Baboró and beyond: Irish kids’ theatre comes of age
It’s not unusual to find our best theatrical talent working in children’s theatre, and given the calibre of the work there’s little wonder why
The Way Back Home, Branar’s ambitious stage version of Oliver Jeffers’s beautiful picture book
Earlier this year I saw a performance of Human Child, a play for children aged eight years and over, performed by Collapsing Horse Theatre Company at the Project Arts Centre in advance of a tour to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The auditorium was more than half full and resoundingly appreciative. However, apart from two underage infants, snuck in by brave parents, there wasn’t a single other child in attendance.
This is not entirely unusual. Children’s theatre in Ireland has developed such a strong aesthetic identity over the past 10 years that it has its own committed adult audience, who are happy to attend with or without age-appropriate companions.
In recent years, the best Irish theatre practitioners have created work for children. It would not be unusual to go to a kids’ play and discover that it is written by Marina Carr or directed by Lynne Parker. It might be designed by Paul Keogan and feature acting talent such as Louis Lovett or Lisa Lambe.
The bedrock for this explosion of interest and quality was the work done in the 1980s by companies such as Barnstorm, Graffiti and the now defunct Team, whose theatre-in-education approach provided a key point of access to theatrical experience to many school-going children until its closure last year. Exposure to international work over the past 20 years has also had an enormous impact on the ambition of Irish artists.
The Family Season at Dublin Theatre Festival, which has been run in association with the Ark children’s cultural centre since its foundation in 1996, has been particularly important. Maria Fleming is theatre programmer at the Ark and says she is continually impressed when abroad by “the value placed on theatre for young audiences. There are entire festivals devoted to work for children, from newborn babies right through to a teenage audience. A lot of care is taken to ensure that the shows connect with their audience, and the artistic standard is testament to the funding being invested in theatre for kids.
“That said, you always have to take into account cultural issues, and there are certain productions that, no matter how good, just wouldn’t translate to children of a similar age in Ireland, where we would be more reserved about talking about death, for example, to young children.”
Built for a young audience
The Ark was purpose-built for its young audience, a factor that has made an enormous difference. “You see it elsewhere,” Fleming says, “where children aren’t even heavy enough to stop the seats from flipping up when they are sitting on them.”
Something as simple as having seats designed for little bottoms encourages “an intimacy with the stage”, she says.
Paul Curley, who recently performed Bake!, his first solo show for children, at the theatre, says it makes a big difference to the potential relationship you can develop with your audience. Curley has been acting for young audiences for more than a decade, and he says the most important factor to consider when performing or writing for children is “their developmental stages, and how to excite them physically, emotionally, kinaesthetically. You need to stimulate interest, but also to challenge them.”
Bake! was a blend of narrative and task-based theatre aimed at an audience aged four and over, with Curley encouraging interaction. There were colour-matching and size-sorting tasks, and the audience helped to build a birthday cake from brightly coloured polystyrene discs. The play was in no way outwardly instructive, but the children had to demonstrate a variety of skills, from co-operation and sorting to spatial and colour awareness. As Curley explains: “If they are enjoying themselves, having fun while they are thinking, that is the optimal experience, because they can connect [what they are seeing] to other meaning-making experiences.”
Marc Mac Lochlainn, artistic director of Branar Theatre Company, agrees. He has spent many years working in an educational context with the bilingual theatre company. He feels that it is “easier for people to put value on art when they equate it with learning”, but insists: “That is not the point. It’s important that children go to the theatre for the same reason, as it is important for adults. It’s an opportunity to look at and understand our place in the world and see something of the human condition. It’s an opportunity to empathise, to be moved and, at its finest moment, transformed. And even within an educational context it should be of the highest quality possible.”
Picture book on stage
This year Branar premiered an ambitious stage version of Oliver Jeffers’s beautiful picture book, The Way Back Home, at The Ark, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival’s Family Season. Mac Lochlainn says the company’s approach was shaped by his exposure to international work at both the Dublin Theatre Festival and Baboró, the multidisciplinary arts festival for children that is held in Galway every year. The Way Back Home, in fact, is a co-production with the Danish theatre company Teater Refleksion, which Branar came into contact with at Baboró several years ago.
The Baboró festival, established in 1997, was intended primarily “to provide access to culture for children whose parents might not bring them to theatre”, says Lali Morris, who has been serving as its artistic director since 2001. The most important point of contact in nurturing young audiences, she adds, is schools. However, the work at the festival would not be educational in any directed sense. “Our only imperative was that it would be of the highest standard possible,” she says.
Baboró has recently been involved in a research initiative with the Ryan Institute, which matched eight marine scientists, six actors and 200 primary-school students, a project that highlights the potential for making use of the arts to enhance the primary curriculum.
This year, Baboró festival features 10 theatre productions for children of all ages. Although there are several visual-arts exhibitions and workshops, theatre plays a particularly important role in engaging children in the arts. By virtue of its public nature, says Morris, “theatre helps us to become more aware of the world around us, to see how beautiful it is and the variety of ways that you can express it”, whether this be through hands and feet, as in Kidding Ensemble’s show for under-threes, Sweet Hands, Spicy Feet; through music, as in Galway theatre company The Gombeens’ bid to enlighten older audiences about Irish interculturalism in Stories of a Yellow Town; or through the simple pleasure of a good story told well.
Baboró International Arts Festival for Children runs from Oct 11 to 19; baboro.ie
A PACKED OCTOBER: CHILDREN’S FESTIVALS
October sees an enormous celebration of the arts for children across the country. Many of the theatre shows mentioned left are travelling around the counties, visiting the various festivals established at regional arts centres, which capitalise on international visitors to the Dublin Theatre Festival by issuing their own invitations. But it’s not just about theatre. There are opportunities to engage with the visual arts, music of all genres, dance, puppetry, literature, and, of course, there are plenty of opportunities to participate.
- Baboró takes place in Galway October 11th-19th
- Bualadh Bos Festival takes place at the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, until the end of October.
- RoolaBoola takes place in Belfast, October 24th-26th.
- Spleodar takes place in Nenagh, October 27th-31st, spleodar.com
- Féile Barraicini takes place in Tralee, October 24th to November 3rd.