Theatre: Inspiring A Generation Or Oh, Happy Dane

April 14, 2014



Background Info: ASSITEJ South Africa is the national network of ASSITEJ (Association International du Theatre pour l’Enfance et la Jeunesse/ The International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People). It is a global alliance linking thousands of theatres, organisations and individuals in more than 85 countries, working in the field of theatre for children and young people. It was established in 1965, and currently has its office in Zagreb, Croatia. ASSITEJ aims to promote and foster high quality theatre for young people, to raise standards within the industry, to increase access and awareness, to be an advocate for the right of every child to arts education in schools, and to build relationships within the sector locally, nationally, across the continent and globally.

Inspiring A Generation is an ASSITEJ SA and Theatre Arts Admin Collective initiative that aims to inspire theatre practitioners to make innovative, cutting edge theatre for children in South Africa. Building a new generation of artists working in theatre for children and young people will create a generation of children and young people who love and are inspired by theatre. The 2014/2015 programme (of which I am a part) is generously sponsored by the Distell Foundation and the Danish Arts Council.

Week 1 – Copenhagen

Copenhagen is beautiful and the Danes are shockingly hospitable. Danish is an almost entirely un-pronouncable language. The spelling and rules around silent letters are worse than English. Luckily, with only 5.5 million Danes in the whole country and therefore only 5.5 million people in the world who speak this language, most Danes speak pretty good English, and probably a few other European languages as well. “Hello” and “Goodbye” are covered by saying “Hi” and we’ve learnt to say “Tak” which means “Thank you”.

Jayne Batzofin, Jenine Collacott, Thando Baliso and I have been put up in a lovely apartment in the centre of Copenhagen. Design aesthetic seems to be part of life in this city. Wood laminate flooring, low furniture, high white walls and big windows are the norm. Public transport and WiFi are easily accessible everywhere. We are being hosted by three theatre companies who make work solely for children and young people.

Batida is a large company with about 11 members, none of whom received formal acting training but all of who can play an instrument – or five. They own a building that acts as theatre, rehearsal, storage and office space. Most of them seem to live in the countryside just outside of Copenhagen. We were invited to dinner at a castle-like commune on a lake where we met some of the central members. Soren, his wife Trina and their friend Karen all went to music school together over 30 years ago. Soren and Trina’s son, Louis, takes care of company logistics and admin. He met his wife, Denai, on a Batida tour to Cuba. The story is very romantic. She now acts with the company. Batida tours the world, performing in schools and taking part in large street performances.

Patrasket is a small company of three actors who studied at the Le Coq School in Denmark 20 years ago. Further performers and administrators are hired in when necessary. The company rents office space at Forsøgsstationen, a co-op type of set up encouraging the development of more experimental shows. Patrasket stores their sets in a rented facility just outside of the city. The two shows I saw were quite intimate and dealt with quite psychological themes like dreams and secrets. I was impressed at the way they included technical necessities like lights into the set design and scene action. They introduced me to the concept of “scenography” – their word for set design. Scenographers are an integral part of most productions in Denmark, getting three months full time salary and attending most rehearsals for any new show. Patrasket also introduced me to the wonderful technology of remote operating! Actors have little one-button remote controls in their pockets, and when the lights or music need to change they simply press the button on cue and the pre-programmed state is triggered. Apparently the software and technology should be pretty simple and affordable to access in South Africa – it is only the transformer box (or something; I am not a gadget geek) that needs to be bought – for about R10 000. This little invention makes so much sense for a touring theatre company, as you can remove the cost of a touring technical operator.

Zebu is a surprisingly small company. They get a lot of funding and have two large spaces – one is a fully equipped theatre for young audiences, including foyer and coffee bar, the other is a large rehearsal venue with office space. The core members are two creative directors, an administrator and a technician. All performers are hired in as per the requirements of each show. They do all kinds of different shows and styles for different ages and bring in other companies for performances at their theatre.

All three companies are funded. We didn’t meet any companies that didn’t receive at least some funding from the Danish Arts Council or other governmental or cultural institutions. All have a repertoire of shows to perform at schools. Schools pay 50% of the performance fee; the government pays the other 50% (on top of the funding they may already have given any company). All companies take everything to a school – lights, rigging, sound systems, etc. The school only has to provide a relatively clear space and black out materials appropriate to that space. All three companies have large branded vans for touring (some more than one) provided by government. All three companies fed us lunch at some point and it was always dark, grainy (yummy) bread with herring, eggs and salads.

Taxes are high but cover free education and health and performers can claim unemployment during the months of the year that they are not performing. So even actors can live in lovely houses in the countryside and have children. The Danes believe that it is healthy for children to sleep outside, so outside most coffee shops one finds a collection of prams, with tiny babies in them, while their mothers sit inside! Jayne, Jenine, Thando and I cannot get over this. We also can’t get over the sense of camaraderie between companies – the fact that they compete for funding and school bookings doesn’t stop them from collaborating or sharing information. People even marry people from other companies!

All of the companies have been preparing for next week’s April Festival in Holstebro – where around 150 companies will bring theatre for children and youth to one city for teachers and theatre buyers to see and book for the year.

I can’t help thinking about a slogan I saw on our way into the airport: “Denmark – Home to the Happiest People in the World”. Isn’t it interesting that they are also the country with the most theatre companies making work for young people?