THE WORD: Looking young

Steve Ball, executive producer of the World Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences, considers the current state of play of theatre for children and young people in the UK


This July, for the first time ever in the UK, ASSITEJ, the international association of theatre for children and young people will be holding its Artistic Gathering in Birmingham from 2nd to 9th July.

On The Edge, the World Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences is jointly presented by TYA UK and TYA Ireland and will bring 16 productions from around the globe alongside a Work in Progress strand and a symposium with lectures, workshop and discussions posing the question “Where are the pioneers; who is on the edge of practice and research?” The symposium will examine many of the key issues facing TYA today including issues of gender and sexuality and ways in which digital technology can engage audiences during and after the initial performance event.

The fact that the UK was chosen as the venue for this prestigious event is an indication of the increased confidence of the TYA sector and the regard in which UK work is held internationally. Long regarded as an undervalued Cinderella of the industry, largely ignored by mainstream me- dia and often unfairly associated with the didacti- cism of some of the worst elements of Theatre in Education, TYA in the UK has often struggled to gain the profile and funding it deserves.

Don’t expect to see a second rate version of Goldilocks performed in a school hall by a group of drama school graduates using children’s theatre as a stepping stone into showbiz. Rather be pre- pared to see work of outstanding quality which, in Lyn Gardner’s words, reminds us that “theatre for young people has often not just matched theatre for adult audiences but often surpassed it”.

The productions that have been selected for On The Edge are indicative of the developments that have taken place in TYA in recent years. Com- panies that are not afraid to shock and take risks as in Hetpalais’ (Belgium) production of The Hamilton Complex featuring 13 teenage girls and a body builder, testing boundaries, staking their individ- uality and having fun. Likewise Pim and Theo by New International Encounter, in a co-production with three European theatre companies, is not the typical stuff of children’s theatre. Pim is Pim Fortuyn, the far-right Dutch politician assassinated in 2002 after claiming that “the Netherlands is full” and Theo is the provocative Dutch artist and film- maker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in Amsterdam two years later over a short film he made.

Productions for babies and very young children are slowly finding their way into theatres’ programmes, exemplified by Sarah Argent and Theatr lolo’s (Wales) Out of the Blue.

Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s I Think I Can (Australia) is an interactive artwork that invites audi- ences to enter a miniature town with a model rail- way, encouraging them to become active members of a tiny community. It’s a great example of site specific projects increasingly taking place outside building-based theatres.

Increased collaborations with other art forms characterise much theatre for children and are beautifully demonstrated by Brush Theatre (Korea) in Brush, its production mixing comedy, puppetry and painting and in Seydou Boro’s blend of drama, dance and music in Why Do Hyenas Have Shorter Front Legs Than Back Legs And Why Do Monkeys Have Bare Bottoms? (Burkina Faso and France). 20 Stories High and Theatre-Rites’ The Broke’N’Beat Collective (England) is a raw, funny and moving gig fusing hip-hop and poetry.

The UK has led the world in terms of challeng- ing attitudes and creating shows specially created for children and young people with complex disabilities. Bliss (Northern Island) is an excellent but hitherto low profile example of such an immer-sive, multi-sensory pirate adventure for up to six profoundly disabled young people performed in the Replay Theatre Bubble in an inner city school.

One of the challenges facing TYA, not just in the UK but across the world, is that like Bliss, it often happens under the radar, away from the glare of the media in schools and small studio theatres. This is one way in which On The Edge can help to bring about changes in perception about theatre for children and young people, by raising the profile, sharing best practice and proving that TYA can be and big, bold and brave.

Steve Ball is Executive Producer of On The Edge and associate director at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

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