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Encore Mgazine

Children's Theatre for Children's Theatre

May 2008

Recently I spent a happy day doing two performances of my MAGIC AND MUSIC SHOW at The Egg, a delightful 125 seater in Bath. It is part of the Theatre Royal and only hosts shows for children to see and shows for children to perform in. It is a theatre space designed exclusively for children. It offers drama classes too, and has a thriving café, frequented by parents and children. My performances – like most performed there – sold out, which was very pleasing. The seat price was a sensible £8. The maths shows that The Egg could never be run independently as a self-supporting venture, without substantial funding; some of its costs are presumably absorbed within the Theatre Royal’s total budget, and project funding presumably subsidises some of the shows.

In an ideal world, every regional or touring theatre would have its own children’s theatre alongside, perhaps smaller than the adult theatre, but no less important. To keep the seat price low (to bring in the school parties and families) it would need as much if not more funding than its grown-up counterpart. It would have two auditoria – a conventional space and a smaller flexible space, offering year-round entertainment for all ages. Its actors and staff would be paid the same as those working in the adult theatre. Critics would review all the shows in the belief that theatre for children is as important as – perhaps more important than – adult theatre. To supply the demand for more children’s theatre practitioners, universities and drama schools would introduce many more courses in writing, acting and directing for children. And as the amount of work increases, the profile of the work rises and the value of the work in our industry becomes more recognised.

Sounds like cloud cuckoo land. But it’s worth having a dream!

Some people, however – even some children’s theatre practitioners – would argue that we don’t really need theatres dedicated only to children, because they might lead to the work becoming ‘ghetto-ised’, rather than accepted as part of mainstream theatre. Their argument would be that the status of children’s theatre would best be improved by including it as an integral part of every theatre’s programming, rather than keeping it separate.

I have sympathy with this view, but many, maybe most, theatres are not ideal places for children to see a performance. I have always felt that it is unfair and potentially counter-productive when a five-year-old’s first ever experience of theatre is from way back in the back row of the upper circle at a large venue like the Bristol Hippodrome. And most theatre seats are unsuitable for children. They tip up, sometimes providing much more fun than the play, or effectively trapping the child in a jack-knife grip. Most theatre auditoria are not raked sufficiently to give every child a good view.

No, the idea of theatres specially designed for children is appealing. And it does seem surprising – scandalous to some of us – that in the UK we have so few of them. Polka and Unicorn are splendid examples, but both are in London. The aforementioned Egg is in Bath, and Playbox is in Warwick. That’s about it (though I’d be happy to be proved wrong!).

In America the situation is only marginally better. There are some splendid children’s theatre buildings, for example in Minneapolis, Seattle, Dallas and Bethesda. The most exciting of all is in North Carolina. I’m just back from a visit to Charlotte, where, two years ago, the 60 year-old Children’s Theatre Company opened their wonderful new building called IMAGINON. It combines a children’s theatre (with two auditoria) with a fabulous children’s library. It offers schools and families a double whammy visit to the world of story. Events in the library tie in with the plays on view in the theatres. Some staff work for both the theatre and the library. All sorts of drama workshops are offered. Teens have their own chill-out space and an innovative animation studio in which to experiment. It’s an amazing facility, so impressive that nobody could dismiss it as a ‘ghetto’, rather proclaim it as a model that should be admired, envied and hopefully imitated world-wide.

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