The Age of Cynicism.
People often ask me if I have noticed a change in the way audiences of children react. Have they changed since I wrote my first children’s play in 1967? I think they expect me to say that today’s little monsters are a nightmare compared with the little angels of yesteryear. But I always reply, ‘No, they haven’t changed at all!’. It is true that today’s children know more earlier, thanks to television and computers mainly, but that is no bad thing. As individuals they may seem more sophisticated than earlier generations, but together in an audience they display exactly the same pleasure in entering into the spirit of the performance (far more willingly than adults do) and, despite exposure to complex computer graphics and animation, will still collectively gasp at the sight of a simple shadow puppet on a screen or a transformation scene through a gauze. They can still be enchanted by a tale well told. They will still respond joyfully to larger-than-life characters, both animals and human beings. They will still laugh uninhibitedly, listen attentively, and respond emotionally to injustice, participate vocally with enthusiasm and total lack of embarrassment, and cheer at the triumph of good over evil.
And don’t believe the so-called experts who say that children’s attention spans are lower. It just isn’t true. Watch them at play or on the computer or even reading a book – if they are enjoying it, they will happily concentrate for ages. It is their boredom threshold that is low, not their attention span! And if, we, in the theatre, bore them, it is our own fault if they talk, walk or ask to go to the loo. Get it right and the magic of theatre is potentially as potent and life-transforming and imagination-triggering as ever.
However, there has, in my opinion, been a significant shift in what I call ‘the age of cynicism’. By this I mean the age at which a child begins to resist the automatic and generous willingness to enter into the spirit of the performance, as displayed before ‘the age of cynicism’ struck. When I started in children’s theatre, this age was probably around the attainment of double figures. Today I believe it is lower. We notice it in children as young as 8 or 9, especially in urban areas. I think that market forces make it very difficult for children to avoid growing up quicker. Children’s teatime TV programmes have been replaced by soaps or quizzes, in which being nasty to people is portrayed as acceptable and funny. The world has become a harsher place; childhood has inevitably and regrettably become shorter, and many children all too young are forced into the real world. Along comes the aloof, suspicious, bolshie, surly, curled-lip reaction – or lack of it – of those who are trapped in the years between say 9 and 14, for some of whom any display of enthusiasm or enjoyment is totally uncool. This age group is the hardest to cater for, and I admire hugely the companies that try. Marcus Romer’s Pilot Theatre has done pioneering work in this area, notably with LORD OF THE FLIES. Theatre Centre, Half Moon and the Company of Angels specialise in this difficult area. And Unicorn, with LOOKING FOR JJ and RED FORTRESS have shown that they can appeal to older children too. Currently, the Birmingham Stage Company is presenting David Almond’s SKELLIG to riveted audiences of youngsters, many of whom have undoubtedly reached the age of cynicism, yet are totally won over by the play and the performances.
Meanwhile, the target audience for children’s plays has shifted too. In the late 70s/early 80s my play THE GINGERBREAD MAN attracted primary school parties aged up to 11. A production of the same play today would probably be aiming at children up to 8. The title would be perceived to be suitable for younger children than 25 years ago.
Maybe this earlier surface sophistication in children is to be celebrated. Maybe not. But we cannot reverse the tide. What I think we purveyors of theatre for children need to realise is that, as the age of cynicism gets lower, we need to encourage our audiences to come younger. Theatre for under fives is, I believe, today’s growth area. Lets grab them earlier and hope we can delight them enough to keep them hooked as long as possible! And may companies like those mentioned above continue to find ways of creating interesting theatre for older children, well into their teens.
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