This is a golden age for children’s theatre
How do we capitalise on the innovative performances for young audiences? We asked the experts for their wishlist
Theatre Lovett’s The Feast of Bones. “Production values and costs shouldn’t decrease in line with your audiences’ height.”
Junges Ensemble Stuttgart Johnnes and Margarethe at the Ark as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. “You have the same opportunity to take creative risk in theatre for children as in any other artform.” Photograph: Karolin Back
It is, without doubt, a golden age for children’s theatre in Ireland. Over the next three months, you can see some of Ireland’s most innovative theatre-makers create work for young audiences: from an early years play by Collapsing Horse, currently being feted in New York for its family show Bears in Space, to The Wolf and Peter, a revival of Coiscéim Dance Theatre’s stunning interpretation of Prokofiev’s classical score. At the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival this year, there were at least three family-friendly shows (although the alcohol sponsorship may have put some audiences off), while the Theatre for Children strand, which has been part of the programme since the Ark children’s cultural centre opened in 1995, regularly features among the fastest selling shows of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
The cultural prominence is being reflected on a funding level too. In Making Great Art Work strategy this year, the Arts Council announced a new commitment to the provision of arts experiences for young people. It wasn’t just lip-service: they also awarded one of seven grants to funding an Early Years Arts Festival, for audiences from 0-6, which will be presented by Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway in 2018.
Those making theatre for children, however, continue to face obstacles. There remains a scattershot approach to funding, there is a lack of training opportunities and virtually no critical discourse, which would make a difference to the standard of work being produced for children. With this in mind, we asked five of Ireland’s leading children’s theatre-makers and producers to wave their magic wand upon the sector. This is what they wished for.
Muireann Ahern, joint artistic director, Theatre Lovett
“My wish is, simply, for children to have a good experience on any given trip to the theatre. That they have something wonderful they carry with them out the door and into the world.
“Perhaps a way towards this might be for all theatre for young audiences be scrutinised by funders, critics and audiences to the same degree as theatre for adults is. Production values and costs shouldn’t decrease in line with your audiences’ height. It is said that when Stanislavsky was asked what the difference was in performing for adults and for children he answered: ‘Difference? There is no difference. Oh yes – it must be better.’
“The next hoosh of the wand would be for companies to have the resources and capacity to plan beyond a one-year cycle. We tour extensively both at home and abroad. What strikes us on the international circuit is how far in advance our Danish colleagues, for example, can plan their productions and touring. A bit of fairy dust around labelling might be no harm either. At Theatre Lovett we make theatre for both adults and child in one sitting. I would like to free adults from feeling they need to have a child with them to come to our work.
Theatre Lovett’s national tour of The Feast of Bones starts at the Bualadh Bos Children’s Festival, Belltable Theatre, Limerick on October 17th.
Aislinn ó hEocha, artistic director, Baboró International Arts Festival for Children
I would use my wish to make sure every child on the island has access to at least one professional arts experience each year. Baboró’s founding principles are around equal access to the arts for all children. The festival was originally part of the Galway Arts Festival, during the summer, but it was moved to October to tie into the school calendar, so children don’t necessarily rely on parents to bring them to the festival.
It is also vital that work for children is of a high standard and is made specifically for them: that would be my second wish. This might be a child’s first experience of the arts, or the only time they interact with live performance outside of the school setting. So we need to value it as art for art’s sake: it shouldn’t just be edutainment. Children should have the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of language, music and spectacle, for the very simple reason that the arts enhance our experience of life and expand our worldview. For the very simple reason that it enhances and stimulates their experience of life.
Baboró International Arts Festival for children runs in Galway, October 17th-23rd.
Kareen Pennefather, joint artistic director, Monkeyshine Theatre
I wish the line between children’s theatre and adult theatre could be blurred a little more often. We have to put age ranges on our work although we would often love not to. We consider our work to be for all ages, and we love our audience to be made up of parents, grandparents, those with children and those without children – all going to see a show together as equals. We’d love guides more like film has – universal, parental guidance etc – which do not imply some kind of educational framework but give adults who want to come with children an indication of the content.
If theatre is to remain a part of someone’s life, as a place to collectively explore our own humanity, then children need to see adults in the theatre and adults need to welcome children into the theatre. If adults only go to the theatre as escorts to their children, then children see theatre as a fun, brilliant, wonderful activity for kids, but for kids only: pleasure to grow out of, along with toys and sweets; something to be revisited nostalgically at Christmas. If theatre is to survive as an important, accessible, current and valuable artform then children need to experience it as something that is part of life, filled with life and for life.
Voyage premieres at the Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny, on October 15th, then tours nationally.
Maria Fleming, theatre programmer, the Ark
I would ask that theatre for young audiences be taken more seriously. It is often overlooked, and that reflects general attitudes to children. But children have a right to rest and play and participate fully in cultural activity, and that includes theatre.
People often regard theatre for young audiences as the poor relation: it is underfunded, under-resourced, and there is a lack of training. People often talk about it in the same breath as education, but any educational role is purely secondary. You have the same opportunity to take creative risk in theatre for children as in any other artform.
What we are interested in at the Ark is quality cultural experiences. We want to offer children something that reflects the world they know, a safe place to explore the world they live in and their place in it. It is happening slowly, but I think people are starting to recognise the importance of arts for young people: the Italian government recently announced a €500 grant for all 18-year-olds to be spent on cultural activities. I don’t know if a magic wand would stretch to that.
The Theatre for Children season at the Ark, September 29th-October 16th, is part of the Dublin Theatre Festival
Philip Hardy, artistic director, Barnstorm Theatre
I would ask the fairy godmother for money. Interest in theatre for young audiences has developped hugely over past 20 years, and it would be great to see funding reflect the standard of training and production we have now, which will only benefit further from increased investment.
For a second wish, I would ensure every child in Ireland would have at least one visit to a theatre or arts event every year. It is giving them access to a temple of dreams. That can be something fantastical or something that reflects their life and it shouldn’t shy away from serious concerns. That was the original function of fairytales after all. Theatre in particular enables them to suspend disbelief for 40 minutes or an hour, to immerse themselves in someone else’s life and relate it to their own.
When you see a child at the theatre for the first time, when they realise that it is a three-dimensional thing, that the actors standing in front of them are real, it is a magical thing.
Barnstorm’s 25th anniversary production, The Messenger, opens at the Watergate Theatre, November 16th