WiLd! is a new play which unravels the story of a boy living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). TSOTA chats to playwright Even Placey, Director Wendy Harris and Professor David Daley, who worked in partnership with the creative team.
Q&A with playwright Even Placey
TSOTA: What first inspired you to want to write about the subject of ADHD?
EP: I spent many years working with young people with special needs. My mom, sister, and partner have all been teachers for children with special needs so it’s always been a part of my life. As a teen I worked at day camps and programmes assisting children with special needs, then went on to run arts camps where I was training staff in how to create accessible programmes for all children. In university, I also worked part time as an LSA (Learning Support Assistant) in schools. When Wendy came to me with the idea of writing something about ADHD, I was therefore instantly attracted to the idea. I loved the idea of putting a young person with ADHD centre stage. We don’t see characters with needs or disabilities enough on our stages.
TSOTA: Was the play always going to be a one person show, or did earlier drafts of the play include other characters?
EP: It was always going to be a one person show. And I also always knew that that one person would be the child with ADHD, rather than anyone else in the story. I really wanted to tell the story from his perspective.
TSOTA: As you’ve worked closely with Professor David Daley, it must have been very important to you to create an accurate portrayal. Was it difficult to get the balance between informative and entertaining?
EP: It is always difficult to get the balance when you start. But there comes a point where you’ve done as much research as you can do and you have to focus on the story and the character. The research is there in the texture, in the form, in the experiences that have moulded this young boy and continue to do so during his journey across the play – but the play is not about the research. It’s about the story – which is a boy trying to make sense of the world around him, his parents’ separation, his fractured relationship with his brother, the changing relationships with his friends at school as they grow up, and primarily some bees he wants to stop swarming. The drama and entertainment always takes precedent. And I certainly invested a lot in trying to get inside Billy’s head to create an accurate portrayal. But he can only be as accurate as a fictional character can be. I tried to think about who he specifically – individually – is, rather than every and any child with ADHD. This is very much about Billy’s unique experience. The collaboration has been wonderful. With the participants who have ADHD who did workshops with us, with David Daley and CANDAL, with the creative team. It really feels like it’s been a team effort right from the start. I’ve loved the challenge and parameters of writing for one actor, too.
Q&A with director Wendy Harris
TSOTA: What’s the most challenging thing about directing a one person show?
WH: You need to find the right actor, who can find the rhythm and pace of the script. In addition, the actor in this play characterises a range of people in the story and making that clear and dramatic to an audience can be quite a challenge. When a play is well written this really helps as it allows the actor to inhabit each bit of the story which then allows the story to unfold. Rhys, the actor in this production of WiLd! has a great instinct for the way the character Billy is written. He has very good comic timing and really is at one with the rhythm of the play. We are very excited about him bringing Evan Placey’s play to life.
TSOTA: Was it difficult to find the right balance in terms of entertaining both adults and children?
WH: I believe that if a production is created well for children then it usually works for the adults too. This play is for children aged 8+ but it really has something to say to all of us. The adults will recognise their own parenting or roles as teachers, doctors, neighbours or friends and also will empathise with the dilemmas that Billy, our central protagonist, experiences. The play deals with big ideas around being different, belonging, family breakdown, and sibling rivalry… as we well as the issues that underpins the play: the condition ADHD.
TSOTA: WiLd! is touring nationally – does adapting the play to suit different venues have any challenges?
WH: There are always challenges in touring to different spaces, from venues to schools for example. We are using a lot of digital technology and music technology in this production as well as live percussion, and making this work well in a range of spaces is a challenge but one we will rise to. The team are experts at making designs that work in a range of spaces, and Kate Bunce, our set designer, and Ed Sunman (Fresh Label) our digital designer, always make fantastic and adaptable designs that take on all those challenges for us. We work hard to ensure the experience is as great in a school hall as it is in a high spec theatre venue. As a national touring company making work for children that is what we do.
TSOTA: Have you also been involved in the creative process, working with Professor David Daley?
WH: David has been working with us from the very start and we have maintained a dialogue with him, from the first ideas, to research and development sessions with the artists. We worked with David on the development of the application to the Wellcome Trust (who have supported this project), right through to the copy on the print to ideas about the characters. David also arranged for us to have access to patient groups (adults and children with ADHD) and this was incredibly helpful in shaping the ideas. There is a point where the artists leave the research element and allow themselves to create, but the research underpins and informs all the thinking in the production.
TSOTA: Have you worked on a collaborative play such as this before?
WH: Yes – a lot or work we do is collaboration based. The most similar to this was the creation of the play Monday’s Child, where we researched the play with neuroscientists from Sussex University, exploring the science around memory. This collaborative working helps you to broaden your knowledge, take you out of your comfort zone, encourages you to see the world differently and helps you think about theatre ideas in new and interesting ways. Monday’s Child by Brendan Murray resulted in a really beautiful production that received amazing feedback from children and adults.
TSOTA: How did you come up with the idea of a live musician?
WH: I always liked the idea of a percussionist being on stage for this production. For me, there was something about seeing the physicality of this which chimed well with the hyperactivity of a child with ADHD. I think children really respond to seeing music being played life; it is just so much better live than hearing recorded music. It is of course more expensive and not always an option we can chose but on top of our core Arts Council England funding we have additional funding on the production from Wellcome trust, Golsoncott Foundation and Wades Charity. All that has contributed to allowing us to achieve this. As it is a one man show, having a live musician adds more to the production values of the piece and allows the music to be really responsive to what is happening on stage. Molly is a super talent percussionist and we are extremely excited to have her as part of our team to create and play the music during the performance. Our composer Dom Sales is a percussionist and I think the two of them will create something extraordinary.
Q&A with Professor David Daley
TSOTA: Is this the first time you’ve been involved in helping to craft a play?
DD: Yes, it is my first time being involved in the development of a play. I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest but it has been a really dynamic and fun experience.
TSOTA: How have you found the creative process and how did it work?
DD: That is an interesting question. I am not sure I would describe myself as especially creative. Being a scientist forces you to be ground in what you can understand and what you can prove, although sometimes statistical analysis can be a work of creativity! I remember sitting in a session with the rest of the team discussing what the set should look like and using modelling clay to help guide the process. What I remember most about that session was how uncomfortable I felt about the unstructured nature of the process at first while it was clear everyone else in the team were very much at ease. But I did manage to make something out of modelling clay and the rest of the team were kind and polite about what I made. The creative process for me has been facilitated by the team at Tutti Frutti who have really been interested in involving me, and motivated to try and get every detail right, what should the set look like, what should the character with ADHD look like, what should he sound like etc.
TSOTA: Why did you first want to get involved with tutti frutti?
DD: Partly it was their reputation for high quality plays translating complex issues into creative pieces for children but also the complexity and integrity of the preparatory work that they had engaged into before asking me to get involved.
TSOTA: Can you tell us a little bit about your work with CANDAL and what the centre does?
DD: CANDAL aims to bring together clinicians, service users and academics with an interest in neurodevelopmental disorders, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Tourette’s Syndrome (TS).
The centre was established as an Institute of Mental Health (IMH) Centre of Excellence in 2012.
Neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s Syndrome (TS), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are common and impairing conditions that frequently co-exist and affect about 1 in 20 people across the lifespan.
The recognition of these conditions has increased rapidly in recent years leading to concerns about both over- and under- diagnosis. The growing awareness that these conditions not only affect children and young people, but typically persist into adult life has created a significant unmet clinical and research need to understand developmental factors in presentation and treatment response.
CANDAL is unique because, unlike other research groups that typically focus on a single disorder either in children or adults, we study these conditions in combination and across the lifespan.
TSOTA: What do you hope people will learn / think about after watching the play?
DD: I am hoping that adults will come away with a different perception of ADHD and a greater understanding of the child behind the condition which is often a stark contract to the portrayal of ADHD in the media. For children I hope that they will have a greater understanding about ADHD and greater acceptance for some of the ADHD type behaviours that some of the children in their school may exhibit.
WiLd! is on at The Carriageworks in Leeds on Saturday 30 April and will then tour nationally until Saturday 9 July. Don’t miss it!