by Mihaela Michailov
Two years ago, after a performance I saw at the Țăndărică Theater, a little boy told his mother: “I’ve seen this show before”. His mother asked: “Did granny take you?”. “No”, said the little boy. “Did the school take you?” “No”. “Then you couldn’t have seen it”. “But I did”, the boy insisted. “Who did you see it with?” “With you”. Slightly confused, his mother said: “You couldn’t have seen it with me”. “Yes, I saw it last week”. “No, last week we saw something different”. After a couple of seconds, the boy said: “This was the same show from last week, from two weeks ago and the week before that…” Then the boy stopped.
Multiplying a type of performance which remains roughly the same, regardless of the main narrative, seals off the child’s imaginary. The child sees what he/she has already seen before and becomes the prisoner of a construct of confirmation of well-known stories, which limits his/her possibilities of understanding his/her life experiences. Instead of broadening these experiences, children learn to recognize patterns and types. In Romania, children’s theater privileges heritage stories, passed down from generation to generation. Such stories keep childhood inside a closed circuit of narrative figures: Snow White, the prince, the princess, the ogre etc. and protect children’s imagination instead of provoking it. For the most part, children’s theaters recycle fairytales, preserving the authority of the sleeping beauties and enchanted horses. The problem is that in many repertoires, they represent the only narrative path. The child won’t “risk” his/her imagination for fear of not being able to come up with characters like Little Red Riding Hood, Alice, the wolf, the three little pigs. Recently, during a workshop with children at the Azuga Summer School, a little girl told me: “Once upon a time there was a piglet. That’s how a real story starts”. This “real” restricts the freedom of fantasy and allows for a limited frame of expression for stories depicting children’s current realities. Children’s theater does not so much belong to the children as it does to the grown-ups. It is not conceptualized with the children’s help, it doesn’t build on their desires, their knowledge, their daily experience.
Responsibility for all audiences
There are few theaters which put together their repertoires after knowing their audiences: “Ariel Theater in Târgu-Mureș/Marosvásárhely aims to design and stage performances and cultural projects for young audiences in Romanian and Hungarian. Our position implies a regional cultural responsibility (the counties of Mureș, Harghita, Covasna and Bistrița) and we consider our audiences not just according to age (grouped 0-3, 4-6, 6-12, 12-16, 16-25 years-old), but also according to cultural, educational, social and medical criteria. The responsibility towards all audiences is the defining mission of the theater, which aims to personalize its relation with each spectator in order to adapt performances and projects to the needs of the community. Ariel Theater belongs to all children and teenagers. It is essential to get to know different kinds of audiences: children with special needs, children from underprivileged environments (lacking a stable family), homeless children etc. For each of these audiences, it is necessary to develop specific projects. As long as each of them can relate to the performances and projects aimed at them, the theater is alive and can legitimately claim to belong to the community. Children relate to it as a place of their own, where their opinion matters, where they can meet others like them and even their own selves.” (Gavril Cadariu, Ariel Theater manager)
A theater without an audience
Theater for adults emphasizes decent, predictable behavior, whereas children’s theater favors immediate reaction. Fortunately, children are not a “nice” audience, sitting comfortably in their seats and turning into static viewers. Children interrupt the order of the story and question it: “Why is Nemo crying? Where’s the whale going?”. From this point of view, children’s theater is a theater without an audience – that is, without any viewers sitting and waiting for the fiction to engulf them. Children invade the fiction and dismantle it as if it were a mechanism which only existed if questioned. In children’s theater, their relation to fiction is one of direct intervention. Children are among the few living communication coaches in contemporary theater, the only ones who provoke the theater to take their actions into account. They never remain outside the story.