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Right lines for Write Lines

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Few subjects are dearer to my heart than theatre for young audiences – as, if you read these columns regularly or even occasionally, you might just have noticed. Not only is it the very centre of education and learning in the most important sense, but it is also a vitally important, if sometimes overlooked, sector of the theatre industry.

So it was with great glee that I took myself last Thursday to Write Lines, Theatre Centre’s 60th anniversary (yes, 60 years of presenting theatre for young audiences) conference. And it was quite a gathering – of playwrights, directors, people who run companies, actors and others devoted to work for young people, many of them very well known in their fields.

It was also, incidentally, an inspired choice of venue. I have watched Canada Water Library being built but had never, until now, been inside. It has a fine theatre/lecture studio, plenty of airy break-out spaces for group work, a good café and is very easy to get to on the Jubilee line. Managed by the Albany in Deptford, it is also quite reasonably priced to hire my Theatre Centre mole tells me.

Playwright Bryony Lavery, who began her career with Theatre Centre, made three main points in her keynote speech and it would be good to get a debate going about any or all of them here. So get your add-a-comment hat on.

First, Lavery believes that playwrights write for people, not age groups. They should not, she argues, consider the age of their perceived audience but simply write what they feel moved to write. Really? What happens if you’re commissioned to write a piece for, say, under-5s?

Second, and this point could be taken as a part-contradiction of the first, she says that limitations release art. If, she asserts, you are confined to – say – four actors and a minimal set, it can inspire a playwright to be more creative and imaginative than he or she might otherwise have been.

Third, Lavery doesn’t want playwrights and other writers to fall short of their own potential. “Fly to the end of your wings’ capacity” she said.

Theatre Centre, meanwhile, had prepared a film of young people talking to camera and explaining what they thought theatre is and should do, especially if it is intended specifically for young audiences. My favourite was the very young boy, perhaps aged 6, who said that theatre was better than television because people can’t come out of the TV and say “I need a volunteer and I’ll have … that one.”

Later in the day there were sessions led by Anthony Banks, Philip Osment and Rob Evans, a panel session and a showcase of new scripts performed by actors. I found Philip Osment’s workshop on collaboration with young people to write plays particularly interesting because I reviewed his play Whole earlier in the year and was fascinated to learn more about its starting points and Osment’s work with young people in Liverpool, especially with regard to sexuality and religion.

All in all a good day, then. Theatre for young people is in capable hands and, despite funding cuts and other practical challenges, seems to be holding up rather well, although I do wish it were taken more seriously by critics and other commentators so that more members of the general public were led to recognise its worth.

Here’s a last question to think about – put to me in the queue for the loo by a very eminent children’s playwright and director. “Are we concentrating so much on ‘young people’ – which means teenagers – that we are now in the world of theatre for young audiences, forgetting children under 12 and selling them short?”

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