Recently, I caught up with several students from the course (Terri Cochrane, Dara Flaws, Georgia May, Gemma Revell, Saffron Troughton, and Nicole Top-Annan) as well as director and researcher Kerryn Palmer. I sought to unpack their intentions and processes further, looking at their aim to break past the form’s stereotypes, their process and the steps involved, and how important they believe theatre is to our young people.
Palmer and her students have been creating their work in conjunction with The Paperboats, a resource and set of devising principles created by Theatre for Young Audiences’ director and practitioner Dave Brown. Palmer explained to me that Brown wanted to create a sharing a of ideas, resources, and theatre for young people for anyone across the globe. In addition to her group at Victoria University of Wellington, students from universities in Texas, Adelaide, and Singapore have partaken in the initiative, performing their works earlier this year. All groups begin with the same core idea, ‘twoness’, and use this core idea to help create their work. As the students have seen the works the other groups have created, Palmer remarked how different what everyone was creating seemed, showing how a single idea can bloom into a garden. As part of the project, other groups used receipt paper to create all the props they used. Palmer and her students opted for recyclable cardboard and paper, since her students wanted to ensure everything they used for the productions could be recycled, just like the ideas.
Their media release opens with explaining these students “strive to break stereotypes of Children’s Theatre”, and so, I wanted to know more about what kind of stereotypes exist within Theatre for Young Audiences and what these stereotypes mean for the industry. Bright colours, loudness, pantomimes, audience interaction, and adult performers putting on funny voices or movements to act as children are common examples of stereotypes in Children’s Theatre the students and their director identified. Palmer suggested that while these stereotypes aren’t necessarily ‘bad’, there’s more to theatre for our young people: “we assume that, for example, fairy tales are good narratives for children, and I want to challenge that”. Moonlight and In the Attic are more about widening the options, providing a different meal for young ones to consume. Producing theatre with these stereotypes doesn’t inherently make bad theatre, but Palmer and her team want to show they can create quality, entertaining theatre for young people without relying on these stereotypes.
The students explored the differences between ‘adult’ and ‘children’ audiences and theatre early on in their process, and that they found some Children’s Theatre, from their personal experiences, talked down to their audiences. “Kids are smarter than we sometimes give them credit,” Cochrane added, and so the students ascertained that the most logical way to avoid this is to ask the kids themselves what they want to see, rather than creating the work around what they think the kids want to see. Revell remarked that some the kids weren’t used to some common theatre conventions, which sometimes emerged questions around how the team could make these choices clearer and more digestible for their young audiences. She said, “they took issue with how we’d pop out of different places on stage, rather than just coming on the same way we left,” and noted that sometimes, this meant the students needed to go back a few steps and think about how they could make their choices clearer.
When I asked the students about how they had found this process, and the devising process more generally, they expressed difficulties I recall from my experiences with devising: you need to be willing to let anything go at any time in the process for the betterment of the work. It’s difficult to let go of ideas you’ve gestated and nurtured throughout the process, but the students explained they gradually grew aware that when this had to happen, it wasn’t about them or their ideas, but rather it was about the shows themselves and what ideas best supported them. May expressed how it took a while for everyone to get to that stage, but mentioned the process has been “incredibly rewarding,” extending to say the experience wouldn’t be the same or as emboldening if it were easy. Many of the ideas, skits, and games the class has come up with and played throughout the process have been recorded and documented for reference. Revell acknowledged this as a useful devising tool, stating how it allowed the class to look back on what they had worked on or thought about previously, and see the growth of themselves and their work in stages. It’s great to see the students are aware of the challenges they’ve faced and that have the capacity to reflect on these, providing useful know-how for when the create future devised work.
Both the students and Palmer expressed a major goal behind these projects being to show kids how great theatre can be. Palmer reflected on her experiences as a practitioner, suggesting that some might take Theatre for Young Audiences less seriously: “that’s what I want to change with my research,” she continued, “theatre for our young people is no less important than theatre for anyone else”. Her students reminisced on their experiences with theatre from young ages, and how they shared Palmer’s vision in attempting to create a culture within our young people where theatre is something they’re more aware of and something they can express themselves with.
The children, the students said, held a large part in shaping what it was the class created. During the early stages of their process, the students went into schools and played drama games with school children. In addition, the students asked the kids questions about the kind of theatre they wanted to see. The students said this was an important step, as it prevented the class from simply assuming what children want to see. The kids they worked with and showed their work to then began to think more about theatre; Troughton remarked that several of the young school boys thought it was cool to see older boys perform and enjoy theatre, and that it started to change their perception of what theatre is and who can be involved in it. By involving the school kids in this process, Palmer and her students believe they and future practitioners can help build a theatre culture from a young age.
Moonlight is “transformative”, said Flaws and Top-Annan; it’s a young girl’s journey through the darkness to overcome her fears. The pair recited a quote the students have been using to describe the piece, which they say came to fruition through their discussions with kids about “When the light goes out, imagination lights the way”. With their explanation, I’m reminded of how the shadows of tree branches would creep through my bedroom windows at night as a kid. I hope Luna, the young girl at the centre of Moonlight’s story, can conquer her fears on her journey through a night-light-ness night. Moonlight comes recommended to children aged between four and eight.
In the Attic, another story involving discovery and imagination, tells the tale of three children and their journey through a mysterious portal they find in an attic. Through the portal, they are transported to the world of OWT, “a world where two is better than one,” Revell described. Yet, what happens when they want to go home? The cast will take its audience on a journey to this new world, where the characters not only discover this newfound world, but things about themselves, too. The cast recommends In the Attic to kids aged eight or above.
Moonlight and In the Attic are both showing from Wednesday 11 October until Saturday 14 October up at Victoria University of Wellington’s Studio 77 Theatre. There are day, afternoon, and evening showings of both productions, and they promise a fun, engaging time for kids and adults alike. Please visit the Eventfinda website for ticketing information and show times: here for Moonlight and here for In the Attic.