It is hard to entertain children these days. Growing up in a multi-technology world with a billion apps substituting real life events, children’s concentration spans are as short as a walk from the TV to the sofa. Even tiny babies are now being distracted by Baby Einstein and various absurd and slightly disturbing creatures on CBeebies and Milkshake (children’s programmes, for those of you who try to stay at least 100m away from little ones). Entertainment has to be fast, loud and colourful in order to keep up with technology-bred children, especially in a fast-paced city like London. I find it sad that lots of quality entertainment such as reading and theatre is being put aside, when I believe the modern child actually needs these more than ever.
Luckily some theatre-makers are swimming against the stream and are developing new captivating performances to stimulate children today. I recently attended one of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Shakespeare re-imagined shows and was blown away by the response from the younger audience. Often when I mention my passion for Shakespeare and the classics to adults outside the strange world of theatre-making, they stutter slightly and tell me gruesome tales of old-fashioned English teachers plodding through Romeo and Juliet. So many people create a fear of Shakespeare and classic literature because of bad childhood experiences. Obviously we need to address the problem at its root – our children’s early years, and not just in schools but also at a very young age when they are exposed to different areas of the arts.
Back to the Shakespeare re-imagined. The Open Air Theatre has made it a tradition to stage a Shakespeare play in consultation with the Young Shakespeare Company in order to pitch the stories to a younger audience. By using storytelling, dress-up, music and dance it manages to engage its target audience (who sometimes are under the age of six) even though they won’t understand most of what the actors are saying. The performances have been carefully planned to suit the age group and what triggers them, and I found myself at 10am on a Saturday morning cheering for the little ones they had brought on stage to participate in competitions.
And the Open Air Theatre is not the only theatre realising the need to reach out to a new generation and how important it is to pitch the classics to them in a way that competes with the twenty-first century technology distractions but also retains the roots of the writing and tries to cultivate the young. The Young Shakespeare Company tours with different Shakespeare plays re-invented for children and teaches workshops around the country to try and involve the young in the arts. Shakespeare Schools’ Festival has its annual festival this autumn to inspire children of all backgrounds to challenge themselves through performing.
And it’s not only Shakespeare who is being made accessible for today’s children. As part of the annual free open air theatre season at the Scoop at More London, Tower Bridge, director Phil Willmott has created a production of Prince of Thebes taking the little ones on a journey through ancient Greece with the young Oedipus, teaching them the myth and working as a runner-up to the tragic and more grown-up version later in the evening. Using music, slapstick and interaction with the audience, the classic tale is made understandable and is hugely entertaining for a younger audience, hopefully inspiring them to have a go at the classic version.
Shakespeare and the classics are not all about the verse and words most of us have to look up in a dictionary. They are also about universal truths that are essential to us now, even as children – stories of friendships, hope and magic that are as relevant now as ever. It’s a cultural legacy for children in the UK, and though it’s obligatory in school, it should still be fun, exciting and fuel creativity even in a world where four year-olds have smartphones and know how to work an iPad.
As a five year-old audience member said at Ria Parry’s The Winter’s Tale Re-imagined at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: “Daddy, that was the best movie ever.”
Photo of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale Re-imagined. (c) Johan Perrson.