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Not so Fringe: interactive children’s theatre takes centre stage

Interactive children’s theatre engages childrens’ innate creative impulses and encourages them to be curious and playful. Image by Kristian Laemmie-Ruff. Arena Theatra, Author provided

Not so Fringe: interactive children’s theatre takes centre stage

A highlight of this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, which begins tomorrow, is an expanded program of performances for children and families. What’s interesting about many of these shows is that they invite audiences not to sit quietly in darkened auditoriums and watch, but instead to join in – and help create the show.

That might be done through dancing, suggesting material for a play or even being separated into groups to experience different theatrical journeys.

While “interactive” theatre isn’t new, the Fringe’s line-up reflects a wider trend in theatre for both children and adults.

What’s so great about this kind of theatre? Well, when done properly, it harnesses kids’ innate creative abilities and encourages them to be curious, playful, and engage in complex abstract thought – something most kids really love to do.

Interactive theatre

“Interactive”, or “participatory”, theatre involves audiences as co-creators of the work. They may be offered ways to directly influence the action, in choose your own adventure formats, or through active collaboration with artists, as in Born in a Taxi’s play inspired works.

Born in a Taxi.

Interactive theatre’s near relative, “immersive” theatre, plunges audiences into the physical world of the show. For example, [Punch Drunk’s blockbuster Sleep No More takes place in a custom-built environment that the audience wanders through at will.

While there is considerable variation between such productions, they usually involve improvisation, exciting sound and visual designs, and occur in places other than on traditional theatre stages. Arena Theatre’s recent work, The Sleepover, was in the Victorian Arts Centre but it invited families to explore and play in the building’s back rooms and secret passages.

What is driving the trend?

The growth in interactive children’s theatre is probably fuelled by a combination of factors. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts children’s right to participate in play, recreation, culture and the arts. It is increasingly being interpreted across the cultural sector as the right for children to participate as creators as well as audiences.

This view implies a welcome belief and confidence in children’s creative abilities.

Technology constantly forces us to reconsider relationships between art, artists and audiences. Gaming culture offers players a range of interactive experiences, and technology is used by millions of people to create and share art easily and cheaply. Social media allows everyone to contribute to public debate and knowledge.

The more adults take for granted the right to have their say in forums such as the live Twitter feed on ABC TV’s Q&A program, the more it is reasonable to expect they will consider it natural to extend similar rights to children.

Arena Theatre company’s Sleepover, image by Kristian Laemmie-Ruff. Arena Theatre Company, Author provided

In addition, there is a growing understanding by artists of the complex ways that children make sense of the world. Early childhood practitioners have long championed the sensory, physical, creative and emotional needs of young children, for whom spoken language is but one of many ways they explore and make meaning of their environment.

It’s important to note that many of the interactive theatre techniques being used now were explored by previous generations of artists, including pioneers of the Theatre in Education movement, such as Dorothy Heathcote. Their work used drama to encourage children to actively and independently explore real-life issues.

Theatre for the very young, and theatre for children with special needs by companies such as Oily Cart, also have a long tradition of using interactive and sensory elements.

The appeal for artists

Children are capable of complex abstract thought, are open to unusual theatrical modes and have a finely-tuned sense of the ridiculous. That makes them an ideal audience for artists who want to play with new forms of narrative and staging. Artists are communicators and most actors relish the live interplay between themselves and audiences. Actor Louis Lovett says that his performances are “just great banter between myself and the audience”.

Children’s willingness to give themselves over to a theatrical experience is a gift to artists who enjoy live, unpredictable interactions with audiences.

But before we consign conventional staging and text-based drama to the scrapheap of theatre history, we should be wary of assuming that the best way for children to experience theatre is always through overt physical or verbal interaction. Not every child enjoys direct participation and they should always be given a choice to be involved in this way or not.

Patch Theatre’s The Moon’s a Balloon.

Not every artistic vision is best served by an interactive format, either. There is nothing worse than token, forced audience participation driven by a belief that children can’t sit still for 45 minutes. They can, and silence from children usually indicates deep engagement. In the foyer of the theatre where Patch Theatre recently performed The Moon’s a Balloon, a child had written on the comments board that they’d felt “hypnotised” by the performance.

In celebrating new developments in children’s theatre we should not forget the transformative wonder and delight of receiving another person’s artistic vision.

Likewise, the successful use of non-verbal modes of communication should not make us suspicious of spoken language. Productions of plays for children by writers such as Finegan Kruckemeyer show that well-crafted text and exciting staging are not mutually exclusive.

In the end, distinctions between “receptive” and “creative” participation are somewhat artificial and we might be better off thinking about theatre as simply being good or bad. But if artists are motivated to make adventurous theatre for young people and are celebrating children’s creative abilities at the same time, this is good news for audiences and for the artform itself.