Columnist Drew Lane discusses two distinct, yet closely related issues: The Importance of Children’s Theatre and Children in Theatre.
We all know the saying, “Never work with children or animals.” What this statement boils down to is that both children and animals are unpredictable, and never completely easy to work with.
When presented with the opportunity to go and see children performing on stage, many would much rather eat their own arms. The same goes for theatre which is designed especially for children; unless you’re a parent, would you choose to see it?
Now, in my time as a performing arts teacher in a primary school, I’ve come to appreciate children in performance, and also be a campaigner for the importance of the performing arts in primary schools. I have taught primary school drama for more than twelve years, and in that time and it is my belief that we support theatre companies which cater for children, not just teens and adults.
There are obviously two sides to the ‘children in theatre’ coin: children as performers, and children seeing performances. It is vitally important that we support both endeavors.
Children On Stage
I was always a shy kid, but on the stage, I felt no one could enter the “world” that I was in. I was safe to pursue my dreams of performance.
As much as we often cringe at the idea of children performing on stage, it is in this environment where tomorrow’s stars are born. This is where they discover the love of song, dance, acting, lights and sound, and of theatre itself.
Children learn the basics of performance through doing, and without an audience in front of them, they cannot learn the power of performance and its impact on a viewer. Sure, the audiences are often their parents and friends, but isn’t that the safest environment to make their mistakes?
We expect the dropped lines, the bum notes, the uneven choreography, the late entries, the random cases of stage-fright; and we see the success that these up-and-coming performers can achieve. We are there to applaud them, encourage them and to see them grow as performers.
There is a quickly growing market of musicals that are written specifically for primary schools: Maverick Musicals, David Spicer Productions, Craig Christie, Musicline Publications, Bushfire Press, and even my own Captivation Musicals are all writing and producing material designed for children to perform.
These are productions which can be staged on a shoestring budget (complete with backing tracks), are often scripted deliberately to include as many characters as possible (or as many chorus members as possible!), giving teachers and directors the option for large cast productions. It’s about being inclusive, and exposing as many children as possible to the wonders and possibilities of theatre.
These show may not be direct from Broadway or the West End, probably don’t have any Top 40 hits, aren’t sung in auditions around the globe, and may not have the lyrical/story/musical depth that “adult” shows have. But that’s not the point. The point is to entertain and to allow children their moment in the spotlight. They are written for children, so that children can show you what they can do.
Children who participate in the Performing Arts grow in a range of ways, the first being in self-confidence. I often have parents come to me, amazed at what they have just seen their shy child do on stage. Children also learn public speaking skills and how to present to an audience. The ability to speak in public is a skill that is important, no matter which industry you are in. Further, sometimes children who are not sporty or particularly academic find they thrive in the arts. It’s wonderful to see them discover that they are good at something outside of the standard 3 R’s and sport.
There is unfortunately a great lack of theatre companies who are dedicated to nurturing and growing young talent. Yes, there are some schools and theatrical companies for children – Helen O’Grady and Bright Sparks in Melbourne, ATYP in Sydney, Young People’s Theatre, Newcastle – but for a nation with more than 4 million children under the age of 15, this is a sad indication as to the lack of support that the general public has towards children’s theatre.
What we need to do is encourage companies to invest in their own performing future, and that begins with the children. As the old song goes, “I believe that children are our future/Teach them well and let them lead the way…” It is completely short-sighted of us if we think that our present pool of adult talent will set up any company for the future. It won’t. All one needs to do is cast an eye towards reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance or Australia’s Got Talent to see that the next generation of performers are already knocking on the door. And we need to teach them well, and then let them lead.
Staging For Children
There are theatrical presentations that are designed to be performed to children. Recently, I went with my four year old son to seeScooby Doo Live – Musical Mysteries as presented by LifeLike Touring and the Entertainment Store. It was bright, colourful, fun and never too frightening. The songs were catchy and the performers first rate. The Wiggles are world-renowned for their stage presentations and are in their 20th year of touring and recording. They know their audience so well and they know exactly how to capture their imagination. Even my 19 month old twin boys love them and dance away in the car or in front of the TV.
Our plan is to take all three boys to see The Wiggles in concert in December. Every year, you can go along to your local shopping centre and see short single set productions of Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, and the like. Disney On Ice was also in Australia recently and presented Worlds Of Fantasy. Within schools, there is a myriad of performers who are looking to present an array of performances to school children via in-services. These presentations include from puppetry, duos, full live action productions, singing and dancing programs, African drumming, and more.
Many people do not see the value of these productions, and I am at a loss to why. At very least, it teaches children how to watch a theatrical show – where to sit, when to applaud, and to appreciate the skill and talent of the performers. It also offers an alternative to TV, Playstation and the movies! But more than that, it exposes children to the power and passion that the theatre can provide; the electricity of being in an audience when the music starts, the lights go down, and the action takes place – live, right in front of them! They can smell and feel the warmth of the lights, the smoke machine. More than 3D, live theatre is a completely immersive and interactive adventure. It’s real.
Finally, children seeing theatre encourages them to try it out for themselves. If they see the dancer, they may want to dance; the singer, to sing; the actor, to actor; the magician, to create magic… We must take responsibility as parents, as guardians of the future, as artistic people ourselves, to give children the opportunity to see what the arts can achieve. Once they see it and experience it themselves, that’s when they will want to seek it out themselves. Which leads us back to the need to have it in schools and have companies who are willing to take these fledgling performers on.
So, here’s the challenge: to make the arts as important in school as writing and reading and maths, and to make the children as important in a theatre company as every other member.
Until next time,
Blog ya later!
Scooby Doo Live – Image Courtesy of LifeLike Touring and the Entertainment Store