Let them face the music, art and dance

 

Parents often rely on school to introduce their children to performance art, but that can be a mistake, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

LIFE WAS NEVER quite the same for Stephen Faloon after his father brought him to see a rock musical, The Little Shop of Horrors,in London’s West End at the age of 11.

Living in rural Co Tyrone, he had never seen anything like it. “It was an experience I never got over and that is why I am in the job I am in today,” says the general manager of the Grand Canal Theatre, which opened in Dublin just over a year ago.

It was the one and only opportunity he had to see such a big professional live show as a child, but he remembers it vividly, “and from then on, I always wanted to work in theatre”.

Bringing children to live theatre, music or dance not only sows the seeds for a lifetime passion and, possibly, a career, but provides them with a vital life force.

“Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air,” argued the writer Philip Pullman in an essay published in the Guardianin 2004. “They need to hear real music played by real musicians on real instruments as much as they need food and drink. They need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for.”

The difficulty with persuading grown-ups of this, he said, is that without shelter, food and drink, children die visibly. “Whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and it doesn’t show.”

Children will never go to their first arts event alone – they have to be brought, says Philip Hardy, artistic director of Barnstorm Theatre Company, which is dedicated to performing children’s and youth theatre. Parents’ responsibility for introducing children to arts events was the theme for Barnstorm’s celebration of the world children’s theatre day last month.

“Our biggest worry at the moment is lack of family audience,” he explains. “We know we have audiences through schools but when we run general audience shows it is very hard to sell. I think parents leave it to the schools.”

Hardy recalls how a man with two young girls happened to be passing by their premises, in a former Loreto convent in Kilkenny, saw the name Barnstorm Theatre Company and called in to see what was going on.

Then one of the little girls suddenly said, “Oh, I saw Jack here” – a show the company staged last year. And the older girl turned and said “I saw Martha here”– a production dating back three years.

“The father looked at the two of them and it was amazing to us when we realised the father was completely unaware that his children had been to the theatre through school.”

In Ireland, parents have traditionally seen the arts as part of formal education, which is the business of schools and the stuff of after-school activities. We seem to be quicker to enrol children in piano lessons, ballet classes and drama groups than we are to bring them regularly to see the work of arts professionals.

This is changing, with arts administrators talking about a “hunger” in recent years for family events.

However, compared with many European countries, Ireland is not good at providing family cultural entertainment, says Martin Drury of the Arts Council. There is a lot of rhetoric about it but still much work to be done, he suggests, “to make it really user-friendly in terms of price, location and quality”.

We have a long way to go to match Norway, for instance, where there are systems to guarantee every child has five “arts experiences” a year.

One of Drury’s pet hates is the idea that catering for children is about building audiences for the future – although of course it does that too. “I often say an eight-year-old is not a quarter of a 32-year-old but a fully fledged eight-year-old.”

The movement towards provision of art directed at children is “fantastic”, he says, as it is scaled for them psychologically and physically.

However, it is hugely important that parents are with their children at arts events, he stresses. “When they go home, they have had a shared experience, which school doesn’t allow. It is amazing how stuff surfaces a week, a month, a year later.”

Parents are definitely more engaged with arts events, says Teenagh Cunningham, general manager of Baboró International Arts Festival for Children, than when it started 15 years ago.

The Galway Arts Festival had a children’s strand which, it was decided, could be better developed as a separate festival if staged in October, when schools would be the “conduit” to high-quality arts performances, rather than leaving attendance dependent on parents bringing their children in the summer.

Now, due to demand, the festival stages a big family weekend and recorded a 58 per cent increase in overall attendance last year.

There is an increasing focus on the arts for early years. When the Republic’s only purpose-built children’s cultural centre, the Ark, opened in Dublin’s Temple Bar in 1995, its official age range was from four years upwards; now it is from two years.

“People feel really strongly about encouraging their child’s creativity and they want to do that younger and young- er,” says Ark director, Eina McHugh.

She empathises with pressurised parents who find it too much hassle to research, book and attend arts events with their children. “I just think it reaps so many benefits, it really is worth the effort.”

When parents do manage to attend some event at the Ark, they often say how rare it is nowadays to be able to spend time with a child in a way that is mutually enjoyable.

“It is a really important connection with a child,” says McHugh, and a “real investment”.

Every single child is creative. “You can make choices that give a child the chance for that latent creativity to flourish in an optimal way,” she adds.

When Deirdre Hazley was growing up in Crumlin in Dublin, her parents used to bring her to the National Concert Hall (NCH) to hear lunchtime concerts. She played the piano and still loves music.

Now a mother herself, she is hoping to foster a similar appreciation of music in Rachel (9) and Robert (8). She started by bringing them to parent and toddler workshops in the NCH.

“They would sit there and play around and you would hope it would go in by osmosis.” Since then they have progressed to various other activities and summer camps there and are registered for the NCH’s learn and explore programme, as members of the Young Maestros club.

“If I had not been brought as a child to the National Concert Hall, it probably would not even have dawned on me to bring my kids,” she says. Neither of them plays a musical instrument yet and, as they are very busy with other after-school activities, she does not want to push them.

“I would be delighted if they took something up,” Hazley adds. “But I want them to have a love of music rather than having to sit there and practise for hours and hours.”

The NCH’s learn and explore programme, primarily targeted at children (aged from just three months upwards), has grown three- fold in the last two and a half years.

“We need to make special events to cater for children – as much as we would love to have them in the auditorium for family concerts, they are too far from the action if they are in the back,” says the NCH’s acting head of programming, Katie Wink.

The Mini Music pre-instrument course, which it runs in the hall in conjunction with the Churchtown School of Music, can hardly keep up with demand. Currently there are nine sessions every Saturday but that is doubling to 18 classes in the autumn.

Another national cultural institution which has been paying more attention to children in recent years is the Abbey Theatre. Family shows have been consistently programmed since 2006, says a spokeswoman, such as Aurélia’s Oratorio, Raoul and Arrah-na-Pogue. It also organises family workshops.

Currently running on its Peacock stage is the acclaimed The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly, an Ark production, in association with Theatre Lovett.

Interactive theatre for children like this gives them a sense of ownership of the piece, says Louis Lovett, the show’s solo performer.

“I strive to make my audience feel as if they are actively essential to the telling of my tale. I often say I try to ‘surf’ my audience’s energy and I am very open to their input.” Some of the children’s interactions are “dazzling” in their timing and interweave beautifully with the piece, he says.

It is very important that the show appeals to both children and adults, Lovett adds. “It is lovely for the different ages to regard each other’s reaction to the piece.”

A BRUSH WITH GREATNESS: INTRODUCING YOUNG PEOPLE TO ART GALLERIES

If you live anywhere near an art gallery, there is no excuse for not bringing your children inside the doors. It is generally free and you can just drop in – staying for as long, or short, a time as suits.

However, a lot of people are a bit afraid of galleries, acknowledges Emma Klemencic, education and outreach officer with the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

“They feel you have to be educated and to know ‘stuff’, and worry that their child might shriek and shout and ask to go to the toilet,” she says.

Attitudes are slowly changing but the belief that knowledge comes from a gallery to the people persists, whereas it should be a two-way process, she stresses. “Art only works if somebody is going to look at it.”

She encourages parents to “take a chance” and visit an art gallery with their children.

In Dublin, the National Gallery works hard to make families feel welcome as soon as they step in the door, says its head of education, Marie Bourke.

The family programme is designed for adults and children to take part together, she explains, “so that the process of learning and engagement lasts beyond the creative activity in the gallery, through to the conversation over orange juice in the cafe, and on over dinner at home.

“In that way children become accustomed to the idea of using museums and they become a much more interesting choice of place to visit.”

Drop-in visitors can pick up a family pack at the desk in the Millennium Wing entrance on Clare Street – one pack is aimed at tiny tots, another for older children.

There are also guided family events every Saturday afternoon from September to May, and workshops during school holidays.

“I would be very slow in using any sophisticated art terms with children,” Bourke advises parents.

“I would be far more inclined to bring them in and look for individual things in paintings that are fun, interesting, amusing or quirky and getting them interested in the work.”

For instance, children might initially think Murillo’s The Holy Family is just a “boring” religious painting. But ask them “what’s that under Our Lady’s chair?”

“Instantly they will discover a cat – and, clever Murillo, it’s not just a cat, it’s the cat to die for. They will sit down on the floor, drawing the cat, ignore the rest of the painting but sure enough they will come back to check that cat out.”

Any family living in or near the capital, or visiting, also has the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane on Parnell Square and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham to frequent, each of which also has activities geared towards children at weekends and during the holidays.

Families can make an “arts day” of it at the Hugh Lane on a Sunday, with its free classical concerts at noon, followed by Sunday Sketching from 3pm-4pm, when two artists talk about some of the works in the gallery, as well as giving people the chance to put pencil to paper.

In addition, a visit to the gallery’s Francis Bacon Studio is guaranteed to fascinate a child – it might remind them of their bedroom!

MAKE A DATE: THE ARTS CAN BE CHILD’S PLAY

A sample of current and upcoming events:

THEATRE

The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly, performed by Louis Lovett, continues daily at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin until Saturday. See abbeytheatre.ie or tel: 01-8872200.

The West End production of The Sound of Musiccontinues at the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday. See grandcanaltheatre.ie or tel: 01-6777999.

The Not So Grimm Fairytales, a touring production by the UK company Uncontained Arts, is on at the Helix in Glasnevin, Dublin this Saturday and Sunday, 11am and 2pm. See thehelix.ie or tel: 01-7007000.

DANCE

The Dublin Dance Festival, May 13th-28th, will present a children’s season in partnership with the Ark. “Children are thoroughly delighted by dance,” says festival director Laurie Uprichard. “They understand it inherently, as the physicality of dance relates directly to their experience in the world.” See dublindancefestival.ie or tel: 01-6790524.

MUSIC

The Fleadh by the Feale, a traditional music festival, runs in Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, April 28th-May 2nd. See fleadhbythefeale.com

Meet the Orchestra at noon on May 21st in the National Concert Hall is a chance to learn about the different instruments and hear some popular classical music played by a Royal Irish Academy of Music orchestra. Conducted by James Cavanagh. See nch.ie or tel: 01-4170000.

ART

The theme of the family programme at the National Gallery in Merrion Square this Saturday, 3pm-4pm is “Battle Dress”, for children aged between four and 10. First come, first served. See nationalgallery.ie or tel: 01-6615133.

For ongoing information about children’s cultural events around the country, see the listings in ‘The Ticket’ supplement in The Irish Timesevery Friday.