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The kids are alright

Feb 18, 2015

Theatre for young audiences has grown in the last five years, with major plays like The Book of EverythingStorm Boy and The Witches taking over the main stages of companies around the country. Now, theatre for young audiences in Australia has a new representative on the world’s stage that has set out to build international opportunities for theatre makers.

Artistic Director of Polygot Theatre, Sue Giles, recently took up a position on the Executive Committee of ASSITEJ International, the peak body for children and the performing arts in the world. This body was set up to unite theatres, organisations and individuals throughout the world dedicated to theatre for young audiences. Through international conversations, ASSITEJ looks to connect artists and audiences, sharing knowledge from all corners of the globe.

So what is important when advocating for the performing arts for young people, how theatre makers can make the sector stronger, and what we can learn from our international colleagues? Sue Giles shares her thoughts on Australian theatre for young audiences and its challenges.

How do you see theatre for young audiences in Australia changing in the next 5 years?

I think we are already facing a future where we will be considering all and every way to thrive in our own right. We’re thinking all the time – together and separate, about way we could do this better, join forces more. We share information, people and ideas. We are experts in change and taking risks.

So we are trying different models of working both together as a sector and individually as organisations and independent artists.  The independent artists are even more nimble than organisations and it’s in that responsive, ‘let’s make it happen’ ethos that change can occur.

People through social media are following myriad stands of information and links to what people are doing all over the world in every imaginable art form.  This will mean increasing exploration across art forms – already funding bodies have seized this and are creating change through opportunity. Exploration into art form cross over and especially into audience relationship to these art form means opening up of expectations and the creating of a situation where presenters and buyers of work will eventually be programming so far outside of the cultural zeitgeist that they will re-invent the way they see their role.

In the next 5 years advocacy for the sector will increase and this is because we have had a decline in support in recent years. Practitioners and audiences will take up the call for stronger, better and more of because the situation has declined so dramatically.

In form there will be an increasing interest and engagement with participatory theatre and increased focus on children’s voice and presence as creative collaborators.  Non-verbal, physical and immersive installation work is already on the increase, responding to children as core to the works created and also responding to the opportunities in Asia.

The most excellent change nationally would be regard for and value of the children’s and young people’s theatre sector – not only the art but the audience. This is something that comes with leadership, cultural policy and support as well as advocacy.

What can Australian theatre makers learn from international markets? Why is it important to look internationally?

Travel does broaden the mind. Each time artists leave Australia to tour, they come back with fresh ideas and inspiration but always too with a sense that Australia is making work that stands up internationally.  We also have much to teach and well as to learn.

Travel and touring is vital to the strength of the sector in terms of artistic excellence and ability to invent and keep inventing, to know more and to seek relationships that lead to collaboration and partnership.  To be well regarded outside of our country speaks strongly to national presenters.

It’s also important to look internationally because very quickly a work that is created to tour for years will run out of audiences.  We are driven by a need that is about survival, as well as finding an artistic foothold in the international landscape.

What is the significance of the Asia Pacific region for Australian theatre, what do you see as the challenges in this area?

The biggest challenge that we must rise to is that of diversity in our thinking  – from realising where we are in the world, to how white middle class our audiences are, to how Anglo most of our theatre makers are, and to get excited by the fact that we are in a unique relationship with artists in neighbouring countries.

The Asia Pacific region markets are very strong for children’s work  and the possibilities are growing  fast.  Our European influences in text based theatre means that the entry point into the Asian market is not immediately obvious, unless you’re working in a particular form.  The fact that Australia has identified more as European than Asian so far is undeniable. When you realise that a huge percentage of Australians didn’t know that Bali was in Indonesia, you know we’ve got a problem.

More and more artists and companies are collaborating with Asian counterparts, partly through artistic fascination and relationship and partly because there have been strong funding initiatives that allow this to happen.  This has meant a better knowledge of what is possible and also the creation of original shared works.

The challenges are language, culture, and understanding a different approach to making theatre for children. Collaboration with Asian artists is changing this bit by bit. Through artistic exchange and residencies, knowledge of each other’s aesthetics is shared more widely and with more resonance.  The learning that can happen when working with cultures that have a deep acceptance of art as part of life is profound when you are an artist in a country that comes to it kicking and screaming.

The relationship with Asia  has influenced the changes that are happening now in art form, with artists moving to installation, non-verbal work, visual narratives, dance and film in the creation of work for young people, knowing that to travel to countries in Asia who are expressing interest in Australian work , they will have to not be language reliant.

The art for children (especially children under 12)  in the Asia pacific region is governed by a different set of rules and more strictly governed.  Much of the work I’ve seen from Asia has a strong folk base, strong reference to traditional form; or uses European stories to show base work upon. There is often a strong sense of message or morality in the work, with an expectation that it is cheerful, colourful and ultimately joyful.  Many presenters and artists are very interested in the kind of work coming from Australia – they see it as a way of opening up discussion into different ways of engaging with audiences.

Image: Girl runs through Sticky Maze by Polygot Theatre at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, credit: Sarah Walker