Making theatre for kids special

Internationally renowned children’s theatre showcase, :DANISH+, is preparing for its fifth edition this May. Artistic director Bodil Alling on the qualities that make a kids’ show special. Interview by Andrew Anderson

‘Even in an imagined world you can’t cheat children out of quality’

Right now we are sorting out registration for delegates coming to Aarhus for :DANISH+ from all over the world. We have to contact each individually with details of what will happen, when and how.

We’re quite close to the showcase – it begins on 1 May – so it is a very busy time for us. We’ve got to sort the details like food, transport and other logistics for presenters too.

Androkles og løven.  Carte Blanche og Gruppe 38. Foto: Bo Amstrup

We do not automatically have an audience for the showcase. Some guests return year after year, but we also have to find people from around the world that might be interested in theatre for children. It can be very difficult to figure out how to find the right groups in say China or Africa – this research takes up a huge amount of our time.

Sometimes that means we go to festivals in order to meet people face to face, other times it means looking through the Yellow Pages and getting in touch with everyone involved in culture related to children. It’s a huge undertaking.

The process of curating :DANISH+ began over a year ago. It is our aim to build an eclectic programme representative of many different viewpoints. We have shows for different age groups – from the under-threes to teenagers – and so the range of what we can present is always a consideration.

It is actually very difficult to find the right performances. Productions have to fit the right age groups, have a good story to tell, and work on different levels. We only want shows that adults can enjoy too; our belief is that a performance must succeed whether there are children in the audience or not.

Add all these together and you soon find that not many shows can meet each requirement. The perfect :DANISH+ showcase piece must be amusing, but also it must make you think, whether you are four or 40 years old.

Added to this is the challenge that every theatre and every player must be able to stage the performance in English – if it has language – and the new adaptation has to work. It is not just that the play must be translated, it must also keep its rhythm, impact, form and strength.

For any company showcasing at :DANISH+ it is a huge undertaking  to meet all of these criteria. We want all the performances we present to be excellent, because we ask people to travel from all over the world to come here.

This year we have 16 shows on the programme, all matching the requirements I described earlier. Fortunately, it is also a manageable and realistic number for our guests to see over the course of four days; any more and there would not be time to discuss the performances.

But it is still a hectic programme, sometimes you will have to run from one performance to catch the next.

All the delegates that come here are very used to watching, discussing and making notes. Every theatre company that comes to present its work in Aarhus will have full information about the production on their website.

We also produce a detailed programme so you can read a bit about each company and their show as you go around. Having said that, we do not host any formal networking events, :DANISH+ is more organic than that. We leave time in the schedule so that delegates have opportunities to discuss the performances they’ve seen, connect with one another, and ask the questions they need to ask.

We hope that at least 11 or 12 of the shows will be invited from :DANISH+ to be staged elsewhere, whether that is a festival or a tour. It is hard to say which performances will sell, because it depends who is in the audience.

What delegates buy is affected by where they come from, and everyone interprets performances in unique ways due to their varying cultures and backgrounds. When a performance is interesting it will invite the audience to wonder about what they’ve seen and ask ‘Why did they do this? Why didn’t they do that? How come the world is like this and that?’ I want the shows you see at :DANISH+ to stimulate constructive debate. The works presented at :DANISH+ fire the imagination. You don’t just sit the in the darkness and feel amused or entertained, you use all your senses and your brain to figure things out.

How a combination of words, sounds and light are used are important factors in the :DANISH+ experience. We never look for just entertainment, because that is everywhere already, we need something more.

Theatre is no different than other art forms in that it is hard to define exactly why it is so important (and it can be difficult to say precisely what the benefit to audiences might be).

But theatre is also unlike other art forms because of the way audiences are challenged. Theatre is special – you sit and it happens right in front of you. It is real and yet it is not real. You cannot avoid engaging with what is taking place on the stage and around you. If you are an actor or a dancer performing to young audiences that involvement is heightened.

Always remember that theatre for children and young people can’t just be nonsensical or silly. Companies must behave responsibly towards their audiences and keep the story believable and thought provoking. Even in an imagined world you can’t cheat children out of quality.

When you work with young audiences you have to put 100 per cent effort into every production. You must trust children to go on the fantastical journey with you.

:Danish+ takes place 1-4 May in Aarhus, Denmark. The full article and listings are in the May issue of IAM out now here.