Sunday, August 27, 2006

Two Children's Shows | Two Very Different Experiences

Pirates At the Horniman Museum VS The Little Angel Theatre

A friend and I meandered about Hackney on Friday. We were doing that standard tour of green spaces with 2 small boys with large imaginations. Eventually, we found ourselves down at the Hackney City Farm. Over lunch, she gathers all available promotional materials and begins skimming them. Suddenly, we’re rolling through lunch, jumping in her car and dashing from East london to South London. Our destination is The Horniman Museum to see a Pirate Show.

I’m thrilled. I haven’t done something this spontaneous since I moved here. Winston is beside himself with joy. He’s getting a car ride and a show with Pirates at a museum with fish. And we’re both going somewhere with friends!

We make it with 15 minutes to spare. So, we loiter outside of the amphitheatre. Behind a fence, are ten rows of green metal folding chairs. JJ can see the pirate ship behind the barricade. He and Winston are already planning exactly what the show will have. His mother and I keep reminding them not to plan everything out so completely that they can’t accept what happens. Roosters crow. The goats have noticed that there are lots of children with food in their hands nearby. They press against the fence looking dolefully hopeful. The children guard their biscuits and ice cream.

The pirate ship is rolled out of the staging area. Anticipation grows. Everyone begins to queue. Finally - the staff opens the barricade. Children and adults politely elbow and surreptitiously nudge each other out of the way in order to get the choice bit of floor space on top of the blue tarp. Every adult is unobtrusively elbowing and pushing themself towards the front row - the one closest to the children. They diligently attempt to disguise their rudeness as accidental. After a bit of jostling and wriggling, we hear music and singing. The show is about to begin!

After having attended Little Red...You Know Who at The Little Angel Theatre, I settled in for another splendid display of brilliant children’s theatre. Winston in my lap on pavement, I snuggled in for the kind of theatre where the producer, writer, director and performers are well aware of children’s developmental abilities. I sighed, kissed his head and prepared for the kind of well-researched theatre designed to fully engage and enliven the creative soul within the child.

Wrong! The show was so bawdy, politically incorrect and filled with dubious sexual innuendo. (I think it flew over the children’s heads, but I’m not sure.) The different stories they were trying to tell got lost behind a score of cheap gags, over-the-top audience participation and loud bangs involving guns and bombs. These artists had such a blatant lack of interest in the children. Almost as if their thought was, “as long as they get to scream a lot, laugh at slapstick and jump in their seats from gun fire, they’ll have a good time.

Which to be truthful, many of the children did. One kid sitting near us had seen the show earlier in the day. He spent the first ten minutes of the show yelling, “Hi! It’s me again! I’m back.” For every stunt there was the obligatory drum roll. Except, they kept misplacing (not accidentally) the drum sticks and other props necessary to seamlessly execute their gags. When it came to chaining up “Captain Mark,” the older kids had a delightful time getting the female adult audience volunteer to put as many padlocks as possible on his genital and posterior regions. They didn’t care that it was sloppy or took 20 long minutes to complete. They were having a good time telling a woman to put padlocks around a man’s dick and yelling for the chains to be tighter so he’d get a metal wedgie.

JJ’s mother and I had a good laugh. Both of us are artists and performers. We could stand back from the show and enjoy it for what it was. It was refreshing - in a way. It was a show for adults. The children were entertained. A lot of bored housewives were titillated by a great deal of discussion about and demonstration of bondage and discipline techniques. I’m sure it made their year. The vibrators of South London were abuzzing Friday night. (Personally, I like to communicate my fantasies to my partner. Examine them, dissect them, discuss their relevance to my evolving humanity and determine the root cause of them. I don’t need to attend children’s theatre for that. But, hey - that’s me. Power and respect to everyone and their choices.)

Not wanting to leave this brand new theatrical note hanging on the air of Winston’s internal landscape, we went to The Three Billy Goats Gruff at The Little Angel Theatre today. It was most of what I had expected. Again, it felt more like a one woman show with props.

The set had a very “Steiner” feel to it. The audience walked into a very simple suggestion of the world which was yet to come. At the opening of the play, the story teller created the set by diligently placing small items which suggested the landscape. There was a white dome which was covered in green felt. Simple sticks were placed into a plain white triangle which represented the goat’s thorny, mountain. Flowing blue silks became the river. A roughly stitched piece of felt was placed on the back drop to suggest the nearby village. Each piece was placed carefully while the storyteller created the full and exquisite details with her words. (Sorry for not providing names. Again, there was no comprehensive program handed out which I could check.)

The thing I have come to appreciate about the recent shows at the Little Angel Theatre is that quiet, precise Steiner-esque story telling intensity. In many ways it reminds me of how the many of the First Nation People tell stories. The teller’s focus and belief in the power of the story is what embraces the child’s imagination. That precise and mindful way of telling a story is what holds, nurtures and feeds a child. It is a simple statement that the adult on stage makes. It says, I respect you child. I trust you to create this story with me. I understand that you have the power to build worlds. And this is what holds them entranced in a darkened theatre for 40 minutes. It is the fact that someone has invited and encouraged to open their hearts, souls and imagination. It triumphs over our over-media-stimulated children because the children are co-creators in the process. It as if the storyteller is nurturing, stroking, soothing and caressing their inner most soul.

However, The Three Billy Goats Gruff was far from perfect. The puppets were nicely rendered. As I stated before the set was delightful in its simplicity. However, this show relied a bit too much on “what is familiar” to children rather than inviting them safely into an adventure into the unknown. For example, the words for “See The Little Bunnies Sleeping” was changed to goats. It is a song every child who has ever attended a nursery or play group knows. It made them feel safe and familiar. Unlike Little Red...You Know Who which relied on originality and the talent of the storyteller.

As an artist, I think this story teller had a hard time trusting in her own own abilities and the power of the story to create that all powerful willing suspension of disbelief that children are so ready to hand over. There was also a conscious effort to set up audience participation. This was overused. Little Red seemed to have an organic understanding of the places when children would naturally shout out. And trusted them to do so. She also relied on goofiness to evoke laughter from the children, such as when the troll ate fish and then it was thrown willy-nilly to one side. Whereas, in the previous show, no movement was wasted. The storyteller carefully put each prop and puppet away in its place. And even though it took time, it helped the small children remember that this was not “real.”

This is not to say it was a bad show. I’m actually nit-picking here. Winston was spellbound the entire time. His imagination was going full tilt. The second time the troll appeared, he kept asking, Is it real? Is the troll real? Eventually, he needed to move out of his seat to my lap because he was scared. But, the show brought him back and he left my lap. It also had a sweet and not too heavily laid on environmental message. So, once again, I’m glad I forked out the cash. (In fact - I’m so appreciative of the thoughtfulness which with this theatre provides opportunities to safely experience theatre - I’ve bought tickets to the next 2 shows in the series. )

While Three Billy Goats Gruff ends tomorrow, if you read this and can go, I urge you to support this work! But, the notice is too late - so they are offering Chicken Licken 2 & 3 September and Cinderella Ashputtel 9 & 10 September. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Let me end with the fact that The Horniman Museum is a fantastic time. The exhibits actively and conscientiously engage children in in nature, history and culture. There are tons of free xerox worksheets and hands on activities. The grounds are lovely. The new aquarium is fantastic. And it is free! If they’d only book their children’s performances with the same diligence used to construct the exhibits - I’d be there for every event. But, at present, I think we’ll just go for the groovy canoe, the fish, crabs and music room.

As to theatre, trust in a Little Angel.

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