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Young People and the Arts: An Agenda for Change

"concern for safety masks control"

Theatre has the potential to move but in children's theatre a crying child is not seen as a mark of success but a problem to be faced, says Sue Giles.

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Can we consider the child a cultural citizen?

Date: 1 Feb 2018

In the just-published Currency House Platform Paper No.54, Sue Giles, Artistic Director and co-CEO of Melbourne’s Polyglot Theatre, calls for a review of attitudes regarding theatre for children.

We reprint an edited extract from Sue’s paper (with permission).

“What is it that makes a children’s work for theatre?

The arguments about this definition are had at every festival in every country, in every rehearsal room around the world.

There is a school of thought that says children’s theatre must have a particular aesthetic: colour and movement, slapstick, happy endings, simple story lines, engaging characters, costumes and songs. Blockbuster touring works like Disney on Ice, but also home grown works like Wiggles in Concert or High5, fulfil this brief and are considered purely entertainment for children and families. Distraction is central to this form of entertainment and it’s for this reason that ‘entertainment’ is seen as distinct from Art.

But entertainment is not a bad word. Respect for the audience as a discerning, sensitive, courageous and intelligent one, demands a high degree of rigour and thought in the construction of a work and you can certainly do this in entertaining ways. Highly entertaining Australian company The Listies have conquered children’s comedy through deep respect for their audience, with a focus on the subversion of the adult desire for control with hilarious results. Entertainment is valuable in partnership with the development of strong concepts, interesting form, deep issues, exciting exploration and experimentation; and belongs, rightly, to the youngest of us.

Denmark’s Teatercentrum proudly announces: ‘No topics are taboo: from harassment, paedophilia, death and destruction to every-day-life, friendship, absurdities and pure comedies.’ Do we feel in Australia that we are barred from such confidence in content?

In Denmark the culture of theatre-going is so well developed that the expectations have shifted accordingly. Their companies and artists attack ugly issues with flair and the population has confidence in children to be able to receive strong works of theatre.

In Cameroon I saw a play that portrayed child slavery – a real, living problem in that country. The artists asked the child audience if they would shout, and if they would shout in real life, in their own streets, if they saw this happening?

The child audience shouted, ‘YES’ and wanted to storm outside immediately. The artists asked this, knowing that those with no power to stop the brutality of those stronger than themselves, could still use their voices to attract attention.

In South Africa, a show for children played out the rape of a young girl on stage and later the abuse of her baby. Really tough stuff played in ways that disturbed but held its audience with compelling staging and the united hope that the girl in the story would prevail. These artists ask their audiences of both children and adults to discuss what they’ve seen and share their fury.

A discussion with theatre makers at one international forum centred on the ‘happy ending’. This is a highly contentious issue across the world: some German artists saw no reason for happy endings, some Brazilian artists protested the opposite: that their children led such troubled lives, why should they deal with sadness on the stage?

In many countries in Asia artists prefer cheerful, upbeat performance that protects the child and offers beauty and the aesthetics around design and style, reflected in marketing and merchandise.

In Australia we definitely favour the happy ending. We’re not afraid to explore some trouble along the way but we like things to end well. Hope is one of the qualities consistent in theatre for young audiences. Even that devastating play in South Africa, with all the pain and grief that never went away, ended with faith in the resilience of human capacity to be happy.

Much of the content for children in Australia currently centres on interpersonal relationships: ideas of friendship, bullying, confidence in self, difference and acceptance. The connection made between education and the arts over the years has had the added effect of pigeonholing the work created for children as having primarily an educative purpose.

In Platform Paper 41 Meg Upton and Naomi Edwards investigate the role of major theatres, where art for children and young people is framed as education, and rarely a valued part of the strategic planning of these organisations. Many in the sector struggle with this educational frame as it often overshadows the work done in other contexts.

At the Growing Audiences: Engaging Children and Families summit in Melbourne in November 2017, the panel was given the provocation ‘Why Bother?’ What bothers me is that people are still asking that question, that the benefit for the child is its own development, is still claimed as the strongest reason to engage them.

When great art is framed as essential learning rather than as an artistic experience, valued for itself, it makes for more divisions in the adult mind about why they should be bringing their young ones to the arts.

High risk and risk averse

The consistent exploration, rigour, involvement in new mediums, experimentation, is not matched with recognition or interest—motivation to continue to explore is not supported in meaningful ways. – Susan Ritcher and Judith McLean, Lowdown, 2003.

In 2012, Arts Centre Melbourne presented a Polyglot work called How High the Sky; a work for babies and infants. This was not the first baby show ever created in Australia (Sally Chance’s work is (Baby) Life led the way in dance) but it was a large-scale work with high production values for a small number of participating adult/child couples.

The idea of making a work for babies needed a lot of explanation. The current conversation around baby theatre was, ‘Why make a show for babies? They’re just as interested in watching flies crawl up a wall.’ The work told us much more than that babies respond to theatre and drama; what this work, and the forum around it, did was open up a conversation about the cultural rights of the youngest human and about the purpose and nature of theatre.

The revelations in the work were for the watching adult audience: a reawakened awareness that these infants were people – first and foremost. Not playthings, or appendages but people, with choices, opinions and tastes all of their own. Now, when people ask why, the answer can be simply, ‘Why not?’

Very often children’s work does not make box office sense. Intimate works and installation works have limited numbers’ capacity, complex bump-ins and as much expense in the production as adult theatre. The presenter needs to want the work because of other reasons – interest, quality, a desire to stretch their audience’s expectations or and a new audience. The common survival model for presenters is to program a popular, quick-selling show and apply the profit to subsidise more innovative work. This also works as a business model for many TYA companies who build on the success of a popular book adaptation to support their braver, riskier (read ‘original’) works.

But alongside the market-driven aversion to risk, there are other things that affect risk taking. The notion of appropriate works for children, for instance.

What adults deem appropriate is highly contested and sometimes comes down to individual opinion. With such subjective gatekeeping, there can be no ground rules. The parental voice is strident and heard by councils and other decision-makers. One complaint and the work will never be seen again. The results are visible to an extraordinary degree in the USA where moral judgement is the arbiter of what is good for children. There must be no nuance or subtext. Children are to be led firmly and kindly down a clear path so there is no straying or danger; concern for safety masks control.

Australian audiences offer a similarly selective set of barriers. Teachers especially have concerns driven by fear of what others might say but also a tendency to underestimate the discernment of the young audience; even a group of teens who certainly have more going on for them than public or parental opinion would like to admit.

Our theatre makers’ own underestimation of our audience is also one of the ways in which the work created becomes bland, safe, light.

Children and young people are capable of much more than many around them expect. One of the huge problems we are facing in our own lives, at a time when news of horror invades in continuous flow through our technology, is our decreasing capacity for empathy and inability to cope with sadness.

Theatre has the potential to upset, to move emotions; but a crying child is not seen as a mark of success but a problem to be faced. The vulnerability of young audiences is front and centre in adult thinking. Rather than making sure the work is done to frame and scaffold strong concepts and use form to enable understanding, this assumption can make work created for them bland and meaningless.

When attending Richard Tulloch’s The Book of Everything, I found at the conclusion the child sitting next to me was sobbing, deeply moved by the scenario on stage. Had she been traumatised in some way that needed attention? Or had she experienced something wonderful that she would remember forever?

Either way, I maintain that the child knew full well that this was make-believe and was able to lose herself in the temporary world before her. Children can take a strong concept on the chin. The adult role might be to engage in conversation after the play and enjoy the discussion that results.

Choices in programming, in what we make as artists, are all too often weighed against what will sell.

The commercial landscape is full of the easily recognisable and formulaic and children are invaluable as consumer targets. There is a huge irony here. Children are powerless as agents to choose their own theatre consumption but they have immense pulling power in the marketplace, power that plays on their recognition of the familiar.

An increasingly aware world has opened up a massive market, with specialised products and entire economies built around them. What girl in her senses would strive against the Angelina Ballerina cult? What boy can resist Bob the Builder (and what gender binaries are we perpetuating)? Who will risk the money it costs for tickets for three kids to something unfamiliar?”

Sue Giles will speak at the launch of Platform Paper #54 at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, February 2.

The panel includes Mary Harvey (Arts Centre Melbourne), Julianne O’Brien (Writer/Dramaturg), Jennifer Anderson (Artplay), Sara Strachan (Independent – Youth Arts) and Matt Kelly of The Listies.

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