Wednesday 23 September 2015

"A Twit's Story at Seven Stories"

Over the past two months we have been very lucky to have been host to a wonderful work placement student all of the way from Spain.  She has been working so hard on our book and archival collections that we don't want to let her leave (we might get in trouble if we lock her in the store - we would keep her supplied with cake and tea!). Here is her account of one of her (many) projects here: 

When I first wrote to Seven Stories about the possibility of having me for an Erasmus+ placement at the Collection and Exhibition department, I thought my chances were quite slim. After all, I was just a Spaniard finishing a Library and Information Science degree whose experience regarding archives was really quite minuscule. But I guess archive collection fairies do exist (they do! They do!), and perhaps my letter really showed an excess of excitement about the idea, so I did find myself at Seven Stories Collection Team office one grey morning in early August, having tea with the fairies. Hooray!

Ever since, I’ve been fiddling with a number of different collections, both comprised of books and original material, but the one collection that has taken up most of my time is David Wood’s. Now, Kris and Danielle, who are in charge of processing original archival material, both say they did not assign me this collection to give me a fright, and I choose to believe them, because they are otherwise really lovely people. But the fact is, it is quite an unusual one! It is huge, for starters, spanning from 1954 to 2013 and filling up 137 archival boxes, and though they are many plays represented in other collections, David Wood is the only playwright with a collection of his own. It also came in three different lots (or accessions), which were at different stages of processing. We needed to take some files out of your ordinary cardboard boxes into those nice minty-coloured, acid-free archival boxes, so that we could list their contents and restructure them in a way that was consistent with the tree structure created when cataloguing the first accession!

But, in all seriousness, I actually think I was really lucky to be assigned to David Wood, because I feel like I learnt an awful lot from it all, and the material is absolutely delightful to go through. The main feeling that I’ll take home with me is, I think, that cataloguing for an archive is a bit like reconstructing a story, and hopefully you will come out at the other end of the process being able to tell it to other people, both from beginning to end or just cherry-picking the juicy bits! Hopefully, that is what I’ll manage to do with this post!

David Wood is known as the ‘national children’s playwright’ and his commitment to providing children with challenging, entertaining, high-quality theatre is evident in everything he writes. He puts it brilliantly on his website:

“In all my plays there is a determination not to patronise children, rather to emotionally involve them in a strong and fast-moving storyline. They offer opportunities for imaginative set, costume and lighting design, for special effects and, sometimes, puppetry.  They all have “lots of suddenlies…” A Canadian children’s book publisher, with whom I was once interviewed on television, when trying to explain what works for children, told how her own daughter, aged 8, put down a book, saying how much she had enjoyed it. “Why?” asked her mother, mainly out of professional interest. “Lots of suddenlies” came her daughter’s reply. It’s been my motto ever since.”

The Seven Stories collection holds exactly 65 plays, 21 books, and 13 film, TV and radio adaptations. As you can imagine, he had to start at an early age to get so much done! Indeed, the archive includes a notebook with his very first play, written at the age of 10 for a fundraising event. The effort granted him an award from the Enid Blyton’s busy bee club!

Notebook with David Wood's first play, programme, a review in the local newspaper, and the Busy Bees award
 Kudos from the Queen Bee

David Wood’s name is invariably paired with Roald Dahl’s, as the former adapted many of the latter’s novels into plays, such as the BFG, or Danny, Champion of the World, or The Witches, or James and the Giant Peach, or Fantastic Mr Fox, or The Twits! Even a version of Matilda that did not see the light in the end, but is most welcome to stay here at Seven Stories among her Dahlesque peeps. (We’re sure she’d love it here at the archive!) He’s also famously adapted novels from other big names in children’s literature such a Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden), Judith Kerr (The Tiger Who Came to Tea), Michael Foreman (Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish), or Philip Pullman (Clockwork). Additionally, he has written his fair share of plays based on well-known folklore and fairy tales, though they are all rather peculiar versions. Marian and the Witches’ Charm may be based on Robin Hood but he is not in it and the cast is all female! Also, his Goldilocks is titled ‘The Porridge Pincher’. Isn’t it easy to see why David Wood and Roald Dahl’s books are such a fine match?

Still, he is probably best-known for his original musical play ‘The Gingerbread Man’, about a heroic anthropomorphic biscuit who lives in a kitchen cupboard. This play is actually very representative of David’s production, in that his works often exist in various forms and target different audiences over the years. He first wrote it in 1977 but since then it has had twelve West End seasons and toured widely, both in the UK and abroad. The production put up by David Wood’s own theatre company, Whirligig Theatre, even got broadcast by Channel 4! It also got adapted into two storybooks, an audio play, and a model animated TV series. It is a really good thing that David Wood has written us lovely introductory notes explaining the context for each play in the Seven Stories collection, since they have been incredibly useful for organising the documents and often managed to be extremely witty and informative at the same time. We are using them as archive material of their own! 

 The Gingerbread Man in many shapes! A play manuscript and programme, a published copy and a TV episode list

Since his work was adapted for many foreign tours, the collection documents different cultural sensibilities about plays for children, both in the letters to overseas producers and through the notes that he sometimes typed up after attending a particularly thought-provoking production (including some baffled lines about witches getting banned from children’s plays). He is clearly someone interested in analysing different cultural perspectives, for instance when he adapted the Japanese opera Kureomon, he ended up writing a file of notes about how the British audience would receive it. 

Figure 4 - Programmes for different productions of the BFG, original Japanese programme of Kureomon, and David Wood's file of 'Thoughts on the adaptation of Kureomon for British audiences

'But David Wood’s works often underwent formal changes, as well. This is another aspect that makes this collection particularly valuable, because not only does it document David Wood’s original creative process, but also the rewriting of content for different media. Besides book proofs, drafts and scores, the collection includes scripts for a myriad of purposes: play rehearsal, introducing music cues, TV and LP recording sessions and whatnot.  Some media demand their own documents, and it is fascinating to compare David Wood’s proof text for a play programme with a treatment outlining the episodes for a TV show. Being a producer himself, he meticulously kept and filed legal and technical documents about the process of putting up a play, making the collection a gold mine for researching art production, copyright law, stage design, and other fields that some researcher will think of, I’m sure!

David Wood acting on the set of 'Seeing and Doing Computers', a TV series he was commissioned to write by Thames Television to introduce primary school children to the use of computers.
 Annotated treatment for the TV series 'Seeing and Doing Computers'

Also, David Wood is definitely a note-taking, letter-sending writer. The many files of correspondence in his collection show that he exchanged messages with key figures in the British cultural scene, both on the editorial and theatrical front, as well as the occasional TV producer. We are particularly lucky in having the correspondence between David Wood and Kathleen Hale, author of the popular series about Orlando, the Marmalade Cat (which David almost adapted for the telly!), as it shows the close friendship consolidating through witty letters between the two authors.

Re-packaging and re-labeling some of David Wood's correspondence

As for the notes, they range from a quick idea scribbled on a paper bag to a fully typed diary of the day he put a play for Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee! I confess the five(!) boxes about The Children’s Party at the Palace, an extravaganza featuring favourite children’s lit characters on a mission to get the Queen’s lost handbag back, might be my favourite materials in the collection. They are full of fantastically wonderful ideas that got discarded, and a hilarious account of how the production resulted, among other peculiar items.

Notes and programme for the play, plus a few personal items!
 All handbags are safer when escorted by a kidlit character guard

You see it’s no wonder I got so distracted that my time with the Seven Stories Collection Team will end before we complete the story. I mean, the cataloguing process. Luckily, if anything in this post piques your interest, Kris and Danielle and the other Collection fairies will be there to show you around the Wood.

- Paula Pintos. 

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