Christopher William Hill likes to scare kids. Now, while that may conjure up an image of some grumpy old man, hell-bent on keeping children at arms-length, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the playwright believes children want to be scared and with good reason, arguing that frights, shocks and spooky creatures that come to life in the magical and thrilling world of theatre just might make life-long theatre lovers out of the littlest of stage goers.
In an exclusive article for Official London Theatre, William Hill tells us why children enjoy things that go bump in the night as his new play featuring tigers hiding on wardrobes and child-eating monsters, Mister Holgado, opens at the Unicorn theatre.
I once overheard two elderly ladies in colourful hats as they walked out of one of my plays during the interval. Elderly Lady One turned to Elderly Lady Two and warbled, “I don’t go to the theatre to be shocked.” This begged a rather obvious question. Exactly where did she go to be shocked? She probably had a cupboard under the stairs, full of dark things. Perhaps she allowed herself one shriek twice a day, before closing the cupboard door firmly and returning to normality. Because we all need to be shocked. We secretly yearn for that occasional little jolt that adds piquancy to human existence and reminds us that we’re alive.
My play, Mister Holgado, is all about the dangers of hampering imagination by trying too hard to protect a child from the ‘dangers’ of the outside world. When little Conrad Van der Bosch claims he has a tiger hiding on top of his wardrobe, the boy’s child-psychologist father is desperate to prove that his son is lying. In an attempt to scare Conrad into admitting that there never was a tiger, his parents create the terrifying figure of Mister Holgado, a child-eating monster who is apparently hiding inside Conrad’s wardrobe, waiting to consume the boy. But when Doctor Van der Bosch’s plans to control his son’s imagination fail, he realises he has no choice but to become the child-eating Holgado himself.
As a child I was aware that my very soul cried out for these heart-quickening moments of terror – that’s why I used to stand in a field prodding the wires of an electrified fence with a stick. I didn’t exactly grow up in the Dark Ages, but it did seem a time when shocks were more readily to be found.
My mother once took me to an optician, an avuncular old gentleman who asked me to peer through a pair of spectacles and describe what I saw. I obeyed cheerfully, only to find myself eyeball to eyeball with a grotesquely magnified housefly. This was a shock with a clear purpose. As I yelped and reeled away in horror it was a clear indication that my eyes were working properly. I imagine that ma and pa Neanderthal did a pretty similar thing with their hairy offspring, holding up the hirsute tot to any passing mammoth in order to gauge the response. We need to dare ourselves to be brave.
Whether we admit it or not, we all enjoy a certain shiver-down-the-spine excitement when we’re scared. For a child, this is often a step on the way to discovering why they are scared and ultimately having the power to overcome those feelings. The fear that a monster is lurking under the bed is parent to the thought that this cannot possibly be the case and can be proved by exploring beneath the bed sheets. Like a knightly quest of old, the journey from childhood to adulthood is all about facing challenges and I’m a firm believer that the theatre should be part of this journey. But we need to remember that the plays children want and the plays adults want them to want can be worlds apart. They’re sophisticated beings and they won’t thank us if we turn the theatre into a safe and sterile place and deprive them of the little shocks and terrors that might encourage them back into the theatre as grownups.