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Filskit blog – young people are important

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Filskit Theatre

It’s 11.34pm on a Monday night. One night owl Filskit Lady was getting ready to send our latest blog offering off to A Younger Theatre, when she came across a discussion on our Twitter feed about this piece by Susan Elkin – Stop marginalising young audience work. As a company which works with young audiences and feels passionate about creating high quality theatre for children and young people, we just had to respond.

Now, we have admitted many times that Filskit Theatre did not initially set out to create work for children; we were all prepared to live out our theatre days performing five-hour durational pieces to drunk people in various tunnels underneath the train stations of central London. But the more people we invited to see our work, the more we were told “this would be great for little ones” and “kids would love it”. So we decided to give it a go. We created our first piece, a re-telling of Snow White with the help of the EMERGE Project at the Unicorn (because who better to tell you whether or not your work is suitable for kids, right?). The funny thing about this process was that we actually changed very little in the way that we made a piece for children compared with the way that we made work for adults.

We met a fellow theatre maker just the other day, who, instead of saying that he made work for children, said that he made work without the word “fuck” in it. That’s one way of putting it.

The biggest learning curve for us in our transition into a children’s theatre company was the realisation that children and young people don’t want to be patronised. They can grasp much more complex ideas than they are perhaps given credit for by other forms of “children’s entertainment” and can appreciate the magic of the theatre in a way that few adults can.

We have said this before and we’ll say it again: some of the most creative and engaging work we have seen over the past five years has been for children. It’s not all C Beebies and old men on unicycles talking about road safety (yes, we have seen that too). There are entire festivals dedicated to showcasing the best theatre for children and young people from the UK and abroad, for example Imaginate and Take Off, and there are so many companies out there that are creating truly fantastic work for young audiences.

Next week we are taking our show The Feather Catchermto a symposium event at Rose Bruford College, we are also running a workshop for the MA Theatre for Young Audiences students. It’s fantastic to see that there are courses specifically designed to train theatre makers in this area – we can’t wait to get involved.

So why does work for young audiences still not get the recognition it deserves?

In her piece for The Stage, Susan Elkin focuses specifically on the lack of coverage that theatre for young audiences gets in the press. But it’s not just the papers and their reviewers that marginalise this type of work. Indeed when we first told our peers and fellow graduates that we were making work for children we were met with some quizzical looks. We were even asked by one peer “but don’t you ever want to make proper theatre?”. This mentality, that work for young audiences is somehow lesser than other art, is shockingly common.

So, what can we as artists do to change this perception? To be perfectly honest, we don’t know. Perhaps there needs to be some kind of website or publication specifically for young audiences work? Perhaps there already is?

As a start, we put a call out to all artists and companies who currently make work for young people or who are perhaps aspiring performers who want to work with children. We invite you to challenge yourselves to keep on making exceptional theatre… sooner or later everyone else (press included) will want to join the party, we hope.

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre are an all-female ensemble with a passion for micro-projection. The company, Sarah Gee, Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, have been making work together since 2008. As graduates of the European Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford they were brought together by their shared love of projection and cake.

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Review: At The End Of Everything Else, Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 03 April 2014 by Lucy Bishop

At the End of Everything Ever

At The End Of Everything Else is a charming production following the story of a young girl, Icka, who lives with her father and often dreams of her deceased mother. Through the media of shadow puppetry, animation and sound we are taken on a magical journey as Icka searches for her lost best friend Tito, a little yellow bird. In doing so she travels around the world and takes us along for a whimsical ride.

The main point of focus is the screen hanging centre stage, which uses a variety of mixed media to create beautiful imagery such as montages of Icka’s daily routine before and after the adventure, the northern lights, and touching moments between the projected Tito and the shadow puppet Icka. However these gorgeous visuals feel somewhat undermined by the fact that young people are being asked to sit and stare predominately at a large screen in a theatre, which proudly announces that “all our shows are in 3D”.

The whole production is powered by several bikes that are pedalled on the side of the stage, enforcing the eco-friendly message of the piece. It is hugely refreshing to see a company not only preaching about saving the planet, but creatively incorporating ways of doing so. The highlight of the production is when children from the audience are invited on stage to help generate electricity to save Tito. In that moment there is a real connection between the performers and the audience, which creates a magical atmosphere in the theatre. Such effort goes in to ensuring the production itself is eco-friendly, that it is disappointing that the narrative does not echo this more clearly.

The design of At The End Of Everything is very in keeping with the sweet story. John Horabin’s animation is charming and holds the production together, while the puppets have a quality similar to the work of artist Rob Ryan. They are just as delightful as the animation and are well manipulated, particularly a fully-working cardboard bike that becomes Icka’s means of flying round the world. Perspective is used well to keep the images engaging and constantly changing, and the interaction between the animation and puppets is impressive. Around the edges of the space there is a trail of empty water bottles that are lit in different colours, again reinforcing the eco-friendly message as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Due to the technicality of the production there are some dead moments as puppets, bikes and projections are negotiated: this is somewhat disengaging for younger members of the audience and generally the pace of the piece could have been picked up to keep them hooked. Overall though, The End Of Everything Else is a visually stimulating, charming production with an original take on saving the planet.

At The End Of Everything Else is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets see the Unicorn Theatre website.

Lucy Bishop

Lucy Bishop

Lucy is orginally from Bristol and is currently in her final year studying Physical Theatre at East 15. She is part of a comedy Music duo called "Silly People" and is a lover or scramble egg, Louis Theroux and puppets

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Review: The Velveteen Rabbit, Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 26 March 2014 by Daniel Harrison

The Velveteen Rabbit

I think what I love most about the Unicorn Theatre is that it is a venue that never patronises or mollycoddles its audience. It makes shows for children and young people, yes, but they always assume a natural intelligence and understanding. This faith in its audiences is always repaid, and we are far more engaged in its work as a result.

The last thing I saw at the Unicorn was Pim & Theo a couple of weeks ago, a hugely impressive and ambitious piece of theatre and one of my 2014 highlights already. The Velveteen Rabbit is just as good, lending further weight to the increasingly watertight argument that the Unicorn is the place to be for theatre of the utmost quality, whatever your age.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a very touching and poignant story. The velveteen rabbit of the title belongs to The Boy (unnamed so audiences have a more neutral canvas to easily identify with, perhaps?). They do everything together: climb snow-swept mountains, escape from sinking ships and survive epic battles, before crawling into bed together of an evening and repeating it all again the next day. This loving and boisterous relationship begins to take its toll, and the rabbit starts to become a little threadbare and shabby: each stitch that is unintentionally unpicked is a scar, a memory of another playful adventure. When the boy contracts scarlet fever, his nurse takes drastic steps to ensure that he does not come into contact with the disease again. I won’t reveal any more because you really ought to go and see this. Needless to say, it hits you like a punch in the gut whilst cleverly remaining boldly understated.

Rather than lazily wallowing in nostalgia or sentimentalism, The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us of our childhood through the exploits the pair get up to. Scenes such as the pillow-fight, or even simply playing in the garden, are universal and transcend generational differences. You’ll be reminded of the shenanigans that you used to get up to – I was on a number of occasions.

Christian Roe gives a tender performance as the rabbit: he has an astute eye for detail and, suitably enough, flops about the space. A word also on his costume – done up in a turtle neck and jacket, we are able to project our own memories of childhood toys onto him. We are given free reign of imagination, and this is delightful. Paul Lloyd and Syrus Lowe provide quietly powerful turns, and Paul Moylan on piano injects further class into proceedings.

The real bunny brought on stage towards the end is a final, charming touch. The Velveteen Rabbit oozes quality.

This review is dedicated to my teddy Roodo – one day I’ll remember to rescue you from behind the radiator at Mum’s house.

The Velveteen Rabbit is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre website.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Feature: Chris Thorpe – starting the conversation

Posted on 13 February 2014 by Devawn Wilkinson

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“This is not an interview, this is a conversation,” asserts Chris Thorpe fervently, as I’m apologising for offering a stream of personal observations on his work rather than any straightforward questions. It’s a generous, evocative statement that’s usefully indicative of Thorpe’s approach – from recent Fringe success, There has Possibly Been an Incident, to his collaborations with poet Hannah Jane Walker, (I Wish I was Lonely is soon to arrive at BAC) his work is always a kind of conversation – a meticulous contemplation of “cause and effect, the examination of the tiny steps” rather than any dogmatic dictation of the way things are. He resists any assumption that, as a writer, he intends to set himself up “as an expert – to suggest that the reason that I’m doing this because I have the answer, that’s absolute rubbish!” At the heart of his works is always “an attempt to grapple with a fundamental question,” he explains, adding with emphasis “…and not to provide the answers”.

That sense of “starting the conversation” is no doubt present in his newest play, Hannah, currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre, a work for younger audiences based on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. In the original seventeenth century text, an arrogant, over-learned scholar sells his soul to the devil in return for absolute power and knowledge. In Thorpe’s retelling, the eponymous heroine – 11-year-old Hannah, frustrated by her life and feeling neglected by her hard-working mother – is rather more sympathetic. For Thorpe, it was crucial that the protagonist wasn’t “a selfish princess that just believes everything is hers by right, or a hyper-intelligent scholar ready to sell what makes her human,” but rather “an ordinary person as capable of being considerate and good – or selfish – as we all are. It’s really important that she’s quite ordinary, and that’s not to say dull or unintelligent, because she’s just like you and me, and this isn’t about asking ‘what would a theoretical selfish person do?’ It has to let us think about what you and I would do, given this opportunity.”

Though Marlowe’s work provided the impetus and basic structure, and Thorpe acknowledges it, as “one of the first plays [he] ever read,” as highly influential, he is also keen to communicate that Hannah is not simply Doctor Faustus modernised and “translated into a different language, into my idea of what this audience would want,” nor is it “a historical re-enactment”. He has kept to the verse form, which Marlowe uses only partially in the play, because it excites him and challenges him as a writer: Thorpe marvels at “the discipline that verse places on you, the different ways to express that it forces you into, and as a result of that, the different kind of work it asks an audience to do. As a conscious taking on of that archaic poetic form, I love what it does to the way I have to help the characters express their thoughts… and it’s incredibly versatile,” he insists, pre-emptively combative of any suggestion that the verse form is a redundant one, “and I don’t think it feels old, it simply asks us to work with language in a way that we don’t usually do in the theatre.”

If, as Thorpe emphasises, Hannah is not strictly an adaptation of the material of Doctor Faustus, what is its relationship to, and how does it reinvigorate, Marlowe’s macabre morality play, bursting with decadent greed, moral failings and religious terror? “Hannah is a new show that re-casts the questions that Doctor Faustus is asking, for now,” Thorpe explains. “I think those questions are still valid and very pertinent, particularly to young people. There’s something in Faustus which is about those ideas of personal power and agency that start to develop in you as you’re making the transition into adulthood. The fantasies we all have about our own power as we’re growing up, if we could do whatever we wanted – the idea that we can explore our relationships with the world and other people through the lens of how much we can exercise power over them.” What he finds deeply fascinating is that “richness in contrast” between how these ideas of power and punishment in Faustus play out, then and now. “Marlowe explores these questions through a moral and social framework that is absolutely tied up with ideas of external judgement.”  Indeed, the original play ends with Faustus doomed to eternal damnation, a conclusion, that quite rightly, Thorpe views as somewhat incompatible with the way most of us live. “Now, the idea of supernatural, external rules that will crash in and punish you if you violate them has mostly faded away. The difference now -–although many people may still have a religious, spiritual upbringing – is that the world in general, the society in general that the play is happening in, is much more concerned about your status as an individual, and what your individual responsibilities are.”

It’s seems like a delicate point to try and communicate to any audience, and indeed, Hannah might be viewed as a reaction, a kind of antidote, to the fact that young people in particular are often spoon-fed that simplistic, punitive system of morality. The reality for Thorpe is that “that idea of good and bad, those clearly delineated moral choices that we make, breaks down really quickly when we put it against the world, against any one individual and put that individual in society. If there’s an underlying principle in Hannah, it’s that there are no magic wands, because magic wands, in terms of being able to make moral choices or solve problems, are very dangerous ideas to carry around. It’s about recognising the complexity, and the advantage you have with a story based on Faustus is that you can show the consequences of wishes coming true – the cascading effect of that, even if that wish is unselfish. In fact, the main difference between Faustus and Hannah is that she is capable of making unselfish wishes, but even those have unintended consequences – because they are overly simplistic attempts to solve problems at a single stroke.” He visibly recoils from the suggestion that writing for a younger audience might mean “diluting the difficulty or the complexity of those ideas, because then you’re into a situation where you’re second guessing what your audience can cope with – that’s something that for any audience is dangerous, as a writer, especially when you’re dealing with people who are younger than you.”

There’s a line, of course, between necessary ambiguity and an inability or reluctance to tackle an issue head-on. Thorpe clarifies that “it’s important to be clear about what those questions are – to be clear about what we’re talking about, but remain open about any possible conclusion.” That leads us to wondering, I suggest, that if it is no longer theatre’s purpose to moralise, to warn us, to essentially frighten us into behaving, what should it do? Thorpe’s response is, as I’ve come to expect, eloquent yet refreshingly accessible. “We live in a world where, technologically, there is absolutely no reason for theatre to exist. If we look at the many ways there are to absorb information, for story and literature to exist – the many easier ways – it almost makes theatre redundant. But yet, it absolutely isn’t. It hasn’t gone way, and it never will. So what is it about theatre that makes it this different space? It’s not the ability to moralise, absolutely not, I think we accept that now. But it is the only place where we all are real in that room. Whether our job in that room is to watch and listen, or to pretend to be someone else, or to start a conversation, if we acknowledge that we are all in that room, then what that means is: theatre hasn’t died, and it won’t die. So the function of theatre, then, is to examine those questions in a participatory way, whatever forms that participation takes… and what I am hopeful about,” he muses, when I ask if he is an optimist or a pessimist (or neither) as a theatre-maker, “is that we can continue to develop these skills to analyse ourselves – to ask ourselves and each other when it’s pertinent, am I doing the right thing, right now? And I am hopeful about that – the ability to stand outside ourselves and go, ‘ah, I’m not right all the time,’ – to really get us somewhere… I think!”

Hannah is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 9 March. For more information and tickets, please see The Unicorn Theatre website

 

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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