Running on empty

When Laura Wood began writing her latest children’s novel – a love letter to regional theatre – she never imagined they would be forced to close their doors to the public

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Working on a novel during a global pandemic is a complicated thing to get your head around. My latest book is a celebration of regional theatre, set in the autumn/winter of 1931, and when I first pitched the idea I could never have imagined that I would end up writing it in such strange circumstances. Writing about my love of the theatre at a time when theatres around the world are closing down, where the livelihoods of the many, many individuals who put all of their hearts and souls into working there are at risk, has been an extremely poignant experience.

Theatre has always been a big part of my life. In my hometown in the Midlands, joining the youth theatre was a rite of passage, our local theatre hosted everything from amateur dramatics to comedians and panto, and my school had a brilliant drama department encouraging talent shows, house drama competitions and musical productions. I signed up for it all. I was never particularly talented (though I had a nice, loud voice!) but I loved the writing best of all. I wrote Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Changing Rooms sketches for my friends to perform that we thought were incredibly funny and topical. I wrote twists on fairytales and well-known stories that went down a treat. When I was 16, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as part of the Transmissions Festival at the Birmingham Rep – a festival that culminated in the performance of plays written by young writers. In a big way, the theatre and performing are responsible for the writer I am today.

I suppose all of these experiences were in my mind when I decided years later to write a book about a girl who ran away to join a touring theatre company. The theatres themselves appealed to me – the glamour of them, the secret backstage spaces, the excitement of the audience – but so did the potential cast of characters, a group of people drawn together by their passion and enthusiasm for art. I knew that feeling, even in a very amateur way, of being part of the hustle and bustle of stage life, of the rush of performing. I had planned, going into 2020, to organise some backstage tours of different theatres and I was excited to find out more about life behind the scenes. I started writing, working out what details I would need and then… lockdown.

Overnight our theatres went dark. It has been awful to see an industry that exists solely to uplift, to entertain, to educate, to broaden our experiences so brutally cut off at the knees. Surely, if those first awful weeks of lockdown taught us anything, it was that the arts are a hugely necessary part of our lives in times of turmoil. Where, after all, did we all turn for comfort? To film, television, books, music and yes, to theatre. Like millions of others around the world I streamed some of the amazing theatre productions straight into my living room, and I was so grateful for them – for the escape they provided.

My own theatre investigation became an online activity. I knew that I wanted to celebrate theatres outside London and so I took my heroine on a tour that headed north, and I went along with her – virtually at least. I Googled, I watched videos on YouTube of how fly systems worked, I pored over floor plans and blueprints, I tried in particular to find pictures from the 1930s when the book is set. I sent questions to friends who work in theatre – “What is this called?”, “Where would this scenery be stored?” – and begged them to read passages of description, keeping an eye out for inaccuracies. My theatres became fictional spaces, which in some ways made my job easier – my imagination had free rein, I could move things around to suit my purposes – and yet, it was not how I had pictured doing things when I planned the book.

There was one theatre, however, that I decided to draw from directly. During one of the set pieces of the novel, the characters get snowed in at a theatre and are forced to camp out there for several days. For this I knew I needed something special, and in my research I had come across the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond. As soon as I saw the pictures of its perfect, pastel wedding cake of an auditorium, I was utterly charmed, and I knew my characters would be too. With all the ruthlessness of an author I picked up the Georgian Theatre Royal, stretched it out and moved it to a fictional seaside town in Yorkshire. The Georgian Theatre Royal became the Theatre Royale and home to my favourite part of the book.

Writing this story during lockdown has been a strange experience – very different from the one I imagined, and yet I love the book that came out of it. Researching theatres in this way has reignited my interest in them as spaces of transformation and joy. I know that we will have to fight for our theatres now, harder than ever before, and I know that’s a fight I want to be a part of. And though I’m not sure when exactly I’ll be making my pilgrimage to Richmond, I’m certain I will get there in the end, and that when I do, I’ll appreciate it all the more.

A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood is out now (Scholastic) 

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