by Mihaela MICHAILOV
Each time I write an article dedicated to the theatre for children and teenagers, I inevitably ask myself a few questions: whose is the theatre addressing the youths? does it take into consideration the structural changes of childhood? does it know its children and teens? how aware is this theatre of the fundamental role it could take in forming the children and teens, in the spirit of attachment to emancipatory, liberating stories? how eager is this theatre to diversify the children’s experiential horizon, to deconstruct the stereotypes they borrow, to show them the possibility of change they could generate for themselves, to confront them with uncomfortable realities, to pay attention to their realities? To what extent does the children’s theatre take itself seriously and takes the children seriously? And from here, of course, the adequacy questions: which children does it address? from which perspective? from which position? confirming which of their expectations? deconstructing what kind of clichés? bringing them closer to what kind of language? Answers to the recurrent “which”/ “what kind of” questions identify the theatre experience. How does the children’s theatre integrate or oppose the tactile and visual abundance marking the children’s everyday lives? How does it detach them from the screen? How does it generate the kind of experience that embeds the need to be repeated? And how does it generate the parents’ desire to “risks a different narrative” which does not fit the well-known repertoire, which does not consume Snow Whites, Charming Princes, … on an endless loop? a narrative that destabilizes the tranquillity of the well-known story? The children’s theatre is, somehow, the theatre for parents. For those parents who choose, most of the times, the stories of their own childhood.
The theatre for children younger than 9 years of age often falls into the trap of infantilizing the child, automatically followed by the play’s formal and content falling into cliché. Focusing mostly on the excessive and easy entertainment, considered to be the main attraction keeping the child glued to the chair, harms the child’s intelligence, on one side, and her/his emancipation, on the other side. The idea is not to remove or depreciate what’s entertaining, otherwise an extremely important component in the structure of children plays. The idea is to wrap this component into a build-up that would incline children towards profound reflection. A reflection and a socially engaged attitude towards the world around them, stimulating their curiosity for the invisible around the visible and their profoundly personal position towards everything they see. The theatre is able to cultivate the empathic emotional engagement – scarcely present in today’s competitive pedagogy. The theatre is able to emancipate emotions and to set an encouraging order. The theatre explores the understanding of the Other’s existence as the fundamental base for understanding the world around. This understanding is mediated by revealing experiences, through which the child grows open towards everything that’s not like her/him, towards everything situated in contexts of differentiating specificities. The theatre is the sum of possible experiences and encounters which the child could test in a safe environment, in order to later expand in diverse existential contexts. The theatre opens the possibility of nuancing, refining, and framing certain positions, of constructing stories in which the heroines and heroes, the fairies and princes, usually caught up in power struggles, suddenly modify their hitherto inflexible territories of authority and transform themselves into activators of struggles for solidarity, social justice, and equal rights. The highest stake of the children’s theatre is, on one hand, the construction of “narratives of otherness” and, on the other hand, the representation of narratives unsubordinated to prefabricated realities. The narratives of otherness balance and refine the perspective from which the child tells stories and is taught to give verdicts, thus it does not turn into her/his unique and narrow perspective, and help the child to permanently alternate perspectives broadening her/his understanding and confronting her/him with different realities. The more the child sees things she/he does not actually live, the more she/he will learn to live more open and empathically, fictionally training for diverse life experiences. The theatre thus becomes an alternative experiential manual, diversifying the child’s encounters with realities, emotions, sensations, with which she/he actively interacts by wondering “what if”. The theatre widens the empathy horizon and dedicates a very special role to the interaction between the child and the world she/he lives in. The child can thus acknowledge and understand everything that she/he does not live first hand, building up a pool of connections to new experiences.
In her article “Why Children’s Theatre Matters”, published in 2013 in The Guardian (www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2013/oct/23/why-childrens-theatre-matters), Lyn Gardner, the well known author of theatre reviews, critically discusses the ignorant and restrictive view of those who consider the children’s theatre not worth being reviewed, because something meant for and created for children can’t have the same value as a play by Tom Stoppard or as King Lear. The author regards this kind of approach to be revealing of the programmed contempt the children’s theatre has always faced: considered to be a minor genre, unrepresentative, unworthy of attention due to its lack of depth, unable to develop relevant subjects and topics addressing a wide audience. Approached through this narrow paradigm – as superficial and lacking substance – the children’s theatre is pushed at the periphery of the significant and “heavy” theatre, the theatre of the big questions and of the reflections upon human evolution. The theatre for children and teens is usually seen as merely touching the lift of the heel of the really important art theatre, the one for adult and smart people who know all about life and destiny. Despite tens of examples contradicting the peripheral positioning of the theatre for youth – valuable plays proving this genre’s significance and its multiple meanings for diverse public categories – the contempt against the theatre for youth persists. To cite only one recent example – the play produced by Deutches Theater in Berlin – Tschick, the staging of the novel Tschick written by Wolfgang Herrndorf, novel with record sales in Germany; in 2016, Tschick was praised as one of the most important and necessary plays created by Deutches Theater.
Returning to Lyn Gardner’s article, the author argues: “Just as children’s literature of the last 15 years has flourished, so theatre for young people has often not just matched theatre for adult audiences but often surpassed it”. From her experience as a respected reviewer, Gardner speaks about the permanent struggle with the chief-editors, trying to convince them of the importance of reviewing children plays. Each time, their arguments against it were more or less the same: nobody would read the review, the theatre for youths is not an important genre, reviews of “serious” plays would have bigger impact etc. The meagre press coverage of the theatre for children and teens is symptomatic for the marginalization of this genre, considered to be an insignificant “playground”. The lack of reviews really matters, says the author, as what’s featured by the press somehow automatically becomes appreciated, worthy of attention, legitimated. Contempt for the children’s theatre becomes synonymous to contempt for the children’s experiences, for the immense potential their creativity and sensitivity have in constructing new possible worlds. When we refuse to hear the children’s voices we actually refuse to hear the distinctive voice of transformations taking place in our proximity. Transformations created in the laboratory of all possible experiences, in that theatre ready to prepare the children for tomorrow’s revolutions.