The least important person in the building?

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
For theatre writer Stuart Paterson the 'cleverest' audience is one made up of family groups. He explains why to Brian Hayward

Giles Havergal, the director, leant forward, patted Stuart Paterson's knee and said: "Just remember, Stuart, you are the least important person in the building."

It was 1981, the first planning meeting for Merlin the Magnificent at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and Stuart Paterson was getting an early reminder of the writer's place in the theatrical order of things. John Steinbeck once reckoned that, in Hollywood, the writers were ranked somewhere between acrobats and performing seals.

But there are gradations even in unimportance. With five Christmas shows being performed this year in Scotland, and two more in England, Stuart Paterson is sporting the label "major children's theatre writer". But there is a peculiarly British sting in the word "children".

"I've really no idea why children's theatre is so poorly regarded," he says. "The children's novel is a recognised form, very healthy, with stacks of well-written, richly imaginative books. But theatre? Compare us with other countries - the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland. There are six theatre companies in Finland, with designated budgets. At its seediest, in Britain, pantomimes and Christmas shows for children are just seen as a theatre's chance to make money."

With his plays doing nearly 80 per cent business, sometimes with three shows a day, you might forgive the finance directors for getting it wrong, but Paterson is slightly at odds with the world of theatre over the matter of audiences. The actors, who play to packed houses of school parties in the mornings and afternoons, and families and office parties in the evenings, prefer the schools. They get a rush of adrenalin, especially those who have been schoolteachers ("it makes them white with terror," Paterson says), when they hear the hubbub in the auditorium before curtain-up, but they love the swift honesty of the children's reaction to the performance.

Paterson quotes a Polish theatre director who said that "children know more than adults, but forget most of it when they grow up" - but goes one better himself. The "cleverest" audience, he says - and his ideal theatre filler - is one made up of family groups. "There is something amazing about a family audience. They share the same values. My plays have got to work for those family values, from the six-year-olds upward. They have all got to believe in it, share it. No sly innuendo for father, no love ballad for mother. I get trouble from pantomime actors who want to be "adult" and "knowing", distancing themselves with a wink and a nudge from the children, and from the play. "

The mention of actors carries him swiftly into one of his recurring themes - the importance of the collaboration with theatre people. The "good companies", as a rule of thumb, are those who call him in for consultation, and Scottish theatres generally do. He happily interacts right across the company spectrum. With Hansel and Gretel at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, director Hugh Hodgart has acted as script editor, giving Paterson "a hard time" with re-writes. Actors, too, are valuable: "I re-write the texts regularly; actors keep finding things in them that I didn't know about."

Also precious to him are the musicians who compose the supportive soundtracks, and the designers who follow his precept that "the set should make the children want to climb up on the stage and play in it".

He does get complaints, though, mostly from teachers and parents, objecting to what he calls "the dark side" of the stories. Children this century have been brought up on genteel versions of fairy-tales, but Paterson prefers the original forms, which often involve appalling acts of cruelty. Necessarily so, Paterson argues, because fairy-tales are "guides for survival", stories of how the underdog can succeed in a hostile world.

"So I've a responsibility to show the extent of adult malice, to tell the children about evil and death. It's my duty to be honest with the children, and to be true to the stories. It can be very frightening and there is the odd casualty. But that's the way it's got to be," he says. "The stories are bigger than me, we never fully understand them. That's why they go on." And will he go on?

"I've done eight. I love them and I hate them. Sometimes they take me near to despair, I feel like Strindberg.The Lyceum phoned me: 'We've sold 12,000 tickets for Hansel' - I'd just finished writing part one; I wanted to go and lie down in a darkened room. I must be crazy, and yet . . . I was watching Bob Carr at the MacRobert Centre in Stirling getting into his monster costume: 'You shouldn't be laughing at this,' he yelled. 'You wrote it.' "

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