Monday, 6 April 2009

Noises Off: April Fools article - Wednesday

Written by my other deputy editor, and fellow Guardian blogger Chris Wilkinson, this brilliant spoof interview with Simon Stephens was printed in the 1st April edition of Noises Off.
Scholars Googling Simon Stephens should note IT IS NOT TRUE. IT IS A JOKE.

Simon Stephens lives in a world of pain. Violence flows like crude oil through many of his plays - Herons, Pornography, Harper Regan. His writing inhabits a hinterland between social realism and grotesque abstraction.

It comes as a surprise then, to learn that there is another, softer side to the work that he does. Many of today's playwrights supplement their relatively meagre theatre earnings with work in TV. Jack Thorne, Al Smith, Dennis Kelly and many others can be found scribbling away on behalf of programmes as diverse as Casualty, Eastenders, Skins and Pulling. But Stephens's work for the screen is not to be found in those primetime evening slots. His is a very different kind of audience.

"I've aways been passionate about education and about young people" he explains over coffee in the Spa Bar, "and so when I was asked to write for In The Night Garden, I jumped at the chance." 'Garden' as he refers to it throughout the rest of our conversation is the groundbreaking Cbeebies programme aimed at the under fours. Based on extensive research in to how children learn, it uses (according to the show's website) "repetition and anticipation to build confidence, satisfaction and enjoyment. This is all carried out at a pace which under 4s can follow and understand."

Adapting to this new form was not easy. "I spent a great deal of time talking with the show's producers, learning how best to appeal to the programme's audience. Obviously, not many toddlers go to places like the National or Royal Court - where my work usually appears - so it was a steep learning curve!" But it seems that the challenge of writing for this radically different demographic was something he relished. He talks animatedly about how he went about creating two of the show's best loved characters – Igglepiggle and Makka Pakka.

"I think a running theme in my work generally is the conflict between order and disorder," he says, "And so it felt quite natural to create characters who embodied those two extremes." In the show, Makka Pakka often has to tidy up after her clumsy, accident prone friend Igglepiggle. "Obviously we have to keep things quite simple for the viewers, but I do find something genuinely compelling about how these two very different characters manage to maintain their relationship despite their clear differences."

Yet the real excitement here for Stephens is how much creative freedom the form gives him. "Adult audiences want you to follow certain rules in your writing. They expect a story to be internally consistent and to create a recognisable world. With children everything is different. You can make imaginative leaps and disregard even basic things like the conventions concerning time and space in order to tell your story." Stephens's passion for this aspect of his work is impressive. But I wonder what his fellow playwrights make of his unconventional career move. "Well some of them were surprised at first," he says, laughing, "I remember David [Eldridge] asked me if I was going to end up corrupting the minds of a generation of children! But actually I think they understand where I am coming from. Like actors, it is easy for a writer to become typecast. There is an assumption that we can only write in a particular way. This is my way of hitting back at that."

Of course, Stephens's is not the first playwright to branch out like this. A couple of years ago Mark Ravenhill – best known for violent, expletive ridden plays like Shopping and Fucking and Some Explicit Polaroids – wrote a family pantomime for the Barbican. He too had to deal with a critical response that was often unable to cope with the fact that he was attempting something different.

However, as Stephens argues, the opinions of his peers or the critics are not the point. "It's got to be all about the kids. I grew up on shows like Button Moon, Bagpuss and the Clangers. It was these programmes that first got me excited about the whole notion of story-telling. So it's a real honour to have the opportunity to pass this on to our own children." There is a personal element to all of this too. Stephens has a three-year-old daughter who is, he says proudly, "a big fan of the show. Whenever it comes on the TV she points at the screen and says 'da da'." He smiles and then adds, "I hope it is because she knows that I made it, but I do worry that she actually just thinks that one of the Haahoos is her dad!"

Stephens's passion for this work is such that it is tempting to assume that he might one day give up writing for the stage entirely in order to devote all of his time to television. "Oh, I don't think that will happen," he says. "Theatre is, and has always been my first passion. TV is great but it can't match the experience of a live event."

And of course, children's television has other limitations. "I love writing dialogue and playing with language. With Garden it is tricky because most of the characters speech is limited to a series of squeaks, hums and twitters. And so inevitably there is only so much you can do with that."
These reservations aside though, he says has no intention of giving this work up any time soon: "I just enjoy it too much. I find the challenge of this kind of writing enormously nourishing." It is reassuring to know that the country's young are in the hands of such a consummate, passionate and sensitive artist.

No comments: