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How to… direct theatre for children

Roman Stefanski Roman Stefanski
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1 Know your audience

We present shows for every age group, including under-threes, and you need to understand exactly where each age group is in terms of development and interests. A blackout, for example, can be exciting for an adult or teenage audience but can terrify very young audience members – then you’ve lost them.

2 Remember that the child is learning as well as experiencing

So don’t patronise, but build in thinking time so he or she can be fully aware of what’s happening. Suspense works well for older audiences but the very young need immediate answers. Aim for clarity and simplicity.

3 Don’t shy away from difficult subjects

There should always be a positive forward-looking conclusion when you explore potentially painful subjects, such as death. A child has no experience to fall back on, so he or she is often thinking about these issues for the first time. You also have to be responsible. If you present, for example, violence, it has to be done so it doesn’t encourage audience members to go and try it. If the play embraces difficult issues, the programme should include helplines and sources of advice.

4 Watch the show regularly

Observe audience reactions to adapt it in view of any restlessness – or gratifying alertness – you notice. I usually position myself at 45 degrees so I can see the children’s faces.

5 Never forget that children are physically small

Try sitting on the floor during rehearsals for a child’s eye view. Check sightlines. You can’t, for instance, use the floor of the playing space unless the seating area is quite steeply raked. You may need rostra.

Roman Stefanski was talking to Susan Elkin. He has been associate director at Polka Theatre for 35 years. For further information go to polkatheatre.com