Victoria Dyson: The Unicorn was founded in 1947 as a touring theatre operating out the back of a van. What does the Unicorn of 2014 look like?
Purni Morell: The Unicorn is now a year-round producing company with its own home base in London, playing to about 65,000 people a year. We go up to the ages of 21 from about 6 months or so. I’m interested in finding a way of creating an environment in which children can have an experience which exists purely for art’s sake. We take for granted that culture and participation in art is an important part of an adult’s life. I’m interested in replicating what it feels like for an adult to go to the theatre, for a child. I’m interested in autonomy, allowing the experience to take place whenever it does, not necessarily right there in the room, but perhaps later on. Setting up an environment in which a child owns that experience and isn’t participating in it on someone else’s agenda, because it’s educational or because your mum likes the theatre. To me it’s similar to the 1947 aspiration of creating a theatre that’s just like an adult theatre but just simply the audience is a different age.
VD: Do you think theatre for younger audiences is still overlooked or has that changed?
PM: I don’t think it’s overlooked anymore and the change comes from a number of things. One thing is that the generation of people who are now at the leading end of making theatre for young audiences are the people who have children themselves. I think the work we do here is relevant in terms of how we’re led by form not content in our programme. Quite a lot of our work isn’t what you’d expect from a children’s theatre. It’s expanding how people think about children’s theatre rather than thinking we’ve got to do Rapunzel.
If anything, I do wish the mainstream press would catch up with what’s going on for young audiences in the way that the mainstream theatre has. Almost all mainstream theatres now programme work for young audiences but it would be wonderful, given that there are two million children in London, to get some column inches in reviews. They haven’t quite caught up with that this is the place to be.
VD: How do you find marketing to parents on behalf of their children?
PM: I believed, wrongly, before I came, that it was going to be a real challenge. I came from a very mainstream background at the National. I thought it would be problematic taking iconic titles and putting them in front of people who are expecting something else. As a kid I had Bible Stories simplified or Tales from Shakespeare and that’s not interesting. It doesn’t offer a new, artistic impulse. It takes a thing that did exist and repackages it, and that’s ultimately dull. What is interesting is to take something that creates a whole new piece of work that invites you to look differently at the original. What we’ve experienced is people being really relieved that something different is happening.
VD: A lot of festivals such as Imaginate look further afield for shows. What do you think is lacking in British work?
PM: Understanding of children. In Britain we have a tendency to think of children as people who are preparing to become adults. It feels like a training opportunity. I think in many European countries children are considered to be equal people. We’re very bad at that. There’s a tendency among European theatre makers to feel they have a great deal more permission to interact with children on more difficult subjects. Here, if we head into difficult territory we tend to walk away from art. A Belgian would say this is the art. We have art because this is difficult. It invites artists to pursue human problems further than we always feel comfortable doing. And I think that leads to more interesting theatre.
VD: Have you seen a piece of work recently that’s really stayed with you?
PM: Yes! Adler & Gibb at the Court – a tremendous piece by Tim Crouch. The Testament of Mary at the Barbican. I thought that was phenomenal. Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Royal Opera House. The best thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen some really good stuff lately.
VD: You mentioned Tim Crouch. He’s a regular at the Unicorn as are people like Chris Goode. You’re getting some interesting theatre makers in.
PM: I hope so. One big change I made is to bring in people who hadn’t previously made theatre for children. It interests me to look at adults and children together. You can fall into the trap of bringing your child or class to the Unicorn and thinking that your work is done. Actually you have to listen to that play as well as there’s perspectives in there for you as an adult that will tell you things you don’t know about your child. I’m excited to invite adults to participate in that.
VD: You’ve programmed new work for under 5s , See Saw and Scrunch. Is there an increasing demand for ‘baby theatre’?
PM: There’s always strong demand for work for under 5s, I can sell the younger years much easier. The definition of an artistic director is someone who hopes it rains at the weekend!
VD: How much scope is there to push the boundaries in this type of work?
PM: Form is a lot more adventurous in theatre for young audiences than it is in the mainstream. The sort of stuff we do here is more like live art. I encourage that because it’s my taste. People are far more adventurous than English theatre cultures give them credit for to date.
VD: You are to programme the 2016 World Festival of Theatre For Young Audiences (TYA) in Birmingham. What are you hoping to achieve in 2016?
PM: There are genuinely things that the UK and Ireland have to offer in terms of the global conversation on children’s theatre. One is that we have more diverse audiences than are achieved in other European countries. Also, at the moment in the UK and Ireland the majority of interesting people making work for children are not necessarily from a children’s theatre tradition. This means that the form’s wide open and there’s a lot of elastic and interesting stuff happening which I think will surprise our international visitors. I’m really interested in having a programme from all around the world with all these theatre makers in town for 10 days. I’m excited to see how that can set a benchmark for taste and ambition for theatre makers in this country. The best way to programme is to programme things you’d like to see. So I’m going to pick 20 shows I’d like to see from all around the world.
The 19th World Festival of Theatre For Young Audiences (TYA) will be hosted in Birmingham in July 2016 with the aim of showcasing the best theatre for children and young people from across the UK, Ireland and across the world. This will be the first time the festival will have been held in the UK.
Following this interview, The Unicorn announced that it has received an uplift in its Arts Council England investment of 30%, taking its annual grant to £1,303,884 from April 2015 to March 2018. Morell commented: “We’re absolutely committed to making this vital public investment count, not just for the Unicorn but for the whole of children’s theatre in the UK, as we embark on an ambitious programme of commissions, productions, tours and talent development, as ever, working with some of the best artists around, and continuing to push expectations of what can be achieved in children’s arts ever higher.”