And then I thought, this is silly: why not play for him and his friends and other babies and toddlers, at a kid-friendly time? The idea grew from there,” said Miaomiao, who is also a professor of piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Miaomiao set about to design a rigorous musical programme for babies that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Proms. Programming range from Bach to Barber, from Chopin to Shostakovich. “I didn’t want to dumb it down for children. Studies show the positive effects of classical music and children are like little sponges at this stage.  Why shouldn’t they be allowed to experience the same high calibre performances as that enjoyed by adults in the best concert halls of the world?”  asks Miaomiao.

“I’ve been bringing my son Aubrey to concerts since he was 2 weeks old. He listened and slept and bounced to music,” says the mother of two rambunctious boys.  “He is enthralled, and proves my theory that children will thrive in a concert setting as long as they are given the opportunity in the first place.”

Miaomiao was encouraged by the overwhelming response to her first concert — one fan posted this video on Twitter . Bach to Baby now performs in 46 venues across London, Surrey, Kent, Thames Valley, and Essex, with special events at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and the Royal Albert Hall.

Instead of playing at modest community halls,  venues with a specific sense of atmosphere were chosen. “I want babies to enjoy sophisticated music and that’s aided by fantastic atmosphere and acoustics, as well as fabulous guest artists, ” said Miaomiao, adding that exhausted parents deserve an inspiring setting as much as anyone.

Being a mum first and foremost, Miaomiao welcomes all the frenzy that comes along with being a parent of a young child. “It’s about Mozart and Bach, feeding and crying, and dancing to music  – all of it,” said Miaomiao. “We haven’t made it through a concert without at least one nappy change. That’s the way it should be,” she said.

Concerts run from weekday mornings and afternoons, as well as Saturdays in locations across the South East. Their pre-concert “ Monmouth Coffee Mingle” offers much needed calories and company for mums.

A Time to Dream

Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

How do today’s children discover themselves and the world when everything has to be calculated, tested and evaluated? Where is our next Isaac Newton, lying under a tree, seeing the apple drop, and that sudden imaginative leap of realisation that there was such a thing as gravity? Are children given the space and time to explore, ponder and even be bored?

Politicians pursue higher and higher attainment in education but downplay the arts: music and drama are non-existent in many schools. So where does imagination fit? We are urged to admire the Tiger mother and the high achievers of Singapore. As with the Olympics, we want to be top, top, top and bathe vicariously in the incredible achievements of the very few, thinking, “that could be me if I only work hard enough.” In India, with its expanding middle class, children feel they must now get to nearly 100% in their exams if they are to make it into the small number of “top” universities. I had a long conversation with a twelve year old boy on his way back to one of India’s most prestigious schools. I asked him how he liked school, and he said with deep contempt, “I’m sick of it.”

I loved seeing children sitting on the beach by the sea in a recent blog – but hoped that they weren’t then having to collate their experiences; over analyse, articulate and compile their thoughts, for the sole purpose of being marked and assessed. Inspiration is the sister word to Imagination. It may only be 1% of the creative process, but without it……so if those children were on the beach to be inspired, then hooray! That should be our model. Writing is about communication; a tool for every child to give voice to who they are: their ideas; their take on the world. They can tell their stories and communicate their excitement, aspirations, humour, and troubles. I often visit schools where teachers tell me proudly that they have given me their best pupils – and how talented so and so is, but I want to cry out – no – give me your “lowest achievers”; they are the ones who need to find their voice.

Children can be desperately lacking in confidence, with low self esteem, who feel their own lives have no value. So I would put the arts and creativity firmly at the heart of the curriculum. They open doors; bring surprises and, we know, impacts on all their other work. If we, as teachers, can reveal to children, especially those imprisoned within inner city classrooms surrounded by high, barbed-wire fences, that there is an extraordinary world out there, and that the voice of every single one of them is important – no matter how stammering or timid – then we will uncork all their potential, and they will discover it for themselves. Give our children time to dream.

This post was kindly contributed by ACA Patron, Jamila Gavin. It was originally written for Arvon Teachers as Writers.

ACA Round-table on Primary Education

The event was introduced by ACA chair, David Wood. This roundtable aimed to bring together children’s arts practitioners with schools that prioritise the arts. Vicky Ireland, Vice-Chair introduced ACA, which is currently working to draw up a list of best-practice primary schools. This resource will be drawn upon for advice and representation at arts advocacy events. This was followed by presentations from the school representatives

 

To read the full report click on this link Action for Children’s Arts Round Table 29042016

ACA Meeting with Arts Council England

ACA Meeting with Arts Council England

ACA meeting January 11th with  Anne Appelbaum and Lindsey Pugh Senior Officers Children, Young People and Learning at Arts Council England, with David Wood, Chair and Vicky Ireland Vice-Chair, as suggested by Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England.

Aim of meeting

To find out about ACE current activities and thinking
To introduce ACA to officers
To share concerns
To consider solutions

Click here to read the report.

 

 

 

Raising a question with the House of Lords

Raising a question with the House of Lords

ACA meeting with  Baroness Bonham Carter’s DCMS policy group at the House of Lords

David Wood (Chair) and Vicky Ireland (Vice Chair) were invited to speak to this group, thanks to Patron Baroness Floella Benjamin.  Baroness Jane Bonham Carter is the Lib Dem spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport.  Between 15-20 people attended, a mixture of parliamentarians and outside individuals who are invited because they have a particular CMS interest.  The aim of the group is to identify policy areas the group can work on and formulate an approach to oral questions in the house.

The aim of our visit was to have a question raised on our behalf, in the House of  Lords.

Click here to read the report.

 

 

 

Autumn Statement response

On 25 November 2015, Chancellor George Osborne delivered his autumn statement, announcing that funding for Arts Council England (ACE) will increase by around £10 million by 2019/2020. Other pledges included £150 million for The Science Museum, British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum to replace storage facilities; £78 million towards The Factory, Manchester and £4 million for Birmingham Arts Hub.

ACE chair, Sir Peter Bazalgette has acknowledged the importance of campaigners within the arts sector in this victory. The expected cuts have been avoided through the collaboration of ACE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), as well as through valuable nationwide campaigns such as What Next?’s arts4britain campaign.

Whilst cuts to local governments, changes to the education system and on-going devolution leave much work to do, this is a moment to celebrate the impact of a unified campaign to protect arts and culture in this country.

Children’s TV/media rights?

Children’s TV/media rights?

Some thoughts for ACA by Oli Hyatt Animation U.K.

www.animationuk.org

“UK originated content is quickly disappearing from our screen despite an ever increasing dearth of platforms pushing it out.
Public Service Broadcasting commercial channels are reversing out of children original content, with their investment falling 96% in a little over ten years. The BBC has produced over 60% less original hours over the same period.

Children’s content is in crisis and Ofcom seemingly powerless to reverse the decline despite consistently airing their concern. I do wonder where the next incentive or intervention can come from.
The BBC is an easier fix. Whatever the outcome of the BBC settlement it will give Children’s parity in funding to Adults. Sounds fair doesn’t it, I’m happy to argue over what “parity” means, but as a concept it just feels like a good place to start.
What we need is a bold ambitious plan for our children’s content. One thing’s for sure, the next couple of years will be crucial in defining what the long term outcome for children’s content is”.

ACA is supporting Bacc for the Future campaign and we urge all our members to sign the petition:

ACA is supporting Bacc for the Future campaign and we urge all our members to sign the petition:

www.baccforthefuture.com/sign-the-petition.html

The Department for Education is planning to make the five English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subject areas compulsory for all secondary school pupils. The EBacc list of subjects contains no creative arts subjects.

It will make a narrow list of five subject areas compulsory – maths, English, sciences, languages (ancient and modern) and history or geography. If the proposals go ahead, creativity in schools would be damaged and there would be little room in the school day for the arts, music and drama.

Numerous studies have demonstrated both the lack of evidence for the choice of subjects in the EBacc and the harmful impact it has had on cultural and creative subjects in schools.

We know that creativity is educationally and economically valuable and it is valued by the British public so we are working together to urge the Government to reconsider their proposals.

Exclusion of music, art or culture from state secondary school core subject English Baccalaureate requirements – Lord Aberdare 22 July 2015, Lord  Aberdare asked a question in the House of Lords about the ommision of creative subjects from the English Baccalaureate