Why Children's Theatre?

by Thea Diamond

The term "children's theatre" may be a misnomer, for it encapsulates a spectrum of Western and non-Western lively arts including theatre, music, dance, mime, mask-work, puppetry, acrobatics and storytelling. Moreover, many chil-dren's productions, performed by trained professionals, rival Broadway extravaganzas aimed at adults. Perhaps children's theatre ought to be called "Spectacle for all ages," since it exercises everyone's imaginations, familiarizing us with foreign cultures, building respect for people from all walks of life, relaxing us, relieving our stress, and sending us back to the daily grind enriched and renewed. At its very best, children's theatre empowers and educates even as it exhilarates and entertains.

In the last thirty years children's theatre has grown up. Mercifully, it has moved beyond the pie-in-the-face brand of humor that struck me even as a child as such a desperate, cruel way of getting laughs. America's entertainment industry has discovered the consumer potential of Barney and Big Bird fans; thus, TV programs as well as animated and feature films are now targeted directly to young audiences. However, mass marketing often panders to our worst instincts, desensitizing children to violence and "difference" rather than opening their eyes and hearts, refining their emotions, enlightening them and transporting them beyond the known to new realms.

Because they are half the length of adult presentations, children's shows have story lines and characterizations that are often sketched in impressionistically, yet with an incision that adds to their poignance. When it comes to humor, the artists are schooled in New Vaudeville slapstick and Three Stooges' capers that are much funnierand more deftly executedthan many of today's animated cartoons.

In the non-profit theatre world, the quality of children's entertainment is uniformly high. Under all circumstances, it affirms life and attempts to promote community and harmony. Because theatre companies must justify the funding they receive, the artists often create songs, plays, and movement pieces that deliberately tackle issues relevant to childhood. Green Thumb Theatre from Canada has examined the difficulties of peer pressure and fear of the dark. Théâtre Bouches Décousues has won awards for its play about child abuse. "Bill's New Frock" from Scotland is a light-hearted comedy about a boy who wakes up a girl and must suffer the travails of the feminine gender for a day. Despite the messages of such plays, theatre companies are careful to blend educational elements into the diversion with the knowledge that the joy and wonder of live movement, melody and dialogue must outweigh didacticism. Fun is still the bottom line.

Beyond Bozo the Clown

Today's clowns like Fred Garbo, Bob Berky, Weird Al Simmons and Tom Kubinek are much more sophisticated, clever and funny than Bozo. The humor is not dependent on the stupidity of red-nosed, red-wigged klutzes falling down and getting hurtit derives from visual puns, breath taking physical agility, and the anachronistic use of strange objects. Anyone who has ever heard Robert Minden (a former psychology professor from California turned children's performer) play the eerie siren song of the saw will be forever haunted by that otherworldly sound and will never regard a household tool in quite the same way. Trout Fishing in America satisfies adults who yearn for the folk music of the seventies at the same time as it delights youngsters by validating their concerns, such as learning to share with siblings.

As the lyrics in children's songs testify, the verbal component in children's theatre is not minimized either. Sometimes the wit operates on two levels, appealing to grown-ups but going over the heads of children. Even when boys and girls don't understand the sly references and subtle Monty Pythonesque jokes, they do appreciate the fact that moms, dads and older relatives are enjoying themselves as much as they are. This adds to the child's fun and makes the occasion a bonding experience, a special child-centered event that emphasizes and elevates the value of the pint-sized members of our society. (And incidentally, parents laugh at pratfalls and silly antics just as readily as youngsters do.)

The limitations of the stage keep theatre artists searching constantly for innovative ways to express ideas and conflict. It is impossible to do justice to car chases on stage, or to show Rambo or James Bond wiping out an army of bad guys while dangling from a helicopter. And yet when violence is depicted on the stage (as in "Dragonwings," about the Chinese immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century San Francisco), it takes on even greater weight than ketchupy death scenes in film, because the bodies being acted on are real and getting "hurt" before our very eyes. If we are identifying, projecting, feeling what the characters are going through, we will suffer the physical assault, too. Moreso than television, cartoons and film, children's theatre is conscientious about reinforcing the truth that the infliction of pain is not funny or cool.

An Intersection of Art and Mind

Yet groups like Théâtre Fantastique from Paris opt for the sensationalism of film, if not its hyper-reality, by making advanced technology work in a live medium. Actors wear electro-luminescent lamps and lazer-powered fiber optics on their costumes. Unseen computers on their backs control the high tech designs that ultraviolet radiation illuminates in their choreography.The audience knows that it is witnessing a one-of-a-kind event. Thus the difficulties posed by the stage can serve as inspiration for theatre's greatest achievementillusion.

Consider the five gymnasts in Cirque Eloize from Montreal, Canada: One young man turns bicycle riding into an art, manipulating a ten-speed as if it were a "tauro." Holding onto the handlebars of the circling bike, he effects a handstand. Another soloist climbs a ladder that is not secured, and makes it balance while he performs gravity-defying feats in the air. Théâtre Dynamo, an acrobatic group from Quebec, gives new meaning to the term "falling in love" when two young gymnasts flip themselves head over heel and hang upside down forever, dramatizing mutual infatuation. This was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen on stage.

The kind of theatre I am describing calls for a leap of imagination on the part of both performer and audience member. Our commitment of faith in the impossible makes possible the transformation of the everyday and ordinary into the unusual and extra-ordinary. Without being in any way pontifical or overtly educational, the performing arts teach us to take stock of our existence and to appreciate circumstances that we often take for granted. Troupes such as De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Company from Canada introduce us to pre-Columbian Indian customs, clothing, and myths while enchanting us with spellbinding drama. Other companies like the African American Dance Ensemble, Shikisha, or Tamakko-Za from Japan, make visible cultures that history and time have rendered invisible. By watching these performers drum, chant, and move together in ritual dance, we participate in the recovery of the past, while widening and deepening our own understanding of fellow inhabitants of the earth. When the musicians of Madre Tierra inform us that the instruments they useturtle shells, donkey jaw bones, gourdswere first assembled by indigenous peoples of the Andes in order to duplicate the sounds of nature, we are hushed and reverential.

While the Philadelphia International Theatre Festival for Children operates under the assumption that the educational values of theatre are embodied in the performances themselvesa given in all artthe accompanying Children's Symposium emphasizes the useful application of the arts in academic disciplines. This year, professors of physics, electrical engineering, microbiology, biochemistry, and other subjects will join the visiting artists participating in workshops, highlighting channels through which the arts intersect with curricular concerns, and ways that our studies inform and depend on the arts and vice versa. If children's theatre teaches us anything, it demonstrates the interconnectedness of life and the need for playtime in everyone's schedule.

Thea Diamond is Director of Education at Penn's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, now celebrating its Silver Anniversary. For more information about the twelfth annual Philadelphia International Theatre Festival for Children, please call the box office at 898-6791. For more about the Children's Symposium, now in its seventh year, Ms. Diamond is at 898-9080.


Volume 42 Number 30
April 30, 1996

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