Writing material for young people is a joyous, rewarding experience. It allows you to speak to the myriad of themes that face today’s youth with a passion only young voices can sincerely muster; for this reason, the resulting work is often infused with a sense of vitality and fun all too absent in plays written for older performers. However, many aspiring writers can find writing for young people intimidating. There are the young (less experienced) actors to consider, and the younger audience consuming the work. ‘Fun’ can easily slip into ‘shallow’, just as ‘serious’ can cross into ‘melodramatic’. At the end of the day, nobody wants to sit down to a draft they’ve completed and realise they’ve penned a bad stage adaptation of Degrassi. Unless that’s your thing.
Writing material for young people takes courage: it requires you to step out of your comfort zone and be prepared to sound a bit naïve, or misguided, or even silly. But you should do so at every opportunity you have because there are some fantastic stories to be told—just as there are fantastic young people bursting to tell them.
Talk to Them
If you are writing for a particular group of young people—a class, or youth theatre ensemble—start by talking to them. Ask them what they’re interested in, and what issues in the world they are worried about: what is not being talked about that they wish they could lend their voices to? You will find yourself floored by the sophistication of young peoples’ grasp of the threats to their own futures. It is likely, in such a tumultuous age, that they have had to grow wiser much faster than previous generations. Asking them what is important to them will make them feel heard, and help build their confidence and trust in what you are doing.
Of course, this isn’t always possible: not everybody has access to a drama class full of acting students they can mine for material. If this describes your situation, look to role models of young people making a difference in the world and think about their areas of concern. What is being spoken about on the news? What issues are going to affect the world in twenty years time that today’s youth might be worried or passionate about?
Work to Themes…
Younger performers are always going to respond more positively if their show is ‘about something’. This validates the experience for them, especially in contexts such as a drama class in school where participation might not be 100 percent voluntary. Give them a topic to care about and fight for. Make sure what they say has relevance beyond the theatre or classroom. Consider exploring topics such as mental health, gender, race, politics and climate change. If you tackle a more ‘grown up’ subject, students will take this as a sign that they have your respect and will work accordingly.
The only theme worth complete avoidance is that of ‘growing up’. All plays for young people are about this in some way or another, and so works that foreground it tend to feel forced and condescending. Don’t make young people stand on stage and talk about wanting to be older—by doing so, you imply that their voices are not yet worth listening to, their concerns less valid when not informed by age. You actually invalidate the worth of your own material in the process.
…But Layer the Issues
On the subject of condescension: try not to hit your actors or audience over the head with the themes of the play; layer your ‘issues’ into work that doesn’t see students yelling at the audience to make a point. This is another of those tricky balances to maintain: you need to keep the issue clear enough so that your actors feel the material is important, but not so much that they feel more like protesters than performers. Some great tools to combat this are metaphor, allegory and Black Mirror-style speculative/science fiction.
Finding the Voice
This can be seen as one of the trickier aspects of writing for young people. Nobody wants their characters to sound fake—either by writing them like adults, or dropping a “How do you do, fellow kids?” for the sake of sounding relevant and in-the-know. Luckily, there is a pretty easy rule to help you navigate the issue: always write slightly above the given age, understanding and level of sophistication of your play’s characters. When in doubt: write up. Give your cast voices they can aspire to: better versions of themselves that are within their reach should they inhabit these characters. Don’t just make them feel as though they are your equal, write in such a way that they can tell you admire them; make them feel as though you saw these characters in them all along. If you are lucky enough to work with the young people you write for, this will almost certainly be the truth.
Spin the Unexpected
Which is a fancy way of saying: be creative! Opt for strange characters and situations; throw your cast off by casting them as different clones of the same person, or setting a mundane story about bullying on a lunar colony. Writing material for young people is one of the few fields where you can get away with more heightened storytelling—whatever you do, don’t waste this opportunity by setting your play in a school in the here-and-now. In the best possible way, you’ll confound your young actors’ expectations and wrench them out of their comfort zones. In such situations, the best work is always done.
Another easy stumbling block: while you want to write material that young people will enjoy and engage with, be careful of crafting stories and characters that are nothing more than wish fulfilment for those involved. Don’t get lazy, and never write anything for the sake of being ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’. Consider swearing: in a piece about contemporary youth, it would be strange not to use some of the coarser words in their vocabulary. That said, the dramatic power of a well-placed “f*ck” will be diluted by multiple appearances, and completely wasted if your goal is simply to shock or titillate. And don’t think that young people can’t tell when this is the case—giggles or not.
No matter how finely crafted your script ends up becoming—no matter how intriguing the characters or finely tuned the plotting—you are going to run into some serious problems if there isn’t some equality to the distribution of scenes and lines. Try to spread the good bits as evenly as you can. This is less of a hard-and-fast rule, but it can cause some unwanted tension between your cast, as some young people begin to question their value in light of the bigger (therefore better) parts they failed to secure. It’s not ideal, but it does happen.
Rather than thinking about the restrictions this might place on your output, consider a democratic approach to characters and line distribution as a creative stimulus: how can you make each character engaging and exciting? How can you craft a moment they can each be proud of? You may find this is a practice you end up bringing into your other work; such an attitude often results in the creation of a stronger story overall, as you don’t let yourself give in to the knowledge that some parts may be less central, and therefore less worth your time when developing.
We tend to have a panicked view of youth. Even when setting aside the stereotypes of young people being immature or uncontrollable or apathetic, the youth of our generation is constantly criticised for either being overly sensitive to the flaming wreck of the earth they’re inheriting, or indifferent at times when they should be exhibiting maturity, decisiveness or even anger.
When we write about young people, we are given two precious opportunities. Firstly, we have the opportunity to celebrate their passion and resilience: we get to share with the wider world how special they are, and how bravely they are facing an uncertain future. Secondly, we get to reinforce these very ideas to them directly—and with them directly—so that they know that their contribution is valued and counted. When you write for young people, celebrate them. Give them your trust, encouragement and respect and your work will feel genuine and joyous for it.