Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Telling Stories by Fraser Corfield

"Max Remy Super Spy", 2012, by the Australian Theatre for Young People, all photographs by Olivia Martin-McGuire

My job is all about telling stories, but I don’t write books.

I work every day with teenagers but I’m not a teacher.

I’m the Artistic Director of the national youth theatre company, Australian Theatre for Young People.  My job is about finding stories that young people don’t just enjoy listening to, but stories that they want to perform.

There is an interesting difference between reading play scripts and reading books.

In a book, the author gives the reader everything you need to understand the story. The location for each scene can be very clearly described. A character might stagger through sandy desert, or skip along a cobblestone street dodging an old horse that is pulling a foul-smelling cart loaded with hay, or creep through a dark forest filled with the eerie sounds of strange hungry creatures.

The author creates the whole world that the characters live in. That’s why sometimes with a good book it feels like you can escape into it. The images and characters are so vivid you see them clearly in your imagination.

Sometimes the way characters speak in a book is very different. We often get to know what they are thinking as well as what they say. We can even get a description of the expression on their face. In a book the writer might give us a scene between two characters that goes like this:

    “That looks really painful, you should probably get someone to look at that” Jan said as she sauntered by, brushing her hair for the 50th time that morning.
     Max closed her eyes and tried really hard not to throw her milkshake straight in the face of her mind-numbingly irritating older sister.
     'Just breathe’ she thought to herself ‘and count to ten’.  
    After a moment she looked up and said calmly ,“Thanks for the advice Jan, I’ll take that on board.”

In a play script though, the writer doesn't get so much power over the reader, because every word that he or she wants you to hear needs to be spoken by an actor. This means that, when you are reading a play script, you need to imagine you are speaking the words of the play.

Sometimes this can make a play script a little more boring to read. It’s the actors, helped by the director, who have to deliver the lines so the audience understands what the writer wants.

Take the scene above. In a play script the scene would just say:

    Jan: [walking past] That looks really painful, you should probably get someone to look at that. [Pause] 
    Max: Thanks for the advice Jan, I’ll take that on board.

All the description from the paragraph has to be stripped away in the play. The reader just gets what the characters say, sometimes with some simple stage directions to give an indication of what they might be feeling.

The actors and the director then need to decide the best way to say the words on stage so the audience understands what the characters are thinking. During the “pause” in the scene the actor playing Max would need to make it clear she is resisting the impulse to throw her milkshake on her sister. Nobody says it, the actor has to show us.

If you are reading a play script, the best thing to do is read it out loud so you can hear what the characters are saying. Or if you have a couple of copies, get some friends to read the script with you. Unlike books, plays are carefully written so that they have to be read out loud. In a play, it’s the way you read the story that makes it come alive.

So why read plays?

For me, the thing I always loved about performing and directing plays is that it’s something you have to do with other people. A really good play brings the characters to life in front of you. The writer creates a great story and then the actors, the director and the designers have to bring it to life for an audience.

Reading a book is something you need to do on your own. Reading a play is something that is most fun when you do it with other people.

Some of my favourite plays, which you might also like, are:

The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy by Finegan Kruckermeyer
Skate by Debora Oswald
The Stones by Stefo Nansou
Hoods by Angela Betzien
Buggalugs Bum Thief by Tim McGarry adapted from the story by Tim Winton

And here are my top 5 plays made from books for children – have you seen any of these plays?  Or read the books?  Maybe you’ve done both.  Lucky you!

Boy Overboard by Patricia Cornelius adapted from the book by Morris Gleitzman
Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs by Jo Turner adapted from the book by Michael Gerard Bauer
The Messenger by Ross Mueller adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak
Max Remy Super Spy by Jo Turner, adapted from the book by Deborah Abela
Hitler’s Daughter by Eva Cesaire, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry from the book by Jackie French

About the Author

Fraser is a director, dramaturge and the Artistic Director of Australian Theatre for Young People. He has been the Artistic Director of Backbone Youth Arts (Qld, 2005-08) Riverland Youth Theatre (SA, 2001-03) and the Associate Director of La Boite Theatre (1997-2000).

He is recognised as a national leader in the development and presentation of theatre involving young artists, presenting work with many of Australia’s most celebrated companies and venues.

Fraser has sat on advisory bodies at all levels of the industry including as a peer assessor for Arts Queensland (2009 -), Regional Arts NSW ( 2012 -), the Theatre Board of the Australia Council for the Arts (2008 – 2011), Company Associate of Queensland Theatre Company (2006 – 2008), a board member for Young People in the Arts Australia (2007 – 2009), Chair of the selection committee for the Youth Arts Mentoring Program (YAMP) (2006 – 2008), a board member of Metro Arts (2005 – 2008) and part of the selection panel for Queensland’s theatre industry awards ‘The Matilda’s’.

He was one of seven Australian representatives selected for the ‘Next Generation” international collaboration project which ran from the 2008 - 2011 ASSITEJ World Congress and Performing Arts Festivals.


  1. I have read all but one of the books you mention, it would be great to both see and read the plays!

  2. Because of its context, it is easy to know whether or not you like a book.

    I wonder if it harder to tell if you're going to like a play from the reading.

    Can good readers make a bad play sound good or -conversely- can poor readers make a good play sound bad?

    If you've loved any particular book, does that make it harder to enjoy the play?

    I'd be interested to know what others think - particularly if you've read the books or seen the play or best of all, seen the play and read the book!

  3. Barbara O'Leary10 May 2013 at 19:38

    the only play i went to from the list was the bum thief one. i loved it and watched the actors perform with delight. they interpreted the work so well that the audience got highly involved. Loved it. also loved the play at Nimrod which conveyed so much through the actors.
    Great blog Fraser. Barbara O'Leary

  4. Great to hear of a director's view of how he produces the books he wants to direct into plays. It might convince one of those young readers on a new path to their lives.