A Bethnal Green community centre may seem an unlikely place to stumble upon a Montmartre skyline, but Peut-être theatre has recreated a Parisian rooftop in their rehearsal space. Peut-être (‘Perhaps’) is a fledgling company dedicated to creating theatre for young children: actor Maya Politaki says, “A previous show had a three-week old, and he didn’t have any problem following it! The oldest was 80-something, so we cover a wide audience.”
Draw Me a Bird, by dramaturg Rachel Barnett, tells the story of a young swallow, played by Politaki, who neglects to migrate for the winter as she is so in love with the songs played by a local musician (Isabelle Cressy). Fighting the twin dangers of the cold winter and the neighbourhood cat, she survives by making friends with an upstart crow (Christian From) and an old Russian pigeon (Igor Urzali).
Loosely based on the poem To paint a bird’s portrait by Jacques Prévert, Draw Me a Bird also explores the changing nature of the seasons, French folk music and the concept of art and drawing.
“Izzy is a street painter in Montmartre, where all the drawings sing,” director Daphna Attias explains. “She thinks she can’t draw a bird, but Maya is the bird she drew. It’s all about letting your creativity loose.” Politaki continues, “And also that you can do something and wait – have patience for things to happen.”
Peut-être is pushing the boundaries of what traditional theatre can be. Not only is Draw Me a Bird a very physical, visually-based piece, but concepts used within the show are being brought out of the auditorium, and part of this includes running a drawing competition for children (“and their grownups”).
They also have support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), who will come into venues and run stalls to educate audiences about birds.
“When we knew we were doing a show about birds, we decided to talk to the RSPB,” explains Barnett. “One of their contacts has donated eight pairs of binoculars, so we’re going to have birdwatching activities in the foyer before children come and see the show.”
Watching rehearsals, there is a definite sense of enthusiasm as the dancers spin and twirl around the stage.
“It’s physically tiring,” says Politaki. “But what is nice great it is that you can go completely free. You can let your imagination go – anything, really, can happen on stage – whereas when you’re a human you’re bound to the human mentality. And that doesn’t happen with animals.”
“We always like to get the audience to feel as much part of the action and the set as possible,” says Attias. “There are going to be cloud cushions for the children to sit on and little chimneys, and we’ve got a huge inflatable cloud, which has just arrived from the Netherlands. We’re really excited about it!”
“This is the first time we’ve got to play with the chimney,” From grins, leaping onto it.
It is plain to see that the members of the small ensemble are incredibly close. The company members hail from across the globe, providing a melting-pot of ideas and the rehearsal process is relaxed and democratic. The group has a good rapport and everyone clearly enjoys working together.
Politaki tells me, “A few months ago, it was one of those days where anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. And at some point, one of the others turned around and went, ‘If I wasn’t feeling so well with you guys, it would have been an awful day, I’m glad I’m with you’. And that goes every day. I’m glad it’s us in the room again and again every day. I love it.”
It is rare to see children’s theatre being utilised in this context. The most children are usually offered is the annual pantomime season, where theatres suddenly remember their younger audience. So why work in children’s theatre? “We all really enjoy it and we’re all really passionate about it,” says Attias. “I think we attracted a group of people that want and love making work for children.” It is very different to other theatre sectors, Barnett insists: “We’ve found it to be a really friendly sector of the industry. Everyone’s just lovely, we’ve got a lot of support. It doesn’t happen the same way in the new writing circles.”
“We just sort of snowballed into becoming a company,” says Attias. “We’d go to places and say ‘we’ve got this project we want to do’, and people would ask who we were. So we had to become a company.”
“Everywhere we went with our first show, they said, ‘this is lovely, what’s your next show?’” smiles Barnett. “So we did a next show!”
And after Draw me a Bird?
“I think in the future we might do more of an exploration of something like light, the elements,” says Barnett. “Something more abstract for a much smaller piece. We’ve done two big shows, one after the other, so I think the next piece might be something much more intimate that can go into different spaces. Though Daphna is amazing at working with large groups of people. So at some point, maybe two or three years down the line we want to do a big, big piece and it’ll be beautiful.”
Draw Me a Bird will be performed at Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton Festival (14 & 15 May), Chelsea Theatre, London (19 – 24 May), Rich Mix, London (27 & 28 May), Royal & Derngate, Nottingham (31 May), The Junction, Cambridge (1 June), Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury (2 June), Waterside Arts Centre, Manchester (4 June), North Wall, Oxford (10 June), Theatre Royal, Margate (12 June), South Hill Park, Bracknell (14 & 15 June), Arts Depot, London (19 June), Birmingham Rep (2 July), Barnsley Civic (3 July).