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David Wood Symposium

14th April 2011

This event was held in the Barn Theatre at Rose Bruford College in April 2011, as part of the theatre for young audiences strand within the college’s annual symposium. It was a three-hour session that comprised of a largely practical exploration of David’s approach to making theatre for children and young people, followed by a question and answer section. The audience was made up of students from a range of courses within Rose Bruford’s School of Performance and those on our MA in TYA. The event was part of a larger research project, run by the TYA Research Centre entitled Acting For Children.



David opens with this practical exercise. Volunteers from the audience are asked to characterise the giant from his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG (Wood Plays: 2 Methuen, 1999).

Watch the film clip:


In the next practical illustration David asks participants to act out a role given to them on a card. The audience are to guess what is written on the card; a pirate, Father Christmas etc. The acting shorthand asked for by the exercise encourages bold and physically broad choices, which David uses to illustrate his account of the need for actors to work with a heightened sense of truth or ‘big acting’ as he calls it.

Watch the film clip:


David then talks about how he came to write for children. He talks about his early work as an actor in mainstream ‘adult’ theatre and film, and his work as a magician for children’s parties. Following success performing and producing ‘Saturday morning’ variety shows for children whilst working as actor in rep, he was asked to write a ‘real’ play for children, ‘which was really quite an unusual request in those days’. Although the first play he wrote was ‘pretty dreadful’ he was hooked and the second play they asked him to write was The Owl and the Pussycat Went To Sea’ (Wood Plays: 2 Methuen, 1999), which went on to be produced in London and nationally to great success.

David discusses the nature of the child audience.  He remarks on the importance of work that engages children and the challenge this presents the theatre maker. He is not preparing a future audience, but rather making work for children to enjoy now, although this is often regarded as a second division activity by the broader theatre community.


The next practical illustration involves text from his play The Gingerbreadman  (Samuel French, 1977). This is used to explore the idea of ‘big acting’ and the challenge for actors posed by playing non-human characters.

Watch the film clip:


The next section revolves around an exercise using a passage from Wood’s adaptation of BFG, which sees the central child character Sophie about to be eaten by the giant. It illustrates the use of third person narration, which he acknowledges was influenced by David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. But it also reminds us of the need for the actor to work in the moment and for the stakes to remain high and not sanitised for the child audience.

Watch the film clip:


There then follows a discussion of ‘suddenlies’. This is David’s device for maintaining children’s interest. The term comes from a child’s account of why they had enjoyed a book they had read: it had ‘lots of suddenlies in it’. This notion governs both the writing and making process. Suddenlies can be narrative, they can be stage effects, sound effects or other performance events.


David then explores the idea of ‘positive negatives’. This is an approach to acting that requires the performer to deliver negative lines with a positive energy, thus avoiding losing the attention of the child audience.  This is then illustrated in the following exercise that involves another extract from The Gingerbreadman.

Watch the film clip:


The rest of the session was taken up by questions invited from the audience. What follows is an account of some of these.


Do you workshop your plays in front of an audience?

DW: I am rather old fashioned in that I do not workshop my plays. I deliver a full script, largely because I am often the director of my own work. I do a full synopsis of the play, which can take a long time, before I go away to hotel, often, and write the play. But that does not mean the show doesn’t change in performance.


Have your plays been affected by a change in children over the years?

DW: It has not affected the way I write necessarily. My plays have got shorter, but that is not necessarily because of a change in attention span, rather it is my experience as a writer, which means I can now say the same in a shorter amount of time. Most of the plays I was asked to write could be up to two hours long and include an interval, but I have recently written for the under 5s where there seems to be a general agreement to stick to about 50 minutes. One thing, however, has certainly changes over the years.

When we first produced The Gingerbreadman in the late 70s and 80s it would be advertised for primary school children from 7 to 11 years old. Now if we put on the same production it is advertised for 5 to 8 year olds, because the age of cynicism has lowered. You would have difficulty maintaining the child’s ability to enter into the spirit of the play at that age now.’


What are the key points to remember when acting for children?

DW: One is that the story is important. You must maintain your sense of where you are in the story; if you don’t know then how can you expect them to.  I often say that there are three things to remember when making plays for children. They are not faith, hope and charity, but rather: pace. That doesn’t mean speed. It means keeping the flow and the rhythm and not letting it drop in such a way that you lose them. It’s like a piece of elastic. You can feel them pulling away from you and the way you get them back very often is with a suddenly, by changing pace. Instead of charity you have: clarity. If they cannot understand what is going on then you can’t expect them to stay with it. The other one is sincerity. If you have your tongue in your check they will just switch off. If you go over the head’s of your audience by giving a wink to the parents then they will notice that.


Is there anything that you feel you have had to do differently in your work with the under 5s?

DW: Everything I do is instinctive. I have never been trained in anything. I guess I have a sort of antenna that tells me whether or not they are going to follow or join in with things. When I work with younger children I try to think of simpler things that may be to do with colours for example. Within the course of Guess How Much I Love, which is my piece for the under 5s, there is a whole section on colour and a bit when they play a game of hide and seek with the audience. It’s terribly simple, but it all has to be orchestrated very carefully. I suppose I am more careful with the under 5s that everything is in place.


Watch a clip of Guess How Much I Love You


Do you use live or recorded music in your work?

DW: I had always insisted on using live music. Music is often used to accompany action and it is best when it is live. But recently I was forced to use recorded music by a producer, in spite of my initial resistance, and I have to say it was very good. It means that the pace of the piece is always the same and that the music can be fuller. Actor musicians are also used in my pieces quite often, which is very nice. Although there was a production of the BFG when the giant was cast as an actor musician and I just didn’t feel that he could be menacing when playing the violin and so it has to be used carefully.


A full account of this event can be viewed at the TYA Centre’s archive by appointment only.

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