This year Kipper Tie Theatre is performing Our Island – a collaboration with Singapore company, I Theatre – and The Ugly Duckling at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Ugly Duckling is a children’s story we all know and love and similarly it hasn’t taken Kipper Tie Theatre long to become a cherished company for children’s theatre, especially following a series of great reviews at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business. Artistic Director and founder of Kipper Tie, Bernie Byrnes, sheds light on the company’s fringe programme and on why children’s theatre best communicates ideas effectively when the storytelling itself is engaging.
What do you aim to achieve with your productions?
We aim to make people’s visit to the theatre, whatever their age, an enjoyable and memorable one.
What are the key ingredients for a successful children’s show?
Don’t patronise (I can’t stress that enough). Strong storytelling is key: make the action clear, relevant and interesting. Don’t shy away from surprising yourself and your audience and keep on your toes. Also, remember you can’t please everyone so you have to be proud of your work. If you don’t love what you are making you shouldn’t be making it.
You’ve used popular children’s stories like the Three Billy Goats Gruff and Hansel and Gretel for past shows. How did you go about adapting these for a theatre audience?
First we tend to strip the story right down to find its core and work out how that can best serve the story that we want to be telling. We think hard about what we want the audience to go away thinking: are we focusing on sharing, or bullying etc. The message/moral doesn’t have to be the traditional one – but that doesn’t mean you need to change the original beyond all recognition.
Both Our Island and The Ugly Duckling teach children about important issues: xenophobia and social inclusion/exclusion. How do you go about making theatre educational in a child friendly way?
We don’t preach. We champion kids by being on their side and “getting” their point of view. The story needs to serve the message without carrying it – hopefully the audience will go away saying “I liked it when character A was nice to character B” rather than “I think the message of the show was about the importance of tolerance and sharing”.
The Ugly Duckling incorporates Sign Supported English into the performance. What made you decide to integrate this?
We wanted children to be familiar with the idea of signing. The way it’s used in Ugly Duckling isn’t forced or tacked on. It occurs as part of a repeated section of gestures and dialogue that become familiar to the audience without ever saying “this is the sign for friends, let’s all sign together”. Our hope is that by deciding to copy rather than being told to, children become more open to the idea of different ways of communicating. We wanted to encourage a dialogue about exclusion through the simple start point of “What are they doing?” but actually we found that thanks to CBeebies and Sesame Street the kids are better at signing than we are! We are lucky enough to have a sign language consultant on the team (Gemma Scott) though, so we’re working hard to stay ahead of the game.
How did the collaboration with Singapore’s I Theatre come about?
I Theatre and Kipper Tie Theatre have been based at C Venues for a few years. We admired their work and they admired ours. I got talking to Brian Seward, artistic director of I Theatre, about collaborating and then we spent a couple of years thrashing out how to make that happen. We have previously collaborated with other theatre companies and we enjoy the fresh way of working that collaboration brings. We’re delighted with the results.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own theatre company?
Think about what kind of company you want to be – what are you setting out to achieve. It’s much easier to plan, to promote yourself and to track your progress if you have an idea of what your goals are. They can be as simple as “we will be strong traditional story tellers” through to “we are going to redefine theatre as a vegetable puppet based, anarchistic and freestyle living art form, where the audience’s disgust is an integral and sought after part of our essential happenings.” I would also advise would-be artistic directors to get out there and talk to the people who are already making the kind of work you like.
Is it important for children to experience theatre?
If children’s first experiences of theatre are fun – if from an early age going to the theatre isn’t a staid and boring thing where they have to sit still and be good – as they get older they won’t be afraid to come back and see other work. They won’t worry that they don’t know the rules of behaviour. Children are, after all, an essential part of audience creation and they’re also the practitioners of tomorrow.
Our Island and The Ugly Duckling are both playing at C venues – C until 27th August. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.edfringe.com, www.Cthefestival.com or for more about the company, www.kippertietheatre.com.
Image credit: Kipper Tie Theatre