I’ll start with the former. When I say Children’s Theatre, I am not speaking of theatre performed by children but theatre written to be performed for children. There are professional Children’s Theatre companies all over the world, such as the Seattle Children’s Theatre and the Dallas Children’s Theater, two I am personally acquainted with. The cast may or may not include children, but this is quality theatre aimed at entertaining children. The modern history of Children’s Theatre began, in my opinion, in London in 1904 when the Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie first put his unforgettable character Peter Pan on the stage.
Before Barrie and Peter Pan, theatre for children was basically the same as theatre for adults but it contained messages that adults thought children should hear and learn. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, does it, kids? Well, that’s what Mr Barrie thought, so he proceeded to invent a new kind of theatre that embodied all the elements that have worked so well from then until now in theatre for children.
First of all, it’s about children who are breaking some of society’s rules. Oh, yes, they learn lessons from it, but they indulge themselves in breaking societal boundaries and stepping outside them.
There is also magic and fantasy, flying with pixie dust, a marvellous land called Neverland and a boy who never grows up and who can fight a pirate with a sabre using only a dagger. Can you imagine the kids’ amazement when the children and the dog started to fly?
There are clearly defined good and bad characters. Children have a strong sense of justice and delight in seeing the villain get his just deserts, and if it is also funny – as with a crocodile who swallowed an alarm clock tick-tocking his way in search of his, Peter’s and our nemesis, Captain Hook – that makes it that much more interesting for kids.
And something no one had thought of before, but is painfully obvious to anyone who knows children: they don’t like to sit still for too long, so Mr Barrie evoked audience participation by having the children help bring Tinkerbell back to life by actively showing they believed in fairies.
The story is full of twists, turns and what one juvenile audience member called “suddenlys”. One surprise after another. Lastly, the story involves a big St Bernard dog who was played by a man in a suit and flew along with the children. Children love animals.
Theatre for children, therefore, is totally different from theatre for adults. They want to get involved and they want magic, fantasy, good and evil clearly defined, animals and lots of surprises to keep them glued.
Closely related is Story Theatre, theatre that tells children stories, whether they are age-old stories or new ones adapted for the stage with a narrator, simple props and a fast-paced storytelling method. Paul Sills developed this method in 1968 in Chicago with his play simply entitled Story Theatre. Since then, the form has become very popular and there are Story Theatre groups all over the world today.
I have been working with Story Theatre this year, writing plays from the tales of an Arab folk comic hero named Juha. In last month’s article I told you about The Smell of Soup. When I was in Dubai, working at the summer camp of Enana Ballet Academy, I produced my play about that story and another which I called To Freeze or Not To Freeze. On August 22 my cast of nine children from 5 to 10 years old performed this story with wonderful energy and inspiration.
In closing, it was a bitter winter in Baghdad, and Juha and his friends were taking refuge in a coffee shop, drinking tea and coffee, playing backgammon, chess and checkers when the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather. One of the men in Juha’s company said, “The winter is so much harder on us who are older because we are weaker.”
Juha said he was in no way weaker than when he was younger and, to prove it, he said there had been a marble table in his kitchen when he was a young man and he tried to move it and could not. Today he still couldn’t move it, so that proved he was exactly the same strength as then.
He went on to say that the cold didn’t bother him at all; he could stand in the cold all day and all night if need be and never feel a thing. His friends bet him he couldn’t stay out all night that night. They agreed that if he could, they would treat him to a sumptuous meal, and if he could not, he would treat them to the same. All agreed, Juha went to the town square to stay the night. Several of his friends noticed that across the square from Juha an old couple sat by their house eating hummus and bread by candlelight.
The next morning, Juha came triumphantly to the coffee shop to announce his victory. To his surprise, he was told the candle of the snacking couple had given him heat so he had lost the bet. He protested, but reluctantly had to agree to host them the next night for dinner.
When they arrived, they saw no food ready, but were told to drink tea and chat and that it would soon be ready. After an hour, they said they were starving and it must be ready by now. Juha invited them into the kitchen to see how the meal was coming along. A huge pot of stew was suspended from the ceiling three inches above a candle. His guests protested vehemently that the meal would never cook that way, to which Juha replied, “But I don’t understand. You said a candle a hundred feet away kept me warm, so surely this candle that is only three inches from the pot will cook this stew!”