Wednesday 14 July 2010

On Scene and Heard, and the Power of Transposition

If you'd been in the Hope and Anchor, near Mornington Crescent, last Friday, you'd have encountered a group of theatre directors, writers and actors, who'd just been at Theatro Technis for the latest show produced by Scene and Heard. Most of these people were volunteers for the company, and most could have told you roughly the same anecdote. This would involve being told about a company that staged short plays by nine and ten year-old playwrights, going along expecting something dull and worthy, and realising, a little way in, that this was one of the best evenings of theatre one had ever seen.

My own Damascene moment, for instance, came during a piece where the principal character, a pencil, was feeling inferior because she was being replaced by a felt-tip pen. The resolution was brought about by the appearance of the Queen of the Pencils, who assured the protagonist that 'Felt-tip pens run out. Pencils just get shorter.'

It was at this point, eight years ago, that I decided I had to become a Scene and Heard volunteer, and I've been one ever since - by some margin, the most worthwhile thing I do. The company is based in Somers Town (fittingly enough, the only part of London named after an entertainer - Will Somers was Henry VIII's court jester) and works with children with local schools. Typically, a show will involve nine or ten short plays, each lasting about eight minutes and involving two or three professional actors, a director and - hardest job of the lot - a dramaturg, who helps the child write the play, dragging it out of him or her, often line by line, over an intensive writing weekend. Add in workshop volunteers, and you've got a small army of theatre professionals, working for nothing more than the fun and fulfillment of it. As a colleague said to me once 'What we're doing is telling the children that what they have to say is worth listening to - and I wish someone had said that to me when I was ten.'.

The company was founded in 1999 by Sophie Boyack and Kate Coleman, and is modelled on the work of the 52nd Street Company in New York City. Part of this involves the child playwrights creating characters that aren't necessarily human, so that my own most recent dramaturging was of a three-hander between a Sumo wrestler, a credit card and a cupcake. The latter was also a serial killer, prompting the line 'You look like a sweet cupcake, but you have a jam filling of stone.'.

One effect of this is that the children, deprived of documentary realism, end up writing plays with oddly revealing subtexts - one girl wrote a duologue between a computer mouse (played by ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis) and a superannuated '70s Disco Ball, that was clearly, on one level, about growing old - I discovered later that the author's father ran a mobile disco.

In a culture obsessed with keeping it real, it's easy to confuse honesty with literalness, whereas some things are too complex to be dealt with except as metaphor. My sister, who lives near Paris, frequently does corporate workshops where tensions within a company are dealt with by putting them within an apparently absurd context, such as that of a horror film. In French, this is called (assume heavy accent here) 'transposition', and in a wider sense, it's seen as central to what theatre does. As always, Oscar Wilde put it best: 'Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'.

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