Children’s theatre for all the ages
Theatre companies are achieving crossover successes by tapping into the nostalgia and escapism that attract adults and children to Pixar movies and Harry Potter
Louis Lovett in The House That Jack Filled
From front left, Dan Colley, Aaron Heffernan and Jack Gleeson of Collapsing Horse Theatre Company with (standing, from left) Megan Riordan, Aoife Leonard, Lelia Manus Halligan and John Doran. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times
A friend of mine, early 20s, decided to get a tattoo for a recent birthday. What was it, I wondered, before the big reveal – a bird, a plane, a Chinese symbol meaning hope? It was a quotation from Harry Potter. The quotation shall remain untold, to protect the identity of the tattooed (whose mother doesn’t know), but it was instantly recognisable to a certain generation.
“A nostalgic generation,” as Collapsing Horse Theatre Company director Dan Colley put it to the cast of their hit show Monster/Clock last year. He was referring to the fact that the majority of the audience who came to see Monster/Clock, a theatre piece for all ages using puppetry and music, were in fact their peers.
This group of theatre-makers, in their early 20s, were evidently tapping into some zeitgeist and whetting the same appetite that brings adults out to Pixar movies such as Up and Toy Story, or has them reading popular fiction aimed at younger audiences, such as tales of a famous boy wizard.
Every generation has nostalgia for elements of their childhood – and in theatre, some of the most talked-about shows in recent years have been designed for all the family: this might be children’s theatre, but it’s in mainstream venues and with no expectation that an adult should necessarily bring a child.
James Thiérrée’s show Raoul, which played at the Abbey Theatre in 2011, was spectacular, while Theatre Lovett’s The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly and The House that Jack Filled were hits with children and adults. The latter show had a majority of adult attendees at the last Dublin Theatre Festival.
“We do work really hard at developing work that engages absolutely everyone,” says Muireann Ahern, Theatre Lovett’s artistic director, along with her husband Louis Lovett, who performs in their shows. “Louis calls it a win-win-win situation.”
Lovett explains this as a “triangle of energy between performer, adult and child. It is unique to play to all ages; in many cases, one or other parties is left out. We’re like the US marines – no one gets left behind.” The pair have just returned from a US tour funded by Culture Ireland. It was the first time Irish theatre for young audiences was represented Stateside on such a scale and Theatre Lovett was the first Irish company to play at New York’s New Victory Theatre.
“No matter where you go in the world, children are still children. They want to be brought on a cracking good story; adults too,” says Lovett.
The couple arrived home to find bundles of envelopes, letters and pictures from those they had met on tour. “Doing shows for children is the closest I’ve come to being a rock star,” he laughs.
Collapsing Horse Theatre Company is opening its new show, Human Child, at Smock Alley Theatre tonight.
“The children’s theatre I’ve been really excited by recently has done away with a lot of the formality we associate with theatre, which hides everyone from the making of it. Instead, it was present and sincere,” says its writer/director Dan Colley.
Eoghan Quinn, who wrote Monster/Clock and is dramaturge for Human Child, points out that the term “children’s theatre” is almost an oxymoron in that it’s created by adults.
So how do theatre-makers access that part of themselves necessary to make work for children of all ages?
“Well, we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Jack Gleeson. He is one of the founding members of Collapsing Horse, previously starred in Monster/Clock, and is best-known to audiences here as Joffrey in HBO’s Game of Thrones television series.