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Encore Mgazine

We All Need A Story

July 2009

Children like stories. They need stories. This is a generally accepted truism, and it helps to explain why so much theatre for children depends upon the adaptation of children’s books. Box office pressures often insist on well-known titles, and this means that there are fewer openings for original plays for children – however strong the stories they tell - particularly in the large and middle-scale theatres. But in the smaller venues, a healthy number of innovative companies play for very young children, and they successfully create brand new imaginative plays that don’t rely on a familiar title. Some don’t tell a conventional story. Indeed some people feel that this age group cannot cope with a through storyline. Complexity may not work, but ‘story’ can also mean a structured series of events, logically linked, which engage very young children by making them interested to know what will happen next. At Polka Theatre, I recently saw an engrossing performance (not really a ‘play’) created by Andy Manley and Rosie Gibson, called ARCHAEOLOGY. The two actors, without speaking, explored the set, which behaved like a box of tricks. Lots of sand revealed objects hidden underneath; patterns in the sand were made; noises were created; the set became a giant sandpit, in which the audience was, at the end, invited to play and explore for themselves. Great fun, and the audience were intrigued and entertained.

Of course, adults need stories too. In books, theatre and film. And on television. Sadly there are fewer serious tv plays made these days, yet soaps and series provide stories and all the so-called ‘reality shows’ too. X FACTOR contestants discuss excitedly their ‘journey’ (another word for ‘story’). SPRINGWATCH employs ‘story developers’, who manipulate the wildlife events into animal dramas – will the lapwing chicks survive? Even cookery contests and nannies taming wild children appeal to our sense of story, depicting triumph over disaster, the virtues of hard work, or the rocky road to eventual success or failure.

But adults, through experience, know what they like and can find for themselves whatever might satisfy their need for story. Children, without such experience, must be encouraged towards story. They need guidance by parents and teachers – and, by no means least, by us practitioners. We mustn’t short-change them, underestimate them, or think that they are the easy option, simply because they haven’t yet developed a sense of taste or a critical faculty. It’s not enough, in my view, to just get them clapping along to a series of inane, jolly songs.

A few years ago I developed a story-led spectacular arena show for a big, international company. It was eventually turned down because telling the story properly made it too expensive and complicated. ‘Don’t you realise,’ an executive said, ‘that at this age all they need is a big hug?’. Mmmm. Back in the early 70s a colleague pitching a story-based tv animation series, was told it was too costly and that, ‘you have to realise, we only have to jiggle a teddy bear across that screen and they’ll watch.’ Mmmm. Not the attitude we need in children’s theatre, where we should strive to trigger the imagination and to excite our audience by leading them on adventures through the world of story.

Finally a plea to theatre folk and book folk to join forces to promote more the joy of story. Can’t we fruitfully link up? Why cannot, for example, plays based on picture books be linked to an exhibition of the illustrator’s pictures? Why can’t children’s libraries and theatres collaborate more on joint events about the story/play? I would love to see, in the UK, purpose-built children’s centres like IMAGINON in Charlotte, North Carolina. Here, to reach the two beautiful theatre spaces, children have to pass through a children’s library. The library employs a theatre person. The theatre employs a librarian. Together they plan splendid joint events, so that children who come to the play can also attend a follow-up talk or participate in linked activities. Creativity is encouraged. IMAGINON has become an important part of Charlotte’s children’s lives – by realising the importance of the power of ‘story’.

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