Dorothy Wood is the artistic director of M6 Theatre Company, which specialises in creating work for young audiences. She talks about the company’s new show, Sunflowers and Sheds (pictured), and the challenges of producing engaging theatre for children...
At the heart of Sunflowers and Sheds is a story of a new and unexpected friendship.
I chose to set that story on an allotment because it seemed a perfect example of a place where you get a real patchwork and diversity of people. It’s an ideal context for two people who probably in other circumstances wouldn’t have made a friendship. They initially think that they are very different, but actually, beneath the surface they’re more similar than they think – and as soon as they get to know each other, a really close bond forms.
Those are really nice links with what lies under the soil. The children are watching a new story about a friendship across a cultural and a generational divide but they’ll also be absolutely fascinated by the transforming set and the whole idea of growing your own.
There’s a message there, but we work to make it a satisfying aesthetic experience as well. We’ve all seen work that sledgehammers messages home. A friend of mine calls that work “living leaflet”, which couldn’t be said about M6’s work. All the plays touch on issues, but we really hope that children will be immersed by the emotional journey and aesthetic, and that they’ll be enriched by both.
It’s not an easy ride. Even when we do shows for the very young, we do take them on an emotional journey – the characters encounter challenges – but I think there is always hope in our shows. We have strong values and ethos as a company: we always try to promote positive examples of friendship and relationships, because I feel that young children are rather bombarded with negative imagery.
Things start in lots of different ways when we go about creating a piece of new work, but what we always make sure is that artists, educationalists and young people are involved in our research. Because we’ve been going so long – 33 years – we have a fantastic network of close contacts with local schools, and also with all our youth theatre groups. And then we choose to work with artists who care passionately about the child’s experience of our work.
We never just lock ourselves away in an ivory tower and come up with a show. It needs to be tested out with the particular age group to see what sort of connections they’re making and whether they recognise the relationships in the world we’re creating. We would want them to be emotionally and imaginatively transported into that world in quite a deep way; it’s not the sort of work that’s just tricks, it’s a very precious shared experience that we hope to give them. That’s the case whether it’s 15-year-olds or five-year-olds that we’re creating a piece of work for.
We are one of the few companies that are still trying to produce work for the whole spread of age groups, with different productions for different ages. A lot of companies have decided to prioritise either the 13-plus audience or the very young. Those audiences are different, so the productions have to make different demands, but whatever age the show is aimed at, it’s got to be relevant, accessible, well-crafted and emotionally truthful. It’s achieving a high standard of all those things that makes it work.
Dorothy Wood was talking to Jo Caird.
Sunflowers and Sheds is on tour until the 22 December. For tour dates, visit M6 Theatre.