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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 517-518
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Theatre for Children:
A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing, and Acting
Theatre for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing, and Acting. By David Wood, with Janet Grant. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 1999; pp. vii + 249. $14.95.
Why are we so often patronizing to children when it comes to theatre? What is it about playing a witch in a children's play that is more uncomfortable for an actor than playing a witch in Macbeth? Why must children's theater always be educational? These are a few of the questions posed by David Wood in his compelling book, Theatre for Children: A Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing, and Acting.
"The challenge," Wood writes, "is to give a unique theatrical experience to an audience, many of whom will be first-time theatergoers, to involve them emotionally, to sustain their interest in a story, to inspire and excite them using theatricality, to make them laugh, to make them think, to move them, to entertain and educate them by triggering their imaginations" (xxii). Called Britain's "national children's dramatist" by the London Times, Wood [End Page 517] has set out to create a guide for children's theater that covers all aspects of production, from writing the script or adapting the book, to special considerations when directing and acting for young audiences. His approach is precise, detailed, and clear.
The strength of Wood's book lies in the matter-of-fact approach to creating plays for children. After a brief challenge to raise the current standards of children's theater, Wood delves into discussions about how young audiences differ from adult audiences and common characteristics among all children audiences. He explains stories and themes that work (fantasy within reality, myths and legends, the quest, etc.) and why they do. He also examines important ingredients of successful children's plays, such as humor, scale, magic, justice, audience participation, and silence. This discussion is followed by examples of his own work (he is the author of over thirty plays for young audiences, including an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches) and the process of refinement that took place from script to production.
While most of Wood's logic in these chapters is sound, some of his ideas seem a bit underdeveloped, such as his claim that children relate strongly to characters derived from toys. Rather than giving reasons or examples why this might be, he merely mentions it and moves on. His discussion on children relating to animal characters is a bit more developed, and he backs up his theory with potential reasons why. Additionally, while one example of the refinement of script to production would suffice, Wood gives us two, neither particularly different from the other, which only makes the chapter seem unnecessarily drawn out and repetitive.
Wood's book also includes a chapter on adaptations with information about how to attain stage rights from living authors, and elements of children's literature that adapt well to theatre. There is also information on the business side of children's theater, including how to get the play published and how to get a feel for the current children's theater market.
If there is a fault to Wood's book, it might be the repetitiveness of some key ideas. Most of Wood's theories about what composes exceptional children's theater are spelled out in his chapters on writing and adapting. When we hear the information again in the chapter on directing, we feel Wood has made his point long ago. There are, however, still valuable elements in his chapter on directing that give insight into the production aspect of children's theater. Here, Wood covers pre-production, including traits to look for in effective designers, rehearsal tips, and interpreting audience reaction. A helpful, albeit less detailed, chapter on the aspects of acting in children's theater rounds out the book.
While there are elements of children's theater that would seem to be needlessly mentioned (actors should not be...