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Writing Children's Audio Theatre 

by Tony Palermo


Suggestions towards writing radio drama/audio theatre for children. This is from a post I made to the radio drama e-mail discussion list. You may also want to see my advice on Producing Audio Theatre with Children.


From: Tony Palermo
To: Radio Drama List

Subject: Writing Children's Radio Drama

Someone inquired about how to approach writing radio drama for children.

I assume this is a radio drama to be listened to by children, as opposed to a drama to be performed by children. These are two different animals, but I work with both and actually specialize in frankensteining them together. They are not mutually exclusive.

FYI: Since 1996, I've had 20 of my radio workshop plays performed by thousands of kids, aged 9-14. I've even written radio plays to be performed by 5-6 year olds--and they can't read scripts! I'm also the father of an 8 year old and two 5 year olds.

Writing for children is a different genre than writing for adults, but not a lesser one. See Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn if you doubt me.

1) Consider The Age Group of Your Audience

Kids aged 5 to 9 differ greatly from the 10-13 bunch. Younger children, despite what you may have observed, are generally more polite listeners. They still love story time. They'll go along with your game.

Older kids are more standoffish. They're often "busy being hip." They only grudgingly surrender their attention and are quick to reject "lame" concepts (like maybe the whole suspension of belief required for radio drama.) You'll have to trick the older kids with cleverness by "letting them in on the joke."

If you value the future of our society, don't take the "smart-ass" route favored by contemporary children's TV programs. Plus, your "cheeky" put down gags may read as "totally boomer-lame" by a nasty 9 year old who's mainlined too many teen sitcoms.  

2) Don't Write Down to Kids

Once they begin elementary school, kids get clued into the difference between "baby art" and "cool art". At age 3, they love Barney the purple dinosaur--but by age 6, Barney is suddenly "whack". You can choose to lampoon baby art and you'll probably get some laughs, but that's the comedy of cruelty. I avoid both the "cute" and the "snoot" routes. Bring the kids up to your level, but make it the level of a grown-up kid. Be playful and irreverent without being sentimental or condescending. And skip the fake-hip in-jokes like having characters say "I feel your pain" or "Make my day". They won't get it, and if they do, it's still not clever or funny. Watch any current TV superhero show for an example of this terrible writing.

Many writers feel that the way to reach kids is to inject kid characters into the story. I disagree. Youngsters are quick to judge character kids--the 9-13 crowd is especially vicious here. How many of us detested TV's Will Robinson  on Lost in Space? Plus, you'll need to have adult actors mimic kid voices, which gets really old.

Consequently, I never use kid characters--but also because my plays are often performed by kids and I wish to give them an opportunity to play spacemen, detectives, pirates, crusaders, etc. What kid, when playing, fantasizes about being a kid? Radio can stretch the imagination, so do it! Exploit the medium.

Also, the presence of kid characters often telegraphs "Hey! It's pretend time, folks"--because there's no way kids could really defeat this evil warlord and his army of mole-ites--So it harms the drama. You wouldn't let a kid drive your car, so don't let him drive your plot. If you avoid kid characters, you're already miles from the cute trap. Also without kid heroes, adults may listen in too.

3) Use Surprise and Novelty

Kids are learning the ropes and conventions of how the world works. They're very conscious of "The way things are supposed to be." That provides you with great opportunities to pull the rug out from under normalcy. You'll need more surprise and "wetter" jokes when writing for children. Also, kids are at the bottom of the social order, if you upend things you provide them with a glimpse of their ultimate fantasy--world kid domination.

Far from the recent thread about how to avoid "offending" kids or their parents, I believe you can always use subversion as a powerful tool, but you must be clever about it.

One Example:

An educational publisher hired me to adapt some folk tales for the 5-6 age group (for both audio and stage versions). I was saddled with stories most kids already knew: Three Billy Goats Gruff; Aesop's The Lion & The Mouse; and that terrible 18th century ode to selfishness, The Little Red Hen. How do you add surprise and novelty to something so shopworn or so repulsively finger wagging?

Rhyme

First, I wrote everything in rhyme. It automatically made things appear clever--and made me write more cleverly too. It grabs the kids' attention and hooks them to listen for the next rhyme--the next punch line. Norman Corwin is famous for this style with his witty radio dramas, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas and The Undecided Molecule. In fact, I believe Norman spawned Dr. Seuss. In radio, you can't get better than Norman Corwin, so you're not slumming using rhyme for children, you're stealing from the best.

I also chose rhyme for my folk tale plays because they had to be memorized by a cast of pre-readers. The rhyme aided in the kids learning their lines. If an entire rhymed play is beyond you, perhaps you can introduce only a few characters who speak in rhyme. Study some Dr. Seuss and try it.

Un-Reason

Second, I actually monkeyed with the traditional stories of the folk tales, playing upon the audience's familiarity with them.

You may recall the Three Billy Goats Gruff gambit where the little and then the middle goat trick the hungry troll by saying, "Don't eat me. I'm too little. Wait for my other, bigger brother. He'd make a much better meal."  Then the biggest goat comes along and butts the Troll off the bridge. This could only be entertaining to a pre-schooler, right? It's "baby art." Yucky!

In my version, when the big goat encounters the troll, the little and middle goats peek in and whisper, "Pssst! Pssst! Use the "bigger goat trick!" So, he does. "Wait for my really bigger brother. He's HUGE!" Confounding the audience's expectations, the troll says, "OK" and lets the big goat pass.

At this point the audience knows I have violated the tale. They are on the edge of their seats. "That's not right!" "What the???" Well... just as the bigger goat is about to escape, the troll realizes he's been tricked, and then the inevitable goat-butting-troll bit occurs. Now the audience loves it. It's not "baby art"--it's "cool art!" Actually, I think it's called "suspense" or maybe, "Alfred Hitchcock for kids."


4) The Challenge of Lengthy Dramas

I don't think you will be able to pull off an entire hour long radio drama here. Kids' attention spans are limited. Think about it: NO children's TV shows run more than half an hour. Even kid feature films are only about 90-100 minutes long at most--and that's with all the eye candy, silly animal sidekicks, and ersatz Broadway songs thrown in.

Imagining all the action and settings for radio drama is a lot of work for modern audiences--regardless of age. Too many scene changes or too many characters and you'll lose the audience. Too much action and you risk confusion--And that's just with adults! For kids, you can bet they'll get antsy--even if they know the story and characters.

        Rule #1 for writers: "Is it interesting?"

        Rule #2: "How long is it interesting?"

So, take a tip from Barnum & Bailey and put on a three-ring circus. How about breaking up the hour into several different radio shows? Put in silly commercials, parody a kid channel, use nonsense songs, etc. Give their attention spans a short break, then plunge back into the show.

I suggest you do several stories with totally different settings or styles. Parody the classic radio genres--kids understand many of the conventions and you'll be able to play with their expectations.

If this were my project, I'd keep all the different stories separated and then, for the last segment, mix them up. I'd have the dragon rescue Marie Astronette from the strong, but wooden, detective, etc. That kind of nonsense is always refreshing. It would be a way to reward the audiences' attention with a big payoff after listening for so long. You'd also be "letting them in on the joke"--my favorite form of humor.  

Some Extra Resources:

The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken
This is an excellent little book by the late, but very successful children's author and playwright. I highlighted so many lines in it that the whole book is yellow now. You can find it at www.amazon.com for about $8.00.

The Complete Rhyming Dictionary -- edited by Clement Wood
This is the granddaddy of rhyme guides. Get the paperback version, it's faster to page through than the hardback. Amazon www.amazon.com sells it for about $7.00.

A Zillion Kajillion Rhymes
A $65 software rhymer for Win/Mac that's quick, but not as thorough as Clement Wood's book. And you can't add your own rhymes.

RhymeZone
A free, rhyming website where you can click on rhyme words and pop up a dictionary definition. It also features phrases.

Good luck!


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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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Last modified: 03/02/11