Culture Shock: Children’s theatre is far from child’s play – so why overlook it?

‘Bees!’ and the rest of the Ark’s family season matched the quality of anything else at Dublin Theatre Festival this year, yet the media largely ignored them

Festival buzz: Bees! was exquisitely conceived. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Festival buzz: Bees! was exquisitely conceived. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

During the recent short run, at Dublin Theatre Festival, of Bees!, a gently instructional musical for children created by WillFredd Theatre, our beekeeping guide, played by the composer Jack Cawley, was interrupted in his opening monologue by a young member of the audience.

It transpired, as the lights were dimmed, that the girl already knew everything there was to know about bees. Cawley, as calm and patient as an apiarist opening a buzzing hive, acknowledged her contribution and carried on. He did not falter when she corrected him midway through the show, nor did his fellow performers stutter when an infant spectator started to cry and his accompanying parent headed for the door. Never work with children and animals, the theatrical warning goes. Never work for children and animals would be more accurate.

Children are the most unpredictable of audiences, and children’s theatre is the most invisible of the performing arts that a professional artist could choose to engage in. It is ghettoised as mere child’s play, but it’s a much more serious business than that.

Bees! was one of four shows at the Ark cultural centre for children as part of this year’s festival. Each was exquisitely conceived to the highest professional standards. The Dutch Theatergroep Kwatta, for example, used sophisticated dramaturgy to stage a classic children’s novel, Manxmouse; anyone who saw Elevator Repair Service’s staging of The Great Gatsby at the festival in 2010 would have been bowled over by how a similar approach commanded the attention of audiences as young as six. In Paper Moon, meanwhile, marionette and silhouette puppetry was used by the Dutch performers Meridiano to broach a sensitive subject – family separation – with the very young.

This was work that matched the quality of anything else at Dublin Theatre Festival this year, yet the media largely ignored it. You can find the occasional online review of the Irish work, but the productions by visiting companies received little critical feedback. This critical invisibility is true across all disciplines when it comes to art created for children.

Children’s book reviews, for example, tend to be brought together in an occasional roundup; individual titles that will sell more copies than most literary fiction are evaluated, if they are lucky, in one or two paragraphs. You won’t find any interviews with the imaginative theatremakers who have brought Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo to the stage, nor will you find a professional review, despite the fact that they have returned to tour Ireland for the past four years such is the demand for tickets. The work of visual artists who engage with children, meanwhile, is largely dismissed because of the process-led nature of the work. Is it the collaborative approach that demeans their work or the age of their collaborators?

The assumption seems to be that it is only children, or people with children, who are interested in work aimed primarily at children, but this is a fallacy. During the festival’s family season at the Ark, for example, it was not unusual for more adults than children to be in the audiences of packed performances. At a sold-out Sunday matinee of The True Story of Hansel and Gretel only three of the audience were under 18.

Meanwhile, the books and art of contemporary picture-book makers such as Oliver Jeffers and Chris Haughton are highly collectable, adorning hipster homes all over the world. Does the crossover appeal make the work more worthy of attention? Ireland has more than a million under-18s: does work that caters to their artistic needs not matter anyway?

A critical platform for discussing and debating art for children is vital to the maintenance of high artistic standards. Reviews force artists to ask themselves about their work and evaluate their successes and failures. In the past few years some of the best Irish artists have extended their interests to a young audience. Ireland’s leading dance theatre company, CoisCéim, for example, premiered its first work for children, The Wolf and Peter, this week at Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway; the team behind the production, which includes David Bolger, Conor Linehan and Monica Frawley, brings decades of theatre experience to bear on the performance. The audience may be only six years old, but the exacting standards remain the same.

These sorts of conversations can, of course, take place within a specialist framework: in panels curated by Theatre for Young Audiences Ireland, for example, or in Inis, the biannual magazine published by Children’s Books Ireland, or in the articles published through Practice.ie, a networking resource for artists working with children.

But it is in the mainstream media that these conversations can make a difference to young people. By increasing the visibility of creative work designed for them, we will help them to find out more about it – and to go to see it. The young audiences of today are the arts audiences of the future. They deserve to be treated with respect.

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