Out to play in Somers Town
When we ran the last Sitcom Talent scheme in 2004, we received an outstanding entry, set in a school. It had strong characters, an organised story, was extraordinarily funny, and came with a strongly worded letter saying that it would be age discrimination if the writers were ruled out of the competition for being 12 years old.
Sadly, we had to discriminate, but I had a meeting with the girls and their parents, where we talked through the script and what they needed to do to add an extra ten minutes. They went away, it went quiet for a bit, and then they wrote to say that, all things considered, they were children and would rather play with their Sims. Which was fair enough.
I remembered Jayne and Lauren last night when I spent an astonishing two hours in a small theatre in north London. Under the umbrella title Jumping for Joy - The Uplifting Plays,the audience was treated to nine short two-handed pieces by writers ranging in age from nine to 11.
It's a venture called Scene and Heard that is now 10 years old, and was inspired by a similar project in New York. It entails professional directors, script editors and actors working with children from the ethnically mixed, socially deprived area of Somers Town in north London to develop ten-minute plays for performance, the aim being both to encourage the children's creativity and increase their self-esteem.
Human characters are not allowed. The plays must feature either animals or inanimate objects. So last night involved the second biggest mountain in the world and a private detective hyena; a scorpion and a posh lavatory, and a recipe book and a toe fungus bacteria, among others.
The results are extraordinary - hilarious, touching, and unexpected. From time to time there are hints of the children's real world - two pieces mentioned anger management, for example - but their lives feature more in the sub-text. There is a lot going on in these plays, not least in the dialogue, which offers lines to make professionals jealous.
I was particularly moved by the story of a male pterodactyl and a female pair of glasses. The pretodactyl has been captured and is forced to fly rubbish to a dump. He can't escape, because if he flies out of London he will be electrocuted through the collar he must wear. Working together, he and the glasses manage to rob the Queen's fortune, so that she achieves her dream of exchanging glass for see-through diamonds, and he buys his freedom and can fly with her outside London.
Slavery, economic disparity, romance across the classes and freedom are large areas for any drama, and here they were cleverly and satisfyingly dealt with over a few minutes by 10-year-old Alfie Robinson.
Equally touching was the story, by nine-year-old Suban Abdirhaman, of the weather forecast and a water pistol being trapped in and escaping from a drawer. The weather forecast came from a family of weather forecasts and really wanted to be a gymnast. The water pistol wanted to be a real gun in the army. Again, by working together they managed to achieve their dreams, despite a rather awkward and mistrustful relationship.
These plays aren't cosy. They are clear-sighted, and not all of them have happy endings, despite a laughter rate that equals the most popular audience sitcom.
It made me wonder, though, how many of the Somers Town children, having been given a foundation in drama, will go on to become writers. Will they decide, like the Talent girls, that it's too much like hard work? Will they persevere with writing, only to lose heart when they encounter the harsh professional world?
It would be lovely to think that I'll get an e-mail at some point from Jayne and Lauren with a script attached, and that some of the Scene and Heard writers will go on to suceed but, of course, as Sims are replaced by the real world, the place of writing is bound to diminish.
But the Scene and Heard plays seemed to me to carry some important lessons for grown-up writers. They were all about something real, they were direct, and they weren't afraid to confront emotion. I often respond to scripts from new writers by saying that characters should have the capacity to make audiences cry as well as laugh, and sometimes they respond negatively to that advice. One this week said that he had been writing a simple comedy, which was funny for the sake of it, and he didn't see the need for characters with depth.
That's fair enough, and shows like that get commissioned, but I think all writers should aspire to create scripts with emotional depth. The Somers Town children weren't thinking in those terms, but did so none the less. I suppose that it's a harder thing to achieve the more self-consciousness arrives with age, leading to an unwillingness to expose oneself on the page. Adults tend to edit the imagination, and guard against disclosure, which is why last night was so refreshing and why the pterodactyl flew.