Even if the material is dark, difficult, or challenging, ask yourself whether joy sits at the heart of the play.
If you ever deny hope to children, you are really doing them a disservice.
Working in theatre really helps you to understand the audience; there is much to be learned from engaging with a live audience in a room.
Speaking first, Vicky Ireland, chair of Action for Children’s Arts (ACA), explained the charity’s mission: to campaign for children’s right to the arts, to connect children’s arts practitioners, and celebrate children’s arts in the UK. Vicky stated the importance of culture to children and that the greatest resource a nation holds is that of its imagination, which prospers from the arts. With cuts to children’s media funding, and with UK children being recognised as the unhappiest children in the world, Vicky emphasised the importance of the ACA (www.childrensarts.org.uk).
Rachel Barnett-Jones has over 20 years of experience in children’s theatre, and she explained that her aim is to share her vast playwriting experience with the children’s media sector. Her work focuses on how access to culture and working with creatives enriches the experience not just for the children but also for the creatives. The result is a more solid, enriched, real and engaged product (be it theatre, TV or other show). She recounted an experience with a child with autism, who loved the theatre but wouldn’t allow anyone to touch her. However, through her participation in drama production she was able to overcome this. Rachel said, ‘You find a moment of connection with a child and you see how the power of storytelling enriches their life.’
She shared her learnings of how, when children engage with the creative process and all that goes with it, whether it be communication skills, problem-solving or teamwork, they can take those skills with them into their lives. When seeing the show at the theatre that they were part of creating with professionals, the children’s sense of pride, ownership, and joy was all the more powerful.
During lockdown, Rachel designed a live performance to be streamed into schools called ‘My Dad Is an Astronaut’. She took everything that she knew about making theatre and worked out how they could deliver a project to schools which could also be delivered to homes. It worked well and was very interactive. Th team realised that the show might have potential beyond the live aspect, and she is currently following up this idea. Rachel praised the website designer who created a space portal that they zoomed into during the episodes, and this brought kids into the story from the very beginning. Rachel explained that her work had always been done in collaboration with children, and that it took about a year of research to shape and reshape the piece.
Rachel’s final observation was that children find engagement with a 45-minute-long story difficult. To get them to settle down and re-engage, she would include a recap of the story at around 37 minutes into the play.
A closing note by Vicky was that the environment for children’s media and the arts is not good right now and she urged everyone to fight for children’s drama and theatre.
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