Child's play: making theatre for young audiences
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Catherine Walker in The Giant Blue Hand at The Ark.

Photo: Mark Stedman (Walker)

Child's play: making theatre for young audiences

The best theatre for children appeals to all ages, as the family-friendly strand of this year's Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival showed. Stimulating productions for young audiences are of growing interest all around, writes Fintan Walsh. 'It's about all of us.'


We are increasingly aware of looking after minority groups within the arts, either through representation or provision. But when it comes to children, responding to their needs can be a trickier affair. Some of this has to do with the fact that young people are rarely at the helm of decision-making, where they might express their wishes as their grown-up counterparts can. A greater deal has do with the fact that the provision of cultural experiences for children is often determined by the education system, where funding is traded in for learning outcomes. This complexity is also influenced by commercial ventures, with large sums of money being swapped for entertainment-by-numbers. Given this dynamic, there is always a risk of compromising the artistic integrity of theatre for young people if performance is dictated solely by pedagogical or financial standards.

While youth theatre, theatre in education, and commercial theatre are reasonably well-established in Ireland, there is not the same amount of quality children’s theatre available. At its best, theatre for young people does not compromise the aesthetic experience in favour of offering acting opportunities to young people, fulfilling the objectives of school curricula, or providing easy entertainment – although there is often some overlap in intent and appeal.

The concept of catering to young audiences emerged in the early twentieth century, at a time when childhood was seen as a relatively separate phase of human development. Russian actor Natalie Sats is credited with founding the first theatre for the young to be performed by adult professionals in Moscow, shortly before the 1917 revolution. Later, similar groups were established in the US, the UK, and throughout Europe, particularly after the second World War. In her essay, ‘A History of Children’s Theatre in the United States (1961), Nellie McCaslin claims that children’s theatre had “the express purpose of giving wholesome pleasure”, while theatre in education and drama in education aimed at providing learning opportunities.

While figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal have exerted considerable influence on the development of pedagogical theatre practices, Howard Barker, for instance, has suggested that theatre cannot be educational without compromising its artistic merit. In Arguments for a Theatre (1997), he writes “Artistic creation is so unstable that a theatre seems to me the last place you would go to ‘learn’ something.” Even so, it seems equally possible that “pleasure”, “creativity” and “education” might also have plenty in common, and much more yet to learn from each other. Most of us recognise that theatre can be both entertaining and challenging, even if this relationship is not immediately clear.

In Ireland, groups such as TEAM Educational Theatre Company (formed upon the dissolution of the Young Abbey in 1974), Graffiti in Cork (1984) and Barnstorm in Kilkenny (1991) are well-known names in making theatre for young people. Out of these three companies, Barnstorm is the only one that does not primarily identify itself as a theatre in education group. Prior to the establishment of these companies, however, those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s will remember a time when the traveling Lambert Puppet Theatre and The Children’s T Company were some of the few companies to provide theatrical experiences to children throughout the country.

More recently, The Ark - Europe's first custom-built Children's Cultural Centre, based in Temple Bar, Dublin - has been at the forefront of staging local and international work, all year round, to young audiences since opening in 1995. Baboró International Arts Festival for Children has been hosting work since it was first created as part of the Galway Arts Festival in 1994.

Muireann Ahern, programmer and producer at The Ark, claims that the provision of quality theatre for young people is certainly getting better. “There are venues all over Ireland looking for quality work,” she says. “Children’s festivals are picking up all over the country. There is a real hunger for quality work for young audiences.” The Ark is unusual in so far as it produces its own work and curates international theatre. And it’s in the privileged position of being able to offer theatre-makers a beautiful, custom-designed building to work in.

It seems that one of the factors that’s holding the development of quality theatre back is the assumption that it must always be issue-led, an expectation that is a legacy of its leftist origins. Ahern points out the dangers of this model by referring to the UK, where theatre for young people in the 1980s was often led by funding opportunities rather than autonomous creative choices, with the result that it took a long time to win back independence for the art form.

“The work must be challenging in every way,” Ahern says, “and for that to happen theatre for young people should not be seen as entirely different to other kinds of theatre.” She claims that there’s a strong preconception among theatre-makers and audiences that theatre for young people is of little concern to them, when the truth is that good theatre is for everyone. The involvement of established, successful professionals, in particular, is exactly what is needed to invigorate the form. And more often than not, people just need to be asked.

In this respect, this year has been especially important for The Ark. Marina Carr’s The Giant Blue Hand premiered in March, directed by Selina Cartmell, designed by Monica Frawley, and featuring Catherine Walker and Don Wycherley. Carr is currently being commissioned to write a new play. Most recently, The Ark has announced the appointment of Louis Lovett as their first theatre-maker in residence. As part of the scheme, The Ark will produce the world premiere of The Girl who Forgot to Sing Badly in January 2010, in association with Theatre Lovett (run by Louis Lovett.) Written by Tasmanian writer Finegan Kruckemeyer, the show will be directed by Lynne Parker.

Lovett’s tenure will include a community outreach strand, a teacher-training module and an actor-training component. The latter is especially exciting in so far as it promises to dismantle a lot of the preconceptions about what it means to perform to young people – it’s not the same as jumping around the set like a Saturday morning television presenter - while also exploring specific skills to do with pitch and engagement.

Lovett is the perfect man for the job, being one of the few actors to move effortlessly between theatre for young people and adults, and this possibility needs to be recognised by the wider theatre community. Many actors are apprehensive about getting involved in similar work, as there’s an idea that it’s not “proper” theatre, and historically roles have often been filled by young actors. Increasingly, more established names have made links with The Ark. In addition to Carr, Cartmell and Parker, other artists to date have included to Jo Mangan, Veronica Coburn and John Banville. However, there is room for more highly skilled performers.

Theatre for young audiences is especially established in Northern Europe, and Denmark seems to be leading the way in terms of making quality work. Groups such as Carte Blanche, Teatret Møllen and Gruppe 38 have large followings, and some of the best do not even identify as being children’s theatre companies. This year, Gruppe 38 performed as part of the family programme of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, which The Ark co-curated, and its productions Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel and Hansel and Gretel proved to be hits with all age groups.

In 2008, Gruppe 38 was involved in setting up :DANISH+, a week-long showcase and conference for theatre representatives to experience the best of Danish performing arts for young people. Ahern has been invited to contribute to a panel that will specifically discuss the issue of quality. While there is often some great work on show in Denmark, Ahern maintains that we shouldn’t give ourselves such a hard time when making comparisons. Nonetheless, she points to the “cultural rucksack” provision model in Norway as being something Ireland might replicate, where every child is guaranteed five cultural experiences per year, one of which is theatre. While many children get to see some kind of theatre event in Ireland through schools, there is no guarantee that this will take place, or even that it will be good work. Also, there is plenty of room for more theatre for children under six.

A positive development in recent years has been Ireland’s involvement with ASSITEJ (Association International du Theatre pour l'Enfance et la Jeunesse), a global alliance of professional theatre for children and young people, established in 1965. The national centre in Ireland is TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences), which was reconstituted in 2007 after a number of years of dormancy. The purpose of the association is to represent and promote professional organisations and individual artists whose work focuses on engaging Irish children and young people through theatre. TYA Ireland provides a crucial link between members, the arts sector, and the wider 

Lali Morris, director of Baboró, also stresses that quality theatre for young audiences must be valued by the wider theatre community. She refers to the National Theatre of Scotland’s decision to select Neil Gaimen’s The Wolves in the Walls as its first major touring production, and suggests the value of the Abbey doing something similar in future.

This was the first year that a conference was held alongside the Baboró festival. According to Morris, the event revealed a hunger for more interaction between artists. “Many artists are out somewhere on their own working on ideas, dying for someone to talk to,” she says. “Teachers who love the arts want to have more knowledge about how to enrich their teaching through the arts, but they need training and help. Everyone wants to see more professional work for inspiration.” Morris also suggests the value of Irish companies working with international collectives, pointing out that Branar Theatre Company in Galway invited a director from Teater Refleksion, Denmark, to assist in the creation of their production, An Seanfhear Beag. While Morris acknowledges great work in Northern Europe, she also sees the Imaginate Festival in Scotland (launched in 2000, formerly the Scottish International Children’s Festival) as an equally inspirational model.

In an effort to forge more links within the industry, Baboró’s website will soon have forum pages open to all for the purposes of generating discussion and making connections within the sector. Morris is also hoping to connect with university research projects that will dive further into the arts and early years. The organisation also hopes to be able to take a small group of artists to see professional work at an international festival, as this exposure is crucial.

In his essay ‘The Dramatic Child’ Edward Bond claims that theatre can and should encourage young people to become “competent members of a critical culture”. Similarly, in ‘Notes on Theatre in Education’, he argues that “imagination changes reality… the plays young people write, act and watch are blueprints of the world they will have to live in.” At a time when the Irish arts sector is struggling to assert its value, Bond’s words remind us of the importance of keeping a close eye on theatre for young audiences too. Because it’s never really just about them, it’s about all of us.

Fintan Walsh is a Research Fellow at the School of Drama, Trinity College Dublin.



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