Theatre: Inspiring A Generation Or Oh, Happy Dane: Part The Second

April 15, 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, along with fellow South Africans Jayne Batzofin, Jenine Collacott, Thando Baliso) is generously sponsored by the Distell Foundation and the Danish Arts Council.

Week 2 – Holstebro

Every year, for a week, 150 theatre companies descend on a Danish town to sell theatre to teachers and community buyers. All of these 150 professional theatre companies are dedicated to making work for children and young people – in a country of only 5.5 million. The mind boggles. Many of these companies bring more than one show. During the week, local schools are treated to performances on their premises. (These are not generally open to the public but international guests are allowed to tag along) On the weekend the performances are centralised and opened to the public. For free. The following week, bookings open for the season. I want one of these at home! Can you imagine? Being booked up for the year after performing at one place?

Over seven days I managed to watch 34 shows. There was a dance piece about the mysteries of the universe; a meditation on sound, music and apples for under-fives; a physical comedy about family and conscience and ghosts at sea; and puppetry and black theatre combined to make you cry. Such immense variety – detailed, high quality, immensely focused work, all for children and young people. The discussion in our group keeps coming back to this – what makes a work “for children”? These companies show that it doesn’t have to be light, or traditional, or over-simplified, or brightly coloured, or educational or indeed involve condescension of any kind. Great theatre that is deeply respectful of its audience can be made for any age – to entertain, to edify, to explore. I am so inspired, And overwhelmed to the point of wanting to give up. And then inspired again.

Some things I’m taking with me are:

1. Controlling context – most shows begin with the performers greeting the audience at the door with a confident, uncharacterised, welcoming energy. The seating has been specifically arranged according to the needs of sightlines and age groups. The performers check that everybody is comfortable, look at each other, and then begin the show. It’s the best application of Brechtian actors standing outside of their characters that I’ve seen. Welcoming the audience in makes so much sense in a school environment – rather than hiding behind the curtains while teachers shout at learners to “behave”. The intended energy of the show and the relationship with the audience can begin from the earliest possible moment.

2. Performance requirements – almost all the actors can play an instrument or do acrobatics or perform magic tricks. All have a focus and ability to work with objects that reminds me of the principles of clowning and puppetry. From conversations we’ve had with a number of companies, it seems that many works are devised. I think that for this kind of work one is looking for a special kind of person, rather than a technically skilled actor; a person with an ability to work through improvisation and to bring a variety of skills to the floor. There is also an amazing sense of respect on the stage – both for the audience and for fellow performers. I can’t quite explain how vivid this is. In theatre I’ve seen before, I’ve never thought about whether performers respected each other, but it’s so visible in these productions. Again, this makes so much sense when performing for the young; to model a way of treating fellow human beings.

3. Magic in mechanics: instead of hiding backstage, performers enter their characters in front of your eyes, showing the miracle of transformation. Many shows featured the making of things – putting together a string and a stick in such a way that a musical instrument is born. Opening and closing boxes, turning lights on and off, experimenting with the mechanics of bodies and objects – it is a revelation to me that there is as much magic in the actual mechanics of things as in illusion. Possibly more…

We have also attended international talks and dinners. We’ve learnt how to say “Skol!” (“Cheers”) and a few drinking songs besides. Oh, and got to see a performance directed by Eugenio Barba at the Odin Theatre! We’ve been bussed off to a shipwreck museum and the windy coast of the North Sea. The hospitality is absolutely amazing. They keep feeding us! Opening of the festival – with snacks; informal international dinner; formal international dinner; daily lunches and a farewell meal. We are beyond gratitude at this point. I keep wondering how well we will do when the Danes visit Grahamstown in July.

I’ve had at least five ideas for plays this week. Which is unheard of for me. I am looking forward to going home now. Sitting quietly in a corner with some Rooibos, my dog at my feet and my notebook in front of me, sorting through all the ideas and images of this insane week and trying to figure out what theatre I am going to make, in my context, for the children and young people of my country.