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Children’s theater notes

by Silvia Bennett

My work as an author of children’s shows started in the Netherlands in 2008 when I moved to Amsterdam. I have always had a great interest in childhood, I graduated in education science in Florence in 2006. In my career I have always worked with and for children. I have never considered easy to make a show for children, but certainly very stimulating. In Amsterdam I was very lucky to meet Ingrid Wolf, director of the 2Turvenhoog festival. In addition to being a programmer, Ingrid deals with art and childhood, puts institutions, artists, teachers and parents in dialogue, to enhance art and children.

In these years I have collected many experiences and I have dealt with extraordinary artists, as well as with families, educators and programmers. I was often asked if there is a difference between Dutch and Italian children: basically no, but it is clear the differences  of the culture in which they are immersed, but this does not change their predisposition to art.

Below I write some notes or rather reflections that I would like to share.

Children at the theater

I recently read an article in Mind, a  journal of psychology and neuroscience. The author of this article Anna Oliveiro Ferraris talks about the difficulty of some parents in giving rules to their children, knowing how to say no. She talks about the need to “recover tenderness… and learn to stay in the present moment… identify clear rules and then stick to them”.

These three points: Clear Rules, Tenderness and Present Moment, are the starting points to talk about my experience in children’s theater.

The performative space is full of rules established over the years, there are social conventions that tell us not to go up on stage or not to invade the stage space, but there is also something more, the performative energy, the tension of the scene that even a very young child can perceive and respect. It is that kind of energy that you feel when you enter a room where two people are arguing, you feel it and, automatically, on your toes, you move away to not invade that space full of tension.

For the performers the rules of the scene are so rooted that they become transmissible on an energetic level, it is our stage presence that delimits the performative space. Very rarely children enter the scene unless they are invited; it happened, but in particular cases, either because they were incited by adult spectators or because they were driven by an unstoppable curiosity. A deaf child was once so fascinated by the drums that he went on stage and sat next to it to feel the vibrations, but I have to admit it happened to me 5 times in 10 years.

In creating children’s shows, I draw on that tenderness Ferraris talks about; it is a tenderness not intended as something mushy, but as an openness and disposition to the unpredictable. At the same time it is not possible as a performer to escape the coherence and firmness of the scenic rules, for this reason children respect the space in which I move, as I respect and include their existence as an audience.

My work has its roots in improvisation. With children, especially very young children, it is essential for me to stay in the present moment, to listen to them while I am doing the show and to have the availability to navigate within the physical score by adapting small things, playing with space and time.

The artistic quality

When I started working as a choreographer I hated being asked: “What audience is your show for?”, Even before I went into the studio. When I interviewed Ferdinando Albertazzi, author of books for adults and children, for my thesis, he said to me: “why children’s literature? If books have even one sentence that can say something, they count in and of themselves. Then maybe even children like them. My books are objectively neither for children nor for teenagers ”. This is a vision that I fully share, I believe that works for children must have the same care and quality as shows for adults.

Anna Ascenzi said that the pleasure of reading is not based only on the content of the book, but is recognized by the linguistic and stylistic choices that the author makes. Nothing should be left to chance, because the pleasure of reading also lies in the appreciation of the linguistic choices. A work of high artistic level ensures the participation and involvement of the reader, which does not happen if the text is poor. And it’s exactly the same for the live show.

Over the years I have realized that my way of creating for children is different than creating for adults, but not technically, the container from which I draw inspiration is different. With children, when we sit down to explain something to them, we change our tone of voice, we look for simple words, maybe we get down on our knees, we change our physicality, but that’s not what interests me, what I like more is that at the end of a long explanation they often answer you with a “why?” and then you have to draw on your creativity, this interests me, “do not limit the possibilities of the absurd” as Gianni Rodari said.

Children are very sensitive to beauty, banal spectacularization is not up to their imaginative abilities. I remember an uncontrollable stage invasion, we had children everywhere raging and screaming, at some point one of the dancers started doing a beautiful, delicate, powerful, touching solo and everyone stopped to watch, the children calmed down and sat , beauty brought them back to listening and respecting.

Adult- child- performer

There is another aspect of the live show that I would like to highlight. It often happens that adults talk about contemporary art as something too abstract, difficult to understand and distant. Children are a great vehicle for understanding contemporary art.

Contemporary art often requires an immersive, non-rational attitude, which is why children help parents to relax and enjoy the show; perceiving their involvement, the parents let themselves be involved. In France I went to see a show about death, the stage was flooded with real mice and one of them danced on the shoulders of the performer. At first I was wrapped by a sense of disgust, then a child said: “look mom the mice”, with the serenity with which you indicate a puppy dog, the sense of disgust has vanished, that child has allowed me to enjoy the show, and it was truly a wonderful show.

The function of the adult in the live show is a container of emotions. I introduced Libra’s first study to an audience of newborns (6-8 months). A child, after a few minutes, started crying for no obvious reason, then relaxed and continued to watch the show lying on the ground next to his mother. At the end of the performance, the mother told me: “my son was very excited, I felt his emotion, which exploded into tears, after having discharged the emotional tension, he relaxed and followed the whole show, I think it’s normal, he had never seen a performance “.

Feel the art

The fear of not understanding a contemporary show does not belong to children, so I think it is important for adults to approach the theater without pretending to understand, but with the willingness to listen, and perhaps let themselves be guided by the little ones.

“First of all, I think it is very important to feel pleasure in admiring a work of art. Starting exclusively from a scholastic or analytical approach, there will be confusion and it will not be understood what art really is. I strongly doubt that anyone who can listen to a bird’s song or appreciate the vision of a flowery meadow can easily express their feelings. It is therefore obvious that even to fully appreciate the great works of art, particular concentration and a certain type of mental attitude is required, because appreciating art means, especially at the beginning, feeling it “

Children are expert teachers of “feeling”, before they are even born, they listen, they feel, in the pre-language phase they communicate and for this I believe we must recognize their role as masters, let them guide us into the art world.

“Children are not lacking and primitive adults … they are a different Homo sapiens”. “As children, their are engaged on two fronts, learning how the world works and imagining how it could work otherwise.”

This is what we do in the theater, we play with possible or impossible worlds, we ride the absurd and jump from a logical to an irrational association.

Bergson said that while all the others use their intellect to build machines necessary for survival, the artist overcomes the filter of practical and utilitarian interest, observes reality beyond the barrier built by the intellect, beyond the technique and therefore they sense the true nature of things.

I believe that for children, seeing an adult on stage, completely immersing himself in another world and letting themself be carried away by the imagination, is an exciting and reassuring experience at the same time.

A few years ago I was dancing in Wonderland directed by Makiko Ito, which is an improvisation project between musicians, dancers and light designers; working with live music is extraordinary: at a certain point a musician decides to make a guitar solo, very complex and twisted; it was very difficult to interpret and so I stopped and sat in the audience. A child of less than a year got up and went on stage dancing in my place. He understood music and danced it with disarming simplicity and power.

Children are sensitive to beauty, they are listening and they notice beauty without being afraid of it.

You’ve all heard of the Washington metro experiment where Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world, played for 43 minutes almost completely ignored by passers-by, pretending to be a street performer; well the few passers-by who stopped to listen to him were children.

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” 

The importance of dialogue between educators and artists.

I believe that establishing a dialogue between educators and artists is fundamental.

Educators and artists are not so different, the educator’s work is intentional, not casual, aware, reflective and flexible. We both start from theory and practice that act as a support to adapt to a changing and multifaceted reality.

“The educator is someone who is aware of his skills and who knows how to apply them in a transversal way to every practical situation in which he finds himself acting”.

The same goes for artists. I believe that communication is important to reduce the distance between spectator and show.

I was invited in Bologna at the “Visioni di futuro, visioni di teatro” Festival. I presented a first study of Libra there, I was joined by an educator who had the task of observing the children’s reactions. She brought back many reactions that otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to hear: a little girl for example ran to her saying: “I feel like flying, look, I also have wings like the dancer”, raising her arms and turning.

In Amsterdam I worked for years for Memo association in Dutch kindergartens. There I went to do a short 20 minute performance for kindergarten classes, the contribution of the educators was really important. First, the educators had the role of introducing me to the children, and the educators who got involved in the show accompanied the children in the experience and enriched it, without necessarily explaining what they saw but simply getting involved.

As I said before, children for nature are magnificent spectators, they have always followed the show even if they were left alone, but there is a substantial difference: in the first part of the show, without educators, I had to work carefully on the distance between me and the children because I was a stranger in their kindergarten, so it took awhile for them to feel comfortable. While, when the children were accompanied by educators this happened immediately, because they gave them confidence and therefore had the opportunity to immerse themselves immediately in the theatrical experience. Furthermore, the educators involved at the end of the show felt full of new ideas and full of inspiration.

Dialogue with educators has always given me the opportunity to go deeper into my work; their knowledge, experience and professionalism are a great value to an artist. An artistic work does not start from the premise of being didactic, but of existing because it needs to be told.

The interesting thing is that educators and artists start from the same basic principle: to create value. We sprinkle the same soil, each one adds its contribution, different but at the same time fundamental for the development of civilization.