As the schools break up for the summer holidays and the West End prepares for Kids Week, David Wood, the children’s author and playwright whose adaptations include The BFG, The Witches and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, shares his thoughts about children’s theatre with Official London Theatre:
“Why should children visit the theatre? Well, it triggers the imagination, it’s an experience unlike television, it’s a communal experience, it’s fun, it can be educational with a small ‘e’ and it can be with a capital ‘E’, of course. But I think it’s just the fact that theatre can, throughout our lives, just give us that bit extra, that bit of magic; for grown ups as well as children.
“If you start children off early and if you give them things which are created specially for them, then the likelihood is that they will stay with it. They might go off a bit in what I call the ‘age of cynicism’, when they get to double figures and might think ‘I’m not going to do that anymore’, but very often they come back to it. They don’t feel the theatre is an alien place to go because they have been there before.
“I wrote my first children’s play 42 years ago and it is still just as important to me and just as desperate that we give access to theatre to as many children as possible. I would say that it should all be free. I would say that throughout the country every child, at least once in their primary school life, should have the possibility of going to the theatre. We’re not going to get there yet for a variety of reasons, but there are companies that go into schools, so I don’t think it’s a real pipe dream.
“The reason I say it should be free for at least once in their primary school lives is because I think it’s an experience that they should be able to suck and see. Not all of them are going to like it, necessarily; not everybody likes football, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given the chance. It is like getting a book out of the library for nothing; I think it is an entitlement. A thing like Kids Week puts the focus, just for two weeks, on the idea of children and young people going to the theatre.
“What is impressive about Kids Week this year is the fact that with the special launch performance encompassing We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, they have targeted a very young age range.
“Obviously there are other shows in the promotion, but to show recognition for shows for under fives when, in fact, shows for under fives almost didn’t exist 10, 15, 20 years ago, it is an extraordinary development. The fact that that is respected and the fact that a West End theatre allows small children to come into it to have a show of their own, I think is a major step forward and very exciting.
“I think it is important that children of each age see shows that are aimed specifically at them, but it is also important they see shows outside that range. If a parent takes their child to a big musical some people will say ‘They’re too young for that’. I don’t agree with that, I think that they will probably enjoy it even if they don’t understand the plot; there will be the music, the colour, the lights, all the rest of it.
“My worry when Kids Week started 12 years ago was that the big shows, those big musicals that didn’t need the extra promotion, would not join in. But they do and they recognise that they need to be on that list because it is important, and I think that’s great.
“We have come on so far since I started. It’s still not perfect, but there are more children’s companies around than ever before and there are more people eager to do the work. It is important that people want to do it as a career; that didn’t happen 30 or 40 years ago. There were very, very few people who were pioneering, who wanted to do that. The state of children’s theatre now, I think, is very exciting.”