Two tickets to the matinee: young children and live theatre

For many young children, two tickets to the matinee can be a life-long memory. Live theatre has it all – dance, colour, music, play, conversation, and above all stimulation, and a chance for children to engage their imagination and sense of whimsy.

According to Dave Brown, the earlier children interact with live theatre, the better. Dave should know. As Artistic Director of Patch Theatre Company, he oversees a repertoire of tour-ready productions for four to eight year olds and their families. Patch Theatre Company, based in Adelaide, South Australia, has presented more than 100 new productions to more than 1.5 million children and their families since it began in 1972.

The philosophy of Patch Theatre sums up the interaction between children and live theatre. Their repertoire seeks   to provoke, tickle, prod and beguile children with performances that celebrate the experience of childhood, the joys of play, the whims of the imagination, the struggle to make meaning, and the challenge of growing and developing through the most complex and telling phase of their lives.

Dave Brown speaks here with KidsLife about the creative stimulation and skill building that ‘real’ theatre can have on children.

How young is too young for a child to attend a live production?

Consider this. Two thirds of human development takes place in the first eight years of life. Wow! We simply can’t miss this amazing window of opportunity to ensure that this period of children’s lives is rich with experience beyond compare.

So how young is too young? We have eight years. Use them all. We have mothers bringing babes in arms to the theatre, and they often tell us how soothed they seem to be by the atmosphere – the music, light and sound of a theatre show. Theatre is such an immediate experience; I believe children are never too young. Theatre is a combination of rich stimuli, presented live-design, light, colour, sound, image, story, music, song… many performative languages melded together to form a rich engaging experience.

Our target audience is four to eight year olds but a four year old will get a different level of experience to an eight year old. However, we must never under-estimate what children absorb from experiences that they don’t fully comprehend in the sense that we do. What we need to remember is that many experiences for children are new or first time exepriences, so we musn’t get too involved with what can be comprehended by a child of a particular age. Comprehension comes from experience so it is our job to extend childhood experience. The rule of thumb is – if they’re engaged it’s working. If they’re profoundly engaged, it’s working profoundly. If they’re not engaged it’s too familiar, or too far beyond them.

Quality theatre experiences etch themselves deeply into children’s lives. I still remember my early childhood theatre experiences. Ask around. You’ll be amazed at how powerfully they hold in people’s childhood memories.

How does a live theatre production differ to say a live performance by commercial entertainers?

Many people’s view of children’s theatre is framed by commercial children’s entertainment. There is a big difference between the two. Children’s entertainment is commercially driven, and often linked to a television series and mass merchandising.  It’s usually big, noisy, colourful and empty. It’s the stuff that gets thrust down children’s throats every day on television and when it’s adapted for theatre it’s just more of the same. I think that’s the worst we can do for children.

Play-School presenter, actor and children’s advocate, Noni Hazelhurst says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Kids are being bombarded, on a daily basis, by the popular media’s increasing focus on commercial values rather than creative ones. Millions of dollars are poured into making junk palatable.”

Quality children’s theatre focuses on creative values; values that Noni Hazelhurst identifies so beautifully. “Children can be encouraged to grow, develop and participate in the world if we expose them to beauty, truth and the power of their imagination.”

That’s what we aspire to do with our productions. At Patch, we spend two years making a new 45 minute show. It’s lovingly crafted work created by artists who respect and care for children and about childhood.

How important is it that a parent or carer sit in on the performance with their child?

Sitting in a theatre full of children watching a good performance is my favourite pastime. Children respond to quality theatre experiences with such immediacy, joy and exuberance – you can’t doubt its power and impact. If ever anyone questions me on the future of theatre, I invite them to sit in an audience of four to eight year olds and be amazed. And of course, there’s something extremely satisfying for parents sharing experiences with children and reliving those experiences beyond the event.

I often have parents writing to me about the joy and value of sharing theatre experiences with their children.

In your experience, are children often inhibited about appearing on a stage or taking part in a performance?

Our shows are performed by professional adult actors and so we don’t have a great deal of experience with children in performances, except where audience members may be invited to interact with a performance. On these occassions those who volunteer are those who feel comfortable taking part.

What are some of the skills children can gain from participation in the performing arts?

Although there is an enormous range of social, physical, emotional and intellectual skills developed by children’s involvement in the arts, the heart of the matter is that the arts are about exploration, imagination, play, whimsy, self expression, making meaning … all of which are qualities that differentiate us from all other living things. Yes, these are the things that make us human. The arts humanise us. What more important aspect of childhood is there?

Can you give an example of some of the themes and plots of productions performed by Patch?

Everything we do owes a great deal to a quote by Pablo Picasso … Every child is an artist; the challenge is to keep them so.

In this statement, Picasso was celebrating the way children see the world as an amazing and wondrous place beckoning exploration. The challenge of keeping that love of learning and joy of discovery alive is the challenge Picasso refers to.

At Patch our mission statement is: keeping the artist alive in the child.

So we seek to provoke, tickle, prod and beguile children with performances that celebrate:

  • the experience of childhood
  • the joys of play
  • the whims of the imagination
  • the struggle to make meaning
  • the challenge of children growing and developing through the most complex and telling phase of their lives.

Gabriela Mistral says  “Many things can wait; the child cannot. Now is the time their bones are being formed. Now is the time their minds are being developed. To them we cannot say tomorrow. Their name is today.”

Is live performance something that children are being introduced to in the education curriculum?

Oh yes … and in a big way too. We perform to around 60,000 kindergarten and school students a year. Early childhood teachers know the power of theatre, and I feel there is a real kinship between theatre-arts for children, and the wonderful play-based learning curriculum of early childhood.

How can parents and carers encourage children to be involved with performing or performances?

Play is the natural domain of children and artists. Encourage play, wonder, exploration and inquistivity by being playful, explorative and inventive in the way you engage with your children.

Provoke, tickle, prod and beguile your children and the child within you. Roll about in the wonder and possibilities of creative play. Do it together. Do it often. It’s good for you. It’s good for you, and it’s good for your children.

Oh… and don’t forget to see theatre … good theatre for children. Australia has some of the best children’s theatre companies in the world. Seek them out. Don’t go for the stuff your children already know … it’s likely to be more of the same. Seek out ways to extend your children’s experiences … and your own. That’s when learning and engagement, and entertainment meet in a profoundly good way.

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