Purni Morell, new Artistic Director of Britain’s largest children’s theatre – the Unicorn Theatre – is far from crumbling under the pressure of such a role, or the task of ensuring the Unicorn raises the £500,000 it needs each year to keep on running. In fact, when I caught up with her, Morell explained she is expanding the age range that the theatre caters for, to incorporate the interests of those aged between 2 – 21, making sure there is a show to suit everyone’s taste.
“The Unicorn is in a unique position as a large, purpose built theatre for young audiences. We put on productions for young people from ages 2 – 21, and this means we put on a broad programme of work, so that any person who has an interest in the Unicorn, be that a mother of a two-year-old, or a 14-year-old coming to town for the first time on his/her own, or a teacher of Year Seven, we’ll have something that is aimed at that particular group of people, once every month or so.” Morell is convinced, however, that through such expansion of age range, nothing will be spoilt or lost in terms of what this theatre specialises in. “What makes the Unicorn special are the shows, and the Unicorn lives and dies by the shows that are on, and each show that’s on will be wonderful in its own right.”
Morell is keen not to make the building one that is preserved in assets, as she believes theatre should be seen as a contemporary art form. “What I’m very keen to do is to encourage regular visits, because the thing about theatre that is so interesting is that it comes in many, many forms, from the big sorts of shows that you see at Christmas, to the much smaller intimate shows which invite you to look very carefully at a particular problem.”
Hoping to make the Unicorn a go-to place, Morell wants young audiences to find it a venue in which they feel absolutely welcome. This, she believes, would allow them to develop a language and opinion about all the different kinds of performance that exist. “The arts aren’t taught as part of the mainstream in most schools and so it could be quite intimidating, regardless of what age you are. If you go to the theatre once, you may or may not like it, but if you don’t have the chance to speak about how you feel at the end of the performance it could be quite intimidating to be asked your opinion or to comment on it, and I think that kind of confidence can only be built by regular attendance.”
Having seen a lot of children’s theatre abroad in other parts of Europe, Morell views the variation in style as a reflection on how children and young people are treated differently in different countries. “One of the things that really excites me is bringing international work over here. It gives theatre makers an opportunity to discuss some of these subjects among themselves and incorporate some of that into their own work. The way children’s theatre unfolds in Sweden, or the way it happens in Belgium, or Italy or Britain, is very much informed by the way we speak to young people in every day life.”
For Morell, there are positive qualities in European countries in terms of how young people are considered part of society, and she is bringing those qualities to her work in bridging the cultural gap and incorporating aspects of other theatrical traditions into this country’s children’s theatre. “In England, unfortunately, we sometimes slip into a tendency to see children as waiting to become real people when they grow up,” she explains.
Many theatre practitioners are disappointed that theatre studies is not part of the national curriculum in most schools, but through the Unicorn’s Learning and Participation team offering a full programme of workshops and classroom resources, the Unicorn is doing what it can to normalise theatre in the minds of the masses and encourage today’s children to explore what it offers. Theatre is not, however, about learning. Morell argues: “At least not in the normal sense or application of the word ‘learning’. The thing about theatre is that it is a place like no other, which combines a very personal engagement with the story that you may be watching, and doing so within a public, live environment.” In contrast to recorded media – television, film, computers – “there is something very interesting about simply being in a room with other human beings, and watching, or participating in a story that other human beings are telling you about the world in which we share.” She insists “It’s not learning about theatre, it’s more to do with having a space where you can expand the way you think about the world we are living in.”
The Unicorn Theatre is committed to keeping ticket prices low and making the venue interesting and accessible for people. “We want people to come and see whether they like it. When they come, of course, we hope they will like it and then come back!” There’s no need to try and compete with other modern media – “the important thing is to give people the opportunity to see that there are many ways you could spend your time, and all these different activities don’t need to compete with each other for people’s attention.” Morell explains, “Finding out more about the world is something humans have always done and I think that the arts are an important part of that. I think that it’s very much about giving people the opportunity to come and see a show.”
Many of the plays put on at the Unicorn Theatre introduce children to the problems and harsh realities that we face and have to find a way of dealing with in life. In June, the Unicorn staged Something Very Far Away, in which the big taboo of human death is tackled. “The problem with death is that it happens and there’s no getting away from it,” says Morell. “I don’t think that theatre is necessarily the best way to introduce children to the idea that people are going to die, but I do think theatre is a place to experience emotionally how you feel about the fact that death is going to happen.” Morell bravely chooses to acknowledge that “we are all mortal” and believes there is no point in pretending that this is not the case, even in children’s theatre. “There’s great comfort to be found in honesty about subjects that are difficult,” she explains. “What the show is really about is how someone copes with grief. I think what this show has in it is an enormous amount of emotional truth about what it’s like when you lose someone that you love – which is a problem that’s around us every day – so it’s a good idea to talk about it.”
For Morell, staging theatre specifically for children is no more or less important than theatre for adults. “What theatre allows us to do is to create a space in which we can look at the world we live in, look at ourselves and other people in a heightened reality which is a lot like the world we live in, but slightly different from it, because the possibilities in it are different and the outcomes are different.” And that is something which is extremely valuable for adults and children alike.
The Unicorn’s new season includes I, Malvolio, Dr Korczak’s Example, A Winter’s Tale and The Prince and the Pauper. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.unicorntheatre.com.
Image credit: Unicorn Theatre