Writing Big Hopes

It's really hard to write well for teenagers. If you're a teenager then you know a lot about what it's like to be a teenager - but you're hampered by the fact that, well, you're teenager. You're an over-excited child one minute and an infinitely weary adult the next. You're getting more confident about your ability to think for yourself and make your own way in the world, but then you're cripplingly self-conscious and secretly know that everyone hates you. All this means that you're not best placed to take a step back, be a little distanced, and tell the truth about yourself, your friends, and how you feel about the world.

So perhaps the job is best done by someone who can recall that frothing soup of adolescent emotion, but from a point of closer-to-forty-than-thirty tranquility. Someone like me, say.

The problem with me, though, is that the version of being fifteen I can remember – a version set in the late 1980s, in a massive housing estate just outside Bridgend, with a studious, quiet kid as lead character – is not a version that today's teenagers recognise. I was safe from bullying by text because there were no mobiles; no-one could beat me up and post the video to YouTube because the net was still part of America's nuclear defence system; and no-one could give me an Anti-Social Behaviour Order because - our then leader had explained - there was no such thing as society. Maybe it's true that the core struggles are the same for anyone making the transition from childhood to adulthood at any time. But the fact is that if you're trying to write for teenagers, getting the texture of their lives right matters. Getting the detail right, matters. And I haven't got a clue about the details of the lives of 15 year olds. So how on earth could I write for them?

And so when the National Theatre in London asked me to write a play for some teenagers in Ely, members of a Prince's Trust group for those struggling in school, I knew I was in trouble. Thankfully the National Theatre of Scotland saved me, by bringing Gregory Burke's play Black Watch to Ebbw Val. Greg had been commissioned to write about the famous Scottish regiment, and went off to meet a group of soldiers as research. When he came to write the actual play, Greg framed the soldiers' stories by including a version of himself – so that in Black Watch we see a writer interviewing a group of soldiers as research for a play. Everyone thinks that if you steal ideas really blatantly it means you're a genius, and so I blatantly stole this structure for my play about these teenagers from Ely. When I first went up to the Pethybridge Youth Centre to meet the young people who would perform the play, I took a little voice recorder, and recorded everything they said to me.

When I'd finished transcribing the recordings, I had about thirty pages of material. I'd been half-expecting to write about bullying or gang warfare, and certainly the teenagers spoke about bullying – but what was most surprising, and what they talked about most honestly, were their ambitions, the many different things they wanted to do when they were older. They wanted to be actors, youth workers, property developers, teachers, plumbers - even a sniper. Following their lead, I decided the play should focus on their aspirations for the future. Abi – correction, Abz - explained that she wanted to be a psychologist, and reeled off a list of stages she'd need to go through, starting by getting good GCSEs, then A-levels, then a degree, then on to a post-graduate course in criminology. She paused, considered, and said 'Big hopes'. And she had given me my title.

So that's my solution to the problem of how you write for teenagers - you don't write for them, you write with them. I think it's worked. After reading the script, Callum protested he'd been expecting 'a proper play'. I hope that walking onto stage at the National Theatre, Callum will realise that a play about him and his friends, and their hopes and dreams, is just as proper as any play about kings or soldiers could be.