‘Theatre brings people together to experience a story’.
This large and comprehensive book, organised in 18 sections, is a fine introduction for children from about age nine or ten to all that is involved in bringing a play from ‘first idea to final curtain’. It opens with a brief history of theatre and goes on to explain the aim of the National Theatre over its first fifty years: to share the tradition of English Theatre – and not least the plays of William Shakespeare. Each spread is lively with information, comment and illustration. Take, for example, that on stage skills: there are paragraphs on stage fighting, comic timing, crying on cue and puppets. Kate Waters, a fight director, gives an explanation of a theatre word, ‘knaps’- the noise actors make to create the sound of a slap or punch and there are lively photographs of actors in action. Young readers learn that work on a play begins long before the first night and involves very many people including the playwright, director, actors, producer and stage manager. Other experts attend to costumes, make-up, lighting, sets, special effects, sound, music and video film. As I made my way through such a wealth of information I found the diagram ‘Making a Play’ very helpful, in showing how all these elements interact as the play takes shape, moving through casting, designing (of for example set, props and lighting), rehearsing, and finally to preparing for the opening night.
A welcome aspect of the book is its encouragement to young readers to be creative: to get involved in their own script writing, acting and designing. In the section ‘The Play’ for example, part of the script for Treasure Island is reproduced . Teachers and children putting on a school play would find here how workshops are a place for experimentation .
The challenge for a writer of a book like this which covers such a wide and rich landscape is to include interesting detail as well as the ‘big shapes’. This Marina McIntyre achieves by giving us the thoughts of writers, directors and actors, shared with us in their own voices. The playwright Lucy Prebble urges young readers and writers to: ‘Look for areas and subject matter which fascinate you. Look for worlds that are unexplored.’ Marianne Elliot shares her experience of directing War Horse (with co-director Tom Morris) and insists ‘…the most important thing is to have an emotional connection to the material. Then everything else will follow.’ This led to the use of puppets and the back wall of the set as a sketchbook, to project images from ‘romantic rural drawings to black-and –white drawings of hell in the trenches’. Fascinating also are the comments of actors: Olivia Vinall confides thus: ‘I’m nervous every time I go on stage! If I’m not feeling nervous I get a little bit worried’.
Seeing Sally Cookson’s hugely involving and innovative production of Jane Eyre while I was working on this review brought home to me the wisdom of two main themes found in the book. First, a play’s success relies on the integration of the expertise of all who contribute and second, as Marianne Prebble makes clear, everyone involved needs to connect with the emotional heart of the play. In this book arresting design, dramatic use of colour and print and photographs of actors in performance magnificently convey the magic, excitement and sheer energy of theatre.