Theatre of the future
Why performers must learn the language of young people to reach new audiences
As the plane touched down on the runway in Seattle, the baby in the seat behind me surprised us all by breaking into peals of laughter.
Was his laughter accidental? Or do parents in this new millennium bring up their children differently, assiduously communicating with them from the moment of birth?
This infant, I thought, could conceivably be a member of a theatre audience two decades from now. And it is the theatregoers of the future, of course, who will determine the future shape of theatre. Which is why those of us who are active in the performance field need to figure out what young audiences think and what works best for them. I know I have a lot to learn in this respect.
Giant Magnet is a US-based, non-profit organisation whose goal is to present “global performing arts which engage the imagination and inspire audiences of all ages to discover, explore and learn”. I had flown to Seattle to participate in the One Theatre World Conference held from May 12 to 16 to mark Giant Magnet’s 25th anniversary. Also organised as part of the same celebration was an international children’s festival with music, dance, puppetry, circus arts and theatrical performances put on by companies from as far apart as China, Ecuador, India, Scotland, Australia and the US. The conference included talks, workshops and a host of networking opportunities for those of us involved in theatre for young people. The exchanges and interactions I had with artists and performers from around the world got me thinking about the nature of potential new audiences for theatre and new ways of reaching them.
How to stage effective, imaginative performances was one of the major questions we conference delegates tried to answer. There is no one way, of course, but learning how the Seattle Children’s Theatre intended to stage Crockett Johnson’s incredible Harold and the Purple Crayon, I saw the value of mixed media. Budget limitations and the public’s high expectations via-a-vis special effects were two big hurdles that had to be overcome. Not being able to afford CGI or other elaborate technology, the theatre company decided to resort to a mixed form of communicating: a blend of projected images (both still and moving), puppets and human performers plus a strong soundscape designed to move youthful audiences.
For whom are performances staged and how can we reach potential audience? During a workshop discussion of this topic we agreed that the future of theatre for young people is not all sweetness and light; that it’s no longer enough to have a straightforward plot delivered by actors who do what the director wants them to do. Audiences these days want non-linear plots, magical moments and lots of new experiences.
When I interviewed Tim Webb, director of London’s Oily Cart Company and a keynote speaker at the conference, I wanted to learn more about the work he’s been doing for two decades now with pre-schoolers, with young people who have special needs and, more recently, with infants and their parents. He said that what he, as an artist, seeks to achieve above all else is multi-sensory communication. Deploying every aesthetic trick in the performer’s book, Webb said he aims to create pieces that include the audience, that allow them to interact and open up to a world beyond that which they are used to experiencing. He wants the members of an audience _ whether they are autistic kids or babies or children with inoperable cancer _ to expand their boundaries of living to more than just what their ears can hear or their eyes can see. Very young babies, he noted, get involved via visuals, movement, sound and interaction such as the beating of drums. Music, sign language and other non-verbal forms, gestures and touch all contribute to the fuller sense of communication which he aims to achieve.
So can they understand what’s going on?
Are they involved and engaged and focused on the proceedings?
This kind of theatre works in the boundary between therapy, education, art and health care. Theatre practitioners, and the people who fund productions, might have to expand their ideas of what theatre is and who it is intended for so that they can open themselves up to what is unfamiliar and out of the ordinary, rather than just repeat what they know best and have done many times before.
Among the most compelling performances at the festival was one by mature storytellers from the Australian state of Tasmania dealing with death and loss; a traditional Chinese puppet troupe from Guangdong; and a hot, participatory piece of Asian hip-hop by ethnic-Punjabi dancers from London decked out in traditional costumes and accompanied by a “tiger-style” drummer. The latter performance went down particularly well, I noticed, with middle-school students (boys and girls alike), many of whom left their seats to join in, screaming and jumping onto the stage to dance with the band. Witnessing this, theatre practitioners such as myself need to ponder questions such as: Where does this energy come from? How can we tap into it and get young people excited about a performance? How can we involve the next generation of theatre-goers by using the arts _ in familiar or in re-mixed ways _ to engage them with references from the worlds they are part of, rather than presenting them with musty museum pieces? What, apart from Punjabi dance or rap, will make them want to join in so joyfully with their bodies and hearts and voices?
A final conference session that was especially important and fascinating for me was led by “futurist” Gary Gordon. He told us that he found it hard to communicate with the greying, baby-boomer artists who comprise the first and second generations of youth-theatre professionals; they claim, he noted, that their values can teach and reach children. Gordon suggested that new technologies familiar to today’s kids _ like the iPhone and iPad apps _ help them communicate and network with a wide array of people outside the traditional bases of home and school. He suggested that skateboard parks, coffee shops and other gathering points _ many of which offer wi-fi connections _ are places where young people use music, activities and their own imagination to create and share art with others.
So perhaps the crucial thing might be to create more opportunities for young people to do things together, like the cover dancing we see them engaged in at MBK and Central World. One day the arts may not stem from official “artists” but from popular modes which inspire kids to express, communicate and perform stories that appeal to each other as they shape and rework them. That scenario, of course, begs the question: which people are the performers and which the audience?
Books are now available in Nook and Kindle, formats which have the potential to revive an interest in reading among young people. Maybe performing artists need to redesign their work and ensure that it reaches new audiences by communicating with young people in their language _ using their energy and their technology. Perhaps we need to remix the old performing-arts world by using new opportunities to equip young people with new paths to a wider, more satisfying and better world than we are used to. I just hope we can learn more about how to do this.
Associate Professor Department of Dramatic Arts
Chulalongkorn University Bangkok THAILAND