Simon Stephens On THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME Schools Tour

Simon Stephens On THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME Schools Tour
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

You could see it in the kids' faces, in the way they leant forward in their seats, in the total concentration trained on the action before them. You could hear it in their squeals at the exclamations of swear words, in their gasps at the plot's reveals, in their reaction to the... well - no spoilers.

Many of the Year 8 pupils at Eastbrook School in Dagenham may not have been to a theatre before - but they knew exactly what to do when the theatre came to them.

That scenario will play out in 60 schools over the next 12 weeks as the award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time visits the National Theatre's six Theatre Nation partner areas: Outer East London in partnership with the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch; Wakefield, in partnership with the Theatre Royal; Doncaster, in partnership with Cast; Sunderland in partnership with Sunderland Empire and Sunderland Culture; Wolverhampton, in partnership with the Grand Theatre; and the Greater Manchester area in partnership with The Lowry, Salford.

What a thrill for the kids, and what a fantastic opportunity to plant the seeds of a love that will last a lifetime!

The play tells the story of 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boon. He stands besides Mrs Shears' dead dog, Wellington, who has been speared with a garden fork; it is seven minutes after midnight and Christopher is under suspicion. He records each fact in a book he is writing to solve the mystery of who killed Wellington.

He has an extraordinary brain, and is exceptional at maths, while ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched and distrusts strangers. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a frightening journey that upturns his world.

Kids see their world, their hopes and fears, their lives reflected back to them, but enriched, enhanced and entertaining. The play and its source novel may be on GCSE curricula now - and rightly so - but there's so much more than English and Drama that the children learn from the visceral experience of seeing the play performed at touching distance.

Paula Hamilton, Deputy Director of National Theatre Learning, commented, "The main thing is to make sure that we can connect as many young people all over the country with theatre - to make theatre, to see theatre, to explore theatre."

"Nationally, our Connections Programme commissions ten new plays each year for young people to perform, and we have about 330 schools and theatre companies taking part this year."

Hundreds more schools engage with other NT initiatives - a critical foundation for the future of the theatre as well as of our children, as cultural enrichment is squeezed by pressures on school's budgets and competing priorities.

Hamilton continued: "About ten years ago, [the National] stopped touring secondary schools, but two years ago, we decided that we had to do it again, because it was so difficult for the most disadvantaged schools to take their pupils to their local theatre.

"We resource it through NT Learning Programme funding, itself coming from a mix of Arts Council support, box office, commercial operations, foundation and private donations - the kind of income streams found in all theatres.

"We also have specific funding linked to developing drama right across the country - e.g. the national Macbeth tour and, of course, Curious. In somewhere like Wolverhampton, we've had amazing success in encouraging schools to come and see things like Hedda Gabler and Macbeth - which is not an easy sell.

"We have a information pack that supports Curious, giving the pupils information about our partner theatres - which also follow up with invites for shows (with reduced price tickets). It's about allowing the kids to develop theatre literacy; the feeling of being an outsider can be acute, but a growing passion and a connection with a local theatre can help overcome that. 'This is for you!'"

There's a version of Impostor Syndrome in play for even the brightest kids growing up in (some) disadvantaged homes when it comes to theatre - especially opera and dance - but initiatives like this one can break its grip before it's taken hold. My two brothers and I attended a school very like Eastbrook, and, though we never felt the dread of being out of place in the Arts, we all know plenty who did - and probably still do.

Hamilton concluded on a testimony to the theatre's power to connect to kids. "We had an email from a teacher who had Curious last week, saying she couldn't believe that students were actually saying "Thank you, Miss!" for bringing that into their school. Such things do not really happen usually. So... job done!"

BroadwayWorld also grabbed a word with the play's writer, two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, who taught at Eastbrook School in the Nineties.

"When I came here, I was trying to write - I was writing when I started teaching," he recalls. "I wanted to write for theatres all my life. There were times when I couldn't afford to pay the rent or the mortgage, so I had to do other jobs - I was a barman, I was a door-to-door salesman, I was a DJ in a mobile disco company.

"But when my wife and I decided that we were going to have a family, I trained as a schoolteacher and Eastbrook was my placement when I did my PGCE. I came here and weirdly fell in love with it. Although it wasn't an easy job, I quite like Dagenham, I like Dagenham kids and I loved the staff I worked with.

"All the time I was still writing - I was writing for ten years before I had my first play produced professionally. It was those ten years that taught me how to make theatre and how to write plays; any success I've had is a product of those years of frustration.

"I think people can buy into the mythology that successful artists are successful with their first play - it's just never, ever, ever true! It's about the keeping going - I just kept going when the intelligent thing to do was to stop. But I just kept going.

"There are similarities between the two professions of teaching and playwriting: both are innately collaborative and both rely on storytelling, built on the fundamental faith that it's possible for people to improve. It's possible to communicate ideas that ennoble, enrich and improve lives.

"Our culture is increasingly atomised by the machines that we pepper our lives with, relying on technology that lends itself to isolation. The theatre and the classroom are both spaces where the phone should be turned off - both spaces where the human is exposed. That's innately built on empathy.

"Mark [Haddon, the novel's author] asked me to adapt Curious and he's my friend - we met on attachment to the National Theatre Studio and got on very well. We're of a similar age with kids of a similar age.

"I wanted to make something that my kids could go and see [in 2009] when my eldest was 10 or 11, as he couldn't see my plays at that age because they're dark and savage and brutal things. I wanted them to see my work.

"I think the novel is beautiful, but thematically as well, there are resonances between all of Mark's work and all of mine, We return to the theme of empathy a lot - I've dramatised empathy by writing about psychopaths, a consideration of empathy from a different perspective.

"I've written a lot about mothers who have left their children. Many of my plays are about people leaving home and returning home - so there are these resonances that even I wasn't aware of until I made the adaptation.

"The thing that's different from the novel is the presence of the teacher - it seems appropriate to come to my old school, where I was a teacher, to see a production of a play that has become about teaching as much as anything."

What would you recommend to a kid who has seen Curious and is excited about theatre?

"I think Shakespeare is magnificent - he was fundamentally writing for teenage audiences, because most people were dead by the time they were 40!" says Stephens. "He defined English theatre as paying attention to the groundlings. He wasn't even Molière - he was writing for the tanners and bear-baiters and all those people.

"One of the problems that we're trying to address with this tour, a problem with culture in this country, is not necessarily access in terms of physicality or even cost, but access of entitlement. You can get cheap tickets for every theatre in London - for the same price as a cinema ticket. But you need to feel that you're entitled.

"Not all theatre is the same - just like the fact that not all cinema is the same. Talk to your teachers about it, join the school drama club, engage in the conversation. It's definitely for you, and every theatre in the country will have outreach programmes for teenagers."

Few Monday mornings in my life have been as uplifting (Curious started at 9.45am!), and I know that was the case for so many of those kids too. They won't all go to theatres in the future, but plenty will, and that will change their lives and change theatre in this country - both, immeasurably, for the better.

Find out more about NT Learning here

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time also returns to the West End this winter - book tickets here

Photo Richard Davenport

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