Thursday, 21 April 2011

Chris Port Blog #222. On The Standard of Writing in Theatre-In-Education: A Parochial Evaluation with Wider Implications

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1998

This evaluation should be read in conjunction with How To Frame A Feasibility Study for a T.I.E. (Theatre In Education) Company.


The unit outline separates the evaluation of the placement from the evaluation of the enquiry project. However, in this instance, I feel that the enquiry project was so closely intertwined with the placement itself, and that my other duties were so minimal in substance, that it is not feasible to separate then. I have therefore evaluated my enquiry project within my evaluation of the placement.

My placement was with *********** National Touring Theatre based in *******. *********** were founded in 197* when they began touring schools and theatres in London. Since 198* they have developed from a predominantly schools-based touring company, doing the majority of their work in London, to a company with a national profile taking work to a variety of venues.

***********’s ethos is to provide entertaining theatre for children. They see themselves as distinct from TIE companies although there is obviously some overlap which I will come to later. They specialize in producing plays designed for three main age groups: 3 to 5 year-olds, 5 to 7 year-olds and 7 to 11 year-olds. Their main performance venues are nurseries, primary schools and community venues. The artistic directors of *********** either write their own plays or commission professional playwrights to explore particular themes relevant to children.

When I first visited *********** on 28 January to negotiate the terms of my placement and the nature of my enquiry project I perceived that both the artistic director (*** *******) and the general manager (***** *** *****) seemed a little disconcerted that I was a mature student. From this I gained the impression that they had expected somebody less experienced and they were unsure exactly what I was experienced in.

I informed them that I had 12 years experience working as an assistant manager for a London based life assurance and investment company and had also worked (unpaid) for several years as a writer-in-residence for a Southend based youth theatre. I was mainly familiar with writing for age ranges 14 to 16 and wished to gain experience of writing and producing professional theatre for children of younger age groups.

*** ******* mentioned that *********** had commissioned a professional writer, **** *******, to write a first draft script based on the life of a 75 year old Jewish woman called **** *******. *********** intended to market this play to secondary schools (rather than their usual client base of primary schools) and wished to link it with the National Curriculum for History, Religious Education and Personal and Social Education. They also intended to commission future plays on the themes of family and religion linked with the same curriculum subjects.

The objectives of my enquiry project therefore became as follows:

  1. Compile a database of secondary schools in the local target areas of ******* and *********.
  2. Mailshot the database schools for details of their syllabuses, schemes of work and school policy documents.
  3. Investigate any implications of schemes of work for **** *******’ play and any future plays on the themes of religion and the family.
  4. Investigate any implications of the National Curriculum, HMI guidelines and legislation concerning sensitive or controversial issues (e.g. Local Authority Bill, Clause 28 prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality).
  5. Produce a report summarizing these investigations and making specific criticisms and recommendations concerning **** *******’ script and possibilities for teacher packs.
  6. Consider any problems involved in the leap from ***********’s traditional primary school client base to a more sophisticated secondary school base, especially in terms of quality and complexity.

It became obvious during this first meeting that the enquiry project would actually occupy most of my time during the placement. However, in view of my interest in writing for youth theatre and children’s theatre (and the need to investigate my earnings prospects after graduation) I decided to set myself the following personal aims as well:

  1. To realistically ascertain the level of quality and complexity required in writing for a professional children’s theatre company.
  2. To realistically ascertain the earnings potential in writing for a professional children’s theatre company.

Compiling the database was a fairly straightforward process using the resources of our placement’s administrator, ***** ***. I did a mailshot to 21 schools and received 5 responses (a surprisingly successful response rate of nearly 25%). Please refer to the enquiry project.

Unfortunately, all of the schools seemed to be preoccupied with OFSTED audits and also seemed slightly suspicious of TIE companies (although *********** do not consider themselves to be a TIE company). The main lesson I learned from this experience was:

  1. Head Teachers are usually too busy or disinterested to respond to a direct, ingenuous approach; and
  2. a disingenuous approach (e.g. pretending to be a parent interested in enrolling their offspring) might produce more effective results.

When reviewing **** *******’ script and identifying possible problems I made the point that these were not artistic criticisms (although these did inevitably creep in somewhat through the back door). Without the benefit of actual school schemes of work I assumed a neo-positivist approach in the schools’ client base and structured my criticisms from that perspective. I overtly made the point that there may be good artistic reasons for *********** to reject these recommendations but at least they would have been considered. (This point was very well received by *** ******* during my debriefing with him).

I believe that the greatest success of the enquiry project was in its unashamed status as a Devil’s Advocate to **** *******’ first draft script. My personal opinion of the script was that it was appallingly inept but I kept this arrogant opinion to myself.

It was a delicate issue. I often heard *** ******* negotiating/arguing with **** ******* over the telephone when it appeared that the writer was resisting amendments to the script on the grounds of defending his ‘artistic integrity’. This made me wonder. If I was a professional writer commissioned by a professional theatre company, would I take kindly to an outsider prodding my first draft for weaknesses and making unsolicited suggestions as to how it might be improved?

My honest answer is that I believe such interference comes with the territory. If you are designing a specific product for a specific client, that client should be free to take advice and suggestions from whomever they wish. In the writing room, the ego must be left outside the door. Criticisms must be considered on their own merits regardless of where they originate from. I also believe that the writer must be ruthless and be prepared to ‘murder his darlings ’if they stand in the way of his overall objective (to provide the client with the product they require and to receive the payment he requires).

My other placement duties consisted of answering the telephone, taking messages, telephoning festival organizations to confirm festival dates, updating ***********’s existing school database, humping set and equipment in and out of a primary school for a touring production of one of ***********’s plays (** ** ** *** written, directed and performed by ***********’s joint artistic director ***** *******), and making the tea. There is little for me to evaluate here other than that office work is still as boring and endless as I remember it to be.

Slightly more interesting and evaluative was when I was asked by ***** *** ***** to represent *********** in place of *** *******. I was an invited guest to a piece of TIE called *** produced and performed by a Welsh TIE company called ********* Theatre Company at Chelsea Theatre Centre, World’s End.

My task was to provide *** ******* with a critical appraisal of the play (showing the effects of the 1926 General Strike, economic depression and the Second World War on some of the inhabitants of a small mining community) and to grab any teacher’s packs going (which I did). Please refer to the review enclosed with the enquiry project.

As well as enjoying the performance of *** I also enjoyed the company of the director, actors and general manager in the pub afterward. As well as understanding the importance of the pub in conducting drama post-mortems they were very friendly, self-deprecating and self-critical, a refreshing change from the slightly awkward ‘brochure mentality’ (i.e. continual positive self-promotion) and excruciating professional politeness I had become accustomed to in the *********** office (a fault in me rather than a fault in ***********).

During my first year at Central I recall our being visited by a professional writer who conducted a writer’s workshop with us. (I also recall not being very impressed by the scant exercises which seemed merely to propose a rapid sequence of ‘tricks’ for writing; the problem was I felt that I would have produced better writing if I’d just been left alone for an hour). If memory serves me correctly, the writer was ***** ******* and she was then working on a play dealing with the so-called ‘Children’s Crusade’ during the Middle Ages that resulted in the majority of the children being betrayed and sold into slavery. This play had been commissioned by *********** and *** ******* lent me a videotape of the finished production of the play called *** ******* ******* *********.

I watched it. Unfortunately, I found the standard of the writing and the acting alternately obvious and then confusing and, ultimately, boring (probably the most unforgivable sin in theatre). The declamatory dialogue, the interminable repetitive songs and the confused analogies with religious intolerance seemed incredibly clumsy and laboured. At the time I attributed this to the fact that I was not watching with a child’s wide eyes but with an adult’s cynical slits.

However, on reading some of ***********’s feedback information sheets (see appendices) I discovered that children (and their teachers) are quite capable of slitting their eyes (or closing them) as well. The majority of the responses were damningly faint in their praise if somewhat banal (the play was obviously about religious intolerance being a bad thing - and that was pretty much it).

A few of the responses from the children were, given their ages (about 7 years old) surprisingly profound (e.g. ‘People have different opinions. If everybody thought the same then the world would be a boring place’). However, I attribute such profundities to the qualities of the children and their teachers rather than the quality of the play.

More characteristic of the play itself were the negative responses which were inadvertently amusing (e.g. ‘I was bored out of my wits’). Some of the teacher's comments were even more damning (e.g. ‘this play is too appalling to be suited to any age group. This is the worst piece of theatre I have ever experienced’). Admittedly, none of these negative criticisms are particularly objective but while it is easy to feel boredom it is hard to justify it. However, while some plays get an audience they do not really deserve, in this instance I would rather blame the play.

Curiously enough, while the predominant negative criticism was that the play was just plain boring, there were some complaints from outraged parents that the play was too violent and traumatic for young children! However, such a diversity of criticisms should not be taken to mean that the play must in some way have been ‘getting the balance about right’ or that it was ‘challenging’. The only thing it challenged was my ability to keep my eyes open and my mouth closed. Please refer to the enclosed appendices for examples of the above-mentioned audience criticisms.

While researching further into ***********’s archives (with their permission) concerning *** ******* ******* ********* I discovered the possible commission I might be able to earn as a writer for ***********. The going rate (negotiable) seems to be an initial lump sum of £3,000 plus 8% royalties on the producer’s gross income for a 24 month license.

Given the quality and level of complexity I have thus far perceived in writing for professional children’s theatre I do not anticipate any problem in at least equalling it. Regrettably (since I had rather hoped that professional children's theatre might aspire to a higher quality) this purely commercial consideration was the most useful outcome of my placement.

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1998

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