Monday, 3 February 2014

Notes on Writing for Young Performers

written by Toksvig
Second draft, updated Feb 2014 

These are just my personal opinions based on my own experiences, which will certainly differ from those of others. Some of you will already know a lot of this, but I’ll include some stuff for those who have never worked with young people.

My approach to writing for young people is exactly the same as my approach to writing for professional, adult theatre.

I value the specifics of any writing commission: the size of the venue, the budget, the time of year – those things all affect my writing choices, and writing for a cast of young people is another one of those useful specifics.

Here are some notes on those specifics that I’ve discovered along the way.

Actor Age Ranges 

Under the age of 8: I’ve never written for performers this young. If anyone else has some experience they could share, that would be great.

8 - 12 or thereabouts is a range at which young people are happy to play together, but they also have a great sense of independence. This is a really strong age range to write for in terms of school productions, with a very wide market.

13 and 14 years old is an in-between age. If they're involved with younger people, some might feel a bit out of place, others will be very comfortable. Put them with an older group and some might feel more comfortable to explore older issues and themes. It sort of depends on the individual. At this age, they're starting to be concerned with issues that are far, far removed from anything that crosses the mind of an 8 year-old! Thus finding the right material for a mixed group is about looking at the specific group, talking to their director / teacher, and finding out about their comfort zone.

13/14 – 16 can work well. They're exploring the same kind of issues, and they feel close enough in age range that there's a more supportive feeling in the group. This is not such a great age range in terms of school productions because they're getting into important exams, which means they do less extra-curricular activity, and therefore less drama. However, there are plenty of youth groups for this age range, so it's still a good market to explore.

16 – 21 is another good mix of ages, for the same reasons, but again, it is a much smaller market. At this stage, I would probably classify this as writing for adults rather than young people. You could easily cast professional actors to play this age range satisfactorily.

Wider ranges, such as 8 – 16 or 18 or 21, have more of a 'family' dynamic to them. This is the smallest market of all, since it's rare to find a company that has access to a cast of such a wide age range. However, it is deeply satisfying as a writer to work with a cast this wide, if you can provide for every age dramatically, and there are major local and national youth companies whose age range can be as broad as this.

Got a show you wrote for adults, that you’re thinking might be great to re-write for young people?

I think this is about two things: theme and cast size.

If the theme of the show is appropriate for young people – by which I mean, something they can relate to, engage with, and understand – that’s great.

If it’s a large cast already, brilliant. And by ‘large cast’, I mean either an ensemble show with many equally-featured roles, or a show with a large number of main roles and an equally large number of secondary roles, and a big opportunity for chorus too.

If you've written a story to be told by five adults, you can't shoe-horn in 30 kids and expect that to serve the storytelling, or the cast, as well as it did in the original. Alas, adding crowds doesn’t work if you didn't write it to be told by crowds in the first place. A crowd is a society, and societies tend to behave and speak in a different way to a single person.

Adapting the other way around can be more successful. We wrote Pandemonium! (a Greek Myth-adventure) for a group of 35 kids aged 8-12, and then rewrote it for 6 adults to play at Edinburgh. It worked for several reasons that were all directly about the writing. All the characters were adult characters to begin with. The necessary addition of some insane quick-changes and having the actor/musicians also play all the music made for a craziness that suited the story. It's a mad chase to catch Pandora, so we simply used the craziness of the staging as another, very appropriate, storytelling tool. In re-adapting it, we were still true to the story.

Character Age Ranges

Generally, this works the same way it does when writing for adults: pick a convention and stick to it. Know what you're writing, and why, and be true to that.

All adult characters

The audience will buy into the visual of having kids play adults if you make it easy for them. Bugsy Malone works really well because all the characters are adults, so we immediately buy into that convention. However, Bugsy addresses very bold and basic emotions through very archetypal characters.

If your story is driven by the more subtle and complex emotions we have woven for ourselves by the time we become adults, it's possible that a child's portrayal of them will seem visually wrong. On the other hand, it's possible that a child's portrayal of them will emphasise the primal emotions underlying the complexities, which might be a strong dramatic choice.

Whatever you choose, make it a deliberate and conscious choice in order to serve the drama.

All young characters

It's absolutely possible to have a plot that just involves young characters, and a school audience will appreciate having youth-issues addressed on stage so they can directly relate to the plot.

Skool & Crossbones is about two gangs of kids. There should be adults present, but the show is set in on a tropical island where it's acceptable that kids might have more autonomy. With one important exception, adults never get involved and we never explain why. Therefore, the audience just accepts it (and the kids love it!).

Adult characters can be referred to without having to appear, perhaps making them a presence felt more strongly for not being seen. One or perhaps two adults could be cast in the show if necessary, and can be played by older kids. Bear in mind that this might involve a teacher or even professional actor taking part in the show, which immediately makes specific demands of the producing company. If you’re going to insist on something like that, make sure it won’t limit the market of your show, unless it really needs to in order to serve your ultimate intentions for the show.

Mix of adult and young characters

This part is all about decisions you want to, or need to make with regard to the truth in the writing.

If Annie were done with an entire cast of kids, although costumes can be used to distinguish between who is a kid and who isn't, it's less easy to buy into the visual of a 16 year-old Miss Hannigan have that much power over an 8 year-old Annie... or, indeed, having that much of a drink problem!

You'd be asking the audience to accept that Annie is, in reality and in character, a child, but that Miss Hannigan is in reality a teenager, and in character, a mature adult. Personally, I think audiences would rather not work that hard.

I once tried to portray mature adults with older teenagers, and teenagers with younger boys. The teenagers were singing about pretty girls. Vocally, the boy-soprano voice does not match that sentiment, and visually, the boys looked too young to be caring that much about pretty girls. Dramatically, it just didn't work.

There's a much smaller market for shows tailored to a cast of a very wide youth age range. Very few youth companies have that kind of scope. If you're lucky enough to have a youth theatre with age ranges 8 - 21, I would personally be true to those ages if you can.

Visually, a 21 year-old is a young adult (but can play an older adult). Visually, a 16 year-old is a teenager (but can play a young adult). Visually, an 8 year-old is a child (and can only play a child, unless you set up a deliberate convention otherwise).

Non-human characters can be played by any age you deem appropriate. At that point, you're creating your own conventions. As long as you're true to those conventions, you can do what you like.

Bear in mind that even though you're using non-human characters, you're almost certainly referencing human emotions, and you have to be true to that at the same time if you want the audience to empathise with the emotional journeys. A 21 year-old young adult can play an alien with a childlike wonder at life on Earth, but that sense of wonder is already immediately inherent in the visual of an 8 year-old. The audience would have to work less hard to buy into that emotion. On the other hand, you might specifically want the audience to be looking at a naïve 21 year-old.

When you start mixing up adult actors and young actors in a cast, you're not writing for young people any more, you're writing a normal, adult show. I think that's a totally different ball game.

There are many productions in schools where the visual age range is ignored, where conventions are utterly broken, and everyone still has a great time. That's fantastic for everyone except the writer. By being true to the visual, or true to the single convention you've established, you're being true to the emotional age of the character, true to the story, and therefore true to the drama. You can set all that up ahead of time, so once it gets to the cast, you've already done that work for them.

Choosing Material

How do you choose appropriate material for young people?

I have a personal theory: as adults, I think we tend to have this glorious false-memory of a whimsical childhood that is, in fact, hogwash. As writers, this can give us an approach to storytelling which is somewhat distant from the reality of our young performers’ actual lives. What we want to do with drama, ideally, is engage the cast as much as possible.

By all means, adapt stories that you loved when you were young, but before you start writing, engage with some young people and see how they find their way into that story.

The importance of choosing something with which young people can really identify is not just to make them happy. It's also about choosing something they can honestly portray, and therefore it's about honesty in the writing. If there's honesty in the writing, an audience of both young people and adults can connect with it.

If you're writing child characters, you need to think like a kid. (Just like if you're writing a doctor character, you'll research being a doctor.) Ask your local youth group or drama teacher if you can sit in on some sessions, or even help run them. Talk to your kids, or your friends' kids. Find out what books they're reading, what TV they watch, what movies they like. Read some kids' magazines. Don't try and just recall what it was like to be a kid. You'll most likely be wrong.

Be willing to play. Try to remember what it's like to play, uninhibited, carelessly, freely. Go to a fairground and go on all the rides. Scream as loud as you can. Run as fast as you can; be chased, and get scared of being caught. Eat sweets until you feel sick. See how they experience being who they are. (And then claim all those expenses as work ones on your tax return. Seriously.)

Most importantly when working with young people, bear in mind that they are regular people, just with much less experience of life than you. They're not simpletons or idiots… or monsters! They're ignorant of many things, but ignorance shouldn't be mistaken for stupidity.

You can have a normal conversation with a young person. Ask their opinion, and value it as much as you would if it were expressed by an adult. If you treat someone younger than you as somehow less than you, it inhibits them. Don't write down to them. Challenge them, and they'll rise to the challenge.

Unfortunately, in writing for young people, you must also choose something that appeals to the adults who influence their lives. The kids will go for subjects that some adults might not approve of (like notable boy wizards, for example). Sad, but true. There's nothing you can do but avoid those subjects. I've been known to change a song title in a show because one mother complained about it. The adults are always the ones who make the final call. Even if it makes no sense to you at all, you make the change if you want that to be your market.

The School Syllabus

There can never be too many shows on ancient or modern history, and don't dismiss the subjects of Science or even Maths just because there's no obvious story to begin with. If you're going to do a Shakespeare, find out how that play is taught, and what they learn about it, then incorporate those things into your writing to make it appealing and useful to teachers. They won't do it if they're not getting anything out of it.

More about Adapting Novels

Don't be afraid to approach novelists and ask if you can adapt their work for youth theatre. You don't get if you don't ask, and they tend to be more open to youth theatre because it's an amateur market, and won't tie up any important rights in the work. They're even more likely to give you some rights if you choose an older book they're written, rather than their latest Booker-prize novel.

For more about adapting novels, see David Wood's book Theatre for Children. He writes for adult performers, but (as you know by now) there's no real difference in writing for kids or adults.

The one most useful thing I've ever been taught about writing adaptations was advice from playwright Robert Shearman: take whatever you like from the book, and use it however it best serves your purpose, and discard the rest. Even if ‘the rest’ is the main plot of the book.

It's such a good point, because at the adaptation stage, the novel is just your source material, like any other source material. The novelist is no longer the writer – you are.

With regard to underlying rights, I would always recommend that you get them, rather than a producer, because I’m a big fan of the authors (original and new) acting as a team moving forwards. There will hopefully be something beyond that first production, and I think that the more control you have over the rights to that stuff in future, the better. Your mileage, and other people’s opinions on this, will vary. If a producer has the rights to a massively popular novel, and asks you to adapt it, you’ll probably want to say yes!

Whatever you decide to do, get some good legal advice first, before you sign anything.


Movies have such a huge audience that they're a good source of inspiration for youth theatre stories. In writing Shake, Ripple & Roll, we had simply chosen rock & roll music (fun to write) and therefore the 1950s. We didn't realise that people would ring Samuel French and ask for Grease, at which point our publisher is able to say that Shake, Ripple & Roll is like Grease but without the inappropriate content for younger kids.

Look at cult movies, or very popular commercial movies, take those themes and write your own story around them.

"Shake, Ripple & Roll! It's got rock & roll music, it's got American teenagers with American accents, and it's got no swearing in it!"

Dialogue and Lyrics for Young People

If you use a word in dialogue or lyric that a kid doesn't understand, they'll ask you what it means. Don't deprive them of that opportunity by leaving out big words or more complex ideas. Don't write differently than you would for adults, but DO be true to the character. If you've got a child character, don't give them language they wouldn't use. DO give them colloquialisms that are particular to kids. Be true to the writing.

Music for Young People

Young people have great capacity for learning music, and can accomplish the most complicated harmony lines imaginable. Don't write easier music for them just because they're young.

However, you should consider the vocal range capacity of young people. For example, if it's a boisterous song, they like to belt it out. If you set the last, triumphant word on a note that goes out of their belt range, it's frustrating for them, and you lose out dramatically. In the same way you would craft a song for an adult tenor, know the limitations of the voices you're working with.

Length of Show


A fantastic way to start writing for young performers, because you're looking at a very tight time-scale for dramatic development, so it forces you to be clean, clear and simple. The first three shows I wrote for young people were one-acts.

They can be great for a school - there's less stuff to rehearse, it's a nice, neat package, and they could even pair it with something like a straight play for the non-musical, or a concert of thematically appropriate well-known music for a school orchestra and choir.

Regional theatres also like one-acts: everyone gets to go home early, and there's no fuss with hundreds of kids running about the place in the interval!


Having said nice things about one-acts, it's amazing how many people want a full two-act show. Schools and theatres can appreciate an interval for the opportunity to sell drinks and ice-creams. More characters can be accommodated in a two-act, which is helpful for bigger casts. And as a writer, you get to explore sub-plot a bit more.

Be warned: some schools will take your one-act and try to stretch it out into a two-act by adding bits. You can pre-empt this being a problem by indicating a place in your one-act where an interval could happen if required, and by putting in some notes about songs that can be repeated or stretched out with dance breaks, and places in which the dialogue can be expanded.

In our one-act shows, we indicate a place in which an additional scene can be inserted, written by the cast, which can be as long as they like. It usually takes the form of an introductions scene, where all 394 members of the cast can create a character for themselves, and introduce that character to another character – and of course, to their parents in the audience too!

Introductions have very little effect on any plot, give the cast a chance to flex their imaginations as much as they like, and to create something that is unique to each individual. Perfect.

20- or 10-minute pieces, Cantatas and other shorter, perhaps sung-through pieces

There is a market for these, as yet not fully explored. The only example I can give you is this: David Perkins & Caroline Dooley have written a one-act adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant that is published by Samuel French in the form of a "classroom experience", designed for schools that have an orchestra or do group singing lessons (although it is also available as a proper one-act show). Again, go to a place that does what you want, and ask them what they need.

Pitching the Show

When pitching to get a production, or get published, a pitch for a young people's show is the same as a pitch for any other show. People want to be grabbed quickly by an idea. We titled the show Pandemonium! (a Greek Myth-adventure) rather than just 'Pandemonium' for a reason. As with any other pitch, offer something that briefly and instantly appeals to the right theatre company and audience.

Preparing for the Future of the Show

When you're deciding what kind of show to do, and how to do it, and as you go through the writing and production process, bear the following things in mind. (Although don't approach a venue with TOO much prep in hand. Some of this is more relevant to helping publishers sell it than to finding an initial production.)

• A simple setting - e.g. one single location for the whole show – can be really helpful. It’s cheaper, easier, no slow and complex scene changes.

• Full director's notes - our scripts include:

- character descriptions
- a few notes about the intention and staging of each song
- a prose description of one possibility for the set, costumes, lighting etc.
- a basic ground plan for the set from the original production
- an original lighting and FX plot
- an original costume plot
- notes on the source material if relevant – such as the original Greek Myths in Pandemonium
- composer's notes about the style of music, tempos, and orchestration options

• Orchestration choices – we make available arrangements for anything from basic piano to a small band.

• Perusal CD – a recording of the composer and I singing all the songs from the show. This not only gives them a good idea of the score, but also helps with tempos. (You'd be amazed how many people slow the songs right down.) You don’t need to have the CD recorded professionally. If it's too good a quality, you risk people using it for the show itself and having the cast sing along, or worse, mime. Yuck. It's also a waste of money.

• Backing tracks – provide a full-show backing track on CD to make life easy for the people who don't have musicians handy. These are especially good for rehearsals. They should be a good quality, obviously.

Making Additions

No matter what you write, someone will always want to make changes to it. We ask people to get in touch so we can help them do this. Some do, and some don’t get in touch first. Best just to turn a blind eye, I think. Our shows are out there in the world now, and we mostly just let them live their own lives. (Sometimes they send home a postcard, which is lovely.)

Getting a Production

1. Pick the place where you'd like to see your show put on.

Choose it for a reason: it's part of your local community, or it's got the right age range of kids. Make sure your show will fit their requirements perfectly, or choose a local theatre because you'll be able to see your show on a full stage.

If the company is one that you know works with new writing, approach them by asking how they find the writers they work with, and whether they're open to receiving pitches or unsolicited material. This works in exactly the same way as any adult theatre company.

2. Form a relationship with those people.

You have to give them a reason to want to do the show that is more than "It's great to work with the writer". Because it's not. It can be a pain in the ass for the director. Or "It's great to do new writing". Because it's not. It can be much harder for them to market if it’s not a high-profile title, for a start. Also, more often than not, the question of money is the biggest hindrance: “We can’t afford to commission a writer to write a show for us”.

(This is one of the things I want to work on through The Larder: to spread the word that it’s really not that expensive, and there are many different ways that a writer can be paid to do some writing, without it breaking the budget of a school show.)

Initially, don't offer them your show. Offer them an interested observer who cares about, and can learn from, what they do.

Volunteer to work at the venue in any capacity. Get to know who makes the decision you eventually want made. Get known. Get trusted. Help them out, and give them a reason to want to help you. At the right time, in the right situation, with the right person, offer to write something FOR them. Specifically for them.

You could start by devising in the room with the kids. Listen to the feedback you get from both cast and teachers. Pay attention to their specific requirements, and work with them to create something perfect for them.

Start small. Don't expect them to give you a week on the main stage immediately. Write stuff for classes, for workshops. Suggest a devising workshop process if they don't have one already. Don't just sit there as an inanimate writer. If it feels comfortable for everyone, you could get involved. Be a director. Be a kid.

Ask if there's a week when the theatre is dark for technical maintenance, and can you use the space for exploring new material? Can you use a studio space for free if it's empty one week? Use your imagination. Use their garden!

Give credit to the theatre for helping you create the show. Give credit to each individual performer, too. In all of our published scripts, everyone in the original cast is named. (They love that, and so do I!)

Child Protection Policies

Whoever you're working with - a school, a drama club, a theatre - make sure FROM THE START that they have a child protection policy in place, and that it protects you as well as the young people. You should always have a police check, and the company will have requirements in this area. They might also be able to guide you through the process of getting checked. It also helps to do things like ensure that there is more than one adult in the room with the young people at all times, preferably one acting solely in a chaperone capacity.

Getting Published

Once you have a production (in a studio or on a main stage), invite publishers. Invite ALL publishers. Go for the bigger companies because they have a much wider market available to them. Go for the smaller companies because they’re more likely to take a risk on a less high-profile property.

Invite them on the day when a large school party is in the audience - preferably a local school that some of the cast attend. A full, friendly house means a good audience response for the publisher to experience.

Some publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts, but in my personal experience it’s very rare for them to take a show based on just that, unless it's a very well-known property, in which case they’ll be asking why you haven’t had a production of it yet, and why you didn't invite them.

If you personally have acquired underlying rights in a work based on a novel, you are then able to bring that whole package to any producer or publisher, so they don't have to worry about anyone else participating in that agreement.

If a producer has some continuing rights in the work, you must obviously take that into consideration. Do seek out legal guidance on publishing deals, but also, know your own business. Read info from the Writers Guild of Great Britain, and read your contract, and understand what it says.

When you get a publishing deal, tell your publisher what kind of extra pages you want to include in the script: directors' notes, etc. It all adds to the value of the package for schools.

Why isn’t your publisher doing more for your show?

Why isn't your show doing more for your publisher? They can only sell a product for which there is a demand. Help them out. Give them a good product to market, and they'll sell it as best they can. If it doesn't sell, they don't make money either.

On the other hand, don't let them just sit on it. Get involved. Be proactive. Ask what you can both do to push a show that isn’t getting the productions you’d like it to get. Don’t completely let go to them. They work for you just as much as you for them.

If you find a publisher you’re happy with, be loyal to them and they might take on all your shows. Thus, people can come back to them and say, "We loved that show! Got any others by the same authors?"

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to market a show, and that's true for the publisher too. There are some huge youth theatre networks in this country, and they all have specific ways in which they work. Find out how they work, and tailor your writing to that. Once one group has a success with a show, they'll recommend it to other groups.


Writing for young people is one of the best ways I've found to learn about the craft. If you're not writing for young people, you're missing out on a big chunk of this business that has a huge market, in which a production is much easier to obtain, for which the publishing market has a distinct lack of decent material right now, and which is no different to writing for anyone else.

What are you waiting for?


More about my youth shows can be found here: 
Useful guidelines from the Writers Guild of Great Britain can be found here: 
 These notes were written by Jenifer Toksvig and are licensed, in their collective entirety (including the date of this second draft), under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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