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Purni Morell: My manifesto to enhance children’s theatre experience

Ginny Holder and Jeffery Kissoon in My Father Odysseus at the Unicorn Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When I was a child, I didn’t think of myself as a child. It wasn’t that I longed to be an adult (a life of watching snooker on a black and white TV; no, thank you) – it was just that in my world, I was simply a person. But then a strange thing happens: at some point, for some reason, we start to see ourselves as adults, and, with a kind of collective amnesia, we start to deal differently with the people we see as children. Until we understand that being a child feels exactly the same as being an adult, it’s going to be impossible to make good art for children.

Art has to start from a shared position of ignorance. We all share an instinctive understanding and feelings about the world we’re in, and none of us is sure what to do with them. That’s why art is everywhere – it’s our way of dealing with life. So, as artists, we must hold on to the assumption that nobody in the room knows any more than anyone else, especially not we ourselves, and it’s the audience – in our case, children – who must be given space in order to give art its meaning.

The Hamilton Complex, part of LIFT 2016 (above). Photo: Fred Debrock
The Hamilton Complex, part of LIFT 2016 (above). Photo: Fred Debrock

I’d like to ask for five things to change in how we in the UK consider theatre for children:

1. I’d like us to stop treating theatre for children as provision and start treating it as art. Having more theatre for children should not be a goal in and of itself. Better access to art, geographically, socio-economically, across ethnicities, is obviously urgent if we believe art is a place for a society to have its conversations. But just commissioning more art does not necessarily create better art. Encouraging everyone to programme something for children on a Saturday morning does not necessarily make that work valuable, especially since, more often than not, those shows are not given the artistic space and investment they need to develop, and more often than not the decision to programme them is not taken by the artistic director with the same rigour as he or she gives to the rest of the theatre’s programme. Until theatre for children is commissioned and created by artists in the same way as any other piece of work, we are doing our children a disservice.

2. I’d like us to stop using the phrases TYA (theatre for young audiences) and CYP (children and young people). They feel industrial to me, separating those who work with children from everyone else. Also, they’re acronyms and therefore inherently annoying. I feel equally uncomfortable talking about BAME – another one – or site-specific theatre. All theatre is site-specific, all theatre is, or should be, relevant to all audiences whatever their ethnicity, whatever their age. Really great work reaches everyone – we know it, we feel it in the room when it happens. So could we not just call it theatre, and not differentiate so much on the basis of whom it’s for?

3. I’d like a moratorium on the use of the words ‘charming’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘magical’ in marketing copy and in reviews. Nobody I have ever met, of any age, considers his or her life to be in any way charming, enchanting or magical. Fascinating, yes. Interesting, yes. Confusing, complex, extraordinary, astonishing, changeable – yes, yes, yes; these are words that better describe the business of living and all the passion and joy it provokes. We adults don’t go to the theatre to be enchanted (imagine reading: “Rupert Goold’s enchanting production of The Cherry Orchard”). We go for much more interesting and complicated reasons. And so do children. So why rob them of that?

4. I’d like adults to be required to leave all phones, bags, food and other distractions in the cloakroom in order to make room for properly and exclusively watching the play alongside their young companions. The work has not been made ‘for them’ or ‘for you’. When a baker bakes, he doesn’t ask, ‘who is this bread for?’ When we’re at the theatre, we’re all relevant to the experience, and, given we regularly require children to pay attention to what adults say for 40 minutes at a time, six times a day, five days a week in class, I think we can reasonably require adults to pay silent and complete attention to what children are listening to for 50 minutes in a theatre once a week or month, without interfering, offering beverages, shushing or asking whether everything is okay or whether they understand.

5. I would like to see an end to all-white casts, across the board.

I’m often asked why it is that there is so much excellent work for children coming out of Belgium, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia. I don’t think it’s about funding or longer rehearsal periods or purpose-built buildings – most of that is not true anyway, much the same pressures apply there as here. No, simply, in those countries, children are treated as people, with respect. They are not expected to wear uniforms or sit in alphabetical order, they’re not interrupted when talking or made to feel that what adults want to say takes precedence over their own ideas. That phrase, ‘grown-ups are talking’, – really?

In those countries, children start school later, they have fewer tests, and society gives them room to discover who they are, to understand adults and to be understood by them, as equals. I’m convinced this is the only difference we should be concerning ourselves with, and, in my opinion, the need to treat children differently in this country is an absolute priority.

Children are not the future. They are the present. They’re actually here, now. Let’s start making better art on that basis.