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There was a moment at the start of lockdown when my husband and I sat down, along with many, many others, to watch the National Theatre’s streaming of One Man, Two Guvnors from the comfort of our sofa.
Before the performance began, an onscreen message appeared: ‘Theatre and the arts are a positive force for our community in turbulent times.’ I took a photo of the message and posted it to social media.
I felt many things when reading those words. Pride at being part of an industry which is indeed a positive force, but also hope. For that brief moment, I thought that perhaps this was finally the time when questions over the ‘value’ of the arts could be indisputably laid to rest.
After all, where did we turn to during those difficult first weeks of lockdown? To film, music, television, books. Streamed theatre productions became both enjoyable things to watch and shared viewing experiences during a time of enforced solitude.
I saw people posting online about how they’d turned their front rooms into mock theatre auditoriums, complete with seat numbers and tiny ice-creams. In these scary and overwhelming times, it made me feel I was less alone; that art really could bring people together.
Months later, I now know this moment didn’t herald such a change – at least not one that reached those governing us. Artists across the country continue to contend with anxiety and uncertainty over the future of their livelihoods, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the theatre.
It has been, to say the least, an extremely poignant time to be working on a book that is, at its heart, a celebration of British theatre, and regional theatre in particular.
My own interest in the stage began early. I remember the grown-up magic of visiting the theatre at Christmas to see The Nutcracker or whatever that year’s local panto production might be.
Early on, the theatre and Christmas became wrapped up in one another for me – a visit to see a performance on stage was a gift, an occasion. One where we put on fancy clothes and stayed out until it was dark, the Christmas lights gleaming.
I joined my local youth theatre as soon as I could, and what I lacked in natural talent I made up for with enthusiasm and volume.
I performed in a local am-dram production of The Darling Buds of May as one of the Larkin children, but don’t remember much about being onstage.
I do remember the rehearsals, though – how noisy and fun they were, full of people doing something for the sheer love of it.
But it was my teachers at school who really changed things. Ours held house drama competitions, put on school plays and organised talent shows, and I loved them all.
Fortunately for me, I had a fantastic drama teacher and an English teacher who thought I could be a writer. The latter pulled me aside one day and asked if I’d consider applying for a special program being run at the Birmingham Rep.
That’s how, as a young teen almost 20 years ago, I became part of the Transmissions Festival, where young writers attended workshops and wrote plays that were subsequently performed on stage.
Workshops were held at the theatre every other Saturday, and I can clearly recall the feeling of being taken seriously by these artists; how they treated my script and suggestions as not simply the work of a child, but as something that had worth and value; as something I could be proud of.
It’s thanks to my teachers encouraging me to engage with the arts, both within and beyond the school gates, that I was able to become what I am today – a full-time writer living her dream.
That’s because I got to see grown-ups doing precisely that and learn from them, watching them practice with joy and integrity. I may not have gone on to work in the theatre, but this fight to save it still feels personal to me. I wouldn’t be the writer or person I am today without it.
Laura Wood is a professional writer of children’s fiction; her latest YA novel is A Snowfall of Silver (Scholastic, £7.99), which explores the theatre world of the 1930s through the eyes of a young, aspiring actress; follow her at @lauraclarewood.
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