The Box of Photographs – Meet the (adult) writer!
March 24, 2016
Dan Jamieson talks about the thrilling challenge of creating a play from over 30 stories written by children, and how he harnessed their excitement, creativity and verve to writeThe Box of Photographs, Polka’s new show for ages 7 – 11 running from 22nd April till 15th May.
What do you think young audiences will enjoy and find inspiring about the production?
I think the stories in the show are great! They are funny and surprising, and are always saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” And these qualities stem from the fact that they were written by children, so that ought to be incredibly inspiring.
What were the original children’s stories you based the script on like?
In one word – brilliant! In a few more words – they were as varied in flavour as you might expect from a bunch of adult authors’ stories, possibly more so because they were unconstrained by any notion of genre. I looked back at the notes I made about the stories that we chose and here’s a list of the adjectives I used to describe them: tender, mysterious, hilarious, feisty, morally complex, thirsting-for-justice, heart-breaking, fantastical, thrilling, scary, dark, unexpected, surreal, atmospheric, lyrical, visual, beautiful…
What makes a thrilling story from the viewpoint of a child?
The stories I saw seemed acutely alive to the need to surprise the reader to engage them. The children were all trying to come up with something that, if read out in class, would make their mates stop taking the Michael for a second and fall silent, thinking, “Blimey! I never imagined that!” Their chosen strategies for being thrilling, as I said, were incredibly varied, but some examples were by being surprisingly; odd, savage, funny, empathetic, spooky, sad, atmospheric, or beautiful.
How did you approach the challenge of incorporating so many ideas and stories into one script?
It was incredibly exciting and a bit daunting. Instead of sitting down to play a cheapo Casio keyboard in my bedroom (my own limited imagination), it was like sitting at a cathedral organ with three keyboards and hundreds of different pipes and effects (the combined imaginations of hundreds of children). I had to learn very quickly how to play this thing in a way that showed how brilliant it was. I needed two great characters and a simple, believable situation in which they could get together and tell these stories. One character had to be a child with a powerful need to tell stories and the other character had to be an adult who was a superhero at helping the child to be as free and imaginative as she could possibly be. The child was Chelsea, who is sensitive and imaginative, but also lonely, uprooted and bored after her parents’ divorce. The adult was Eva Lieban – a lonely old woman, once a refugee and a street photographer with a belief that children need an inspired mixture freedom and encouragement to thrive.
In the end I picked out my favourite bits of my favourite stories and let them form natural ‘friendships’ with each other – distinct clumps of related material joined together to form bigger new stories that, I hope, work in their own right.
What are the main themes and ideas in the play?
I saw a film last year called The Wolfpack in which a group of brothers, imprisoned by their dad in their apartment till they were teenagers, kept each other from going mad by acting out the stories of the films they loved – Batman, Reservoir Dogs, etc. It really struck a chord with me, how our imagination is so powerful that it can help us survive in adversity, and not just to survive but to find an intense enjoyment just by using our inner resources. Also how we can use our imagination unconsciously to process difficult stuff in our lives. These things are at the heart of The Box of Photographs too. Through the stories in the show, Chelsea faces her fears of being alone and of feeling abandoned and unloved by her dad, and her anger with her stepmum. She sees the funny side of it all and imagines how to be strong and fight off her demons. Also, there is the idea in the show that adults can provide kids with the space and encouragement to be the best version of themselves imaginable – and that that’s our most important job really. And finally that there might be a two-way relationship between old and young, that it might do children no harm to imagine what it’s like to grow old and to foster a kinder attitude to old buffers like me! We all get old in the end, but we all stay children inside.
As an adult writer what inspiration did you draw from the children’s stories?
They reminded me of what’s important – that stories have to be like wild animals – unpredictable and free and irresistible to look at. It made me think that in order to be half as good as these children I have to remember to have as much fun as them. After all, plays aren’t called plays for no reason.