Childhood has an intrinsic propensity towards theatre – children perform the roles of adults that surround them and even develop make-believe friends. These friends become the co-actors of their internal worlds during play. The crossroad where childhood and theatre intersect gives rise to imagination, lateral thinking and ideation. In a world threatened by passive absorption of content, theatre has the power to breed a generation of idea-generators to power every walk of life. And watching theatre is as important to this process as creating it. Sitting in a dark room, concentrating on a single spectacle may seem like an unusual activity for a toddler but watching a play can lengthen a child’s attention span, develops patience and enhance listening skills. Theatre also has the advantage of connecting children to the world of books. It inculcates the written form’s sense of empathy, curiosity and literacy by being live, a form often more engaging than reading.

“The Attic” produced by The Starcatchers, Scotland
         The Attic produced by The Starcatchers, Scotland for 0-3 year olds

The act of going to the theatre and participating in it instills a strong sense of community, sharing and togetherness in children- values, which are taught in almost all education institutions. Where as self-confidence and courage often become markers of personality for children who have had stage experience. Children’s involvement with theatre does not only make them good artists, but makes them lifelong appreciators of the performing arts.

Children’s theatre which is formally known as Theatre For Young Audiences (TYA) is essentially of three types-Theatre for Young People (plays meant to be watched by young people aged between 0-18 years, Theatre with Young People (theatre made with young people aged 8-16 years) and Youth Theatre (young people aged 16 and above making theatre).

A platform that caters to all three is The International Association Of Theatre For Children And Young People (ASSITEJ). ASSITEJ unites theatres, organisations and individuals throughout the world who make theatre for and by children and young people. Programmes like Small Size focus on awareness and collaboration of performing arts for early childhood learning (0-6yrs) while its International Theatre For Young Audiences Research Network gives TYA an academic approach. Its Next Generation project engages young and emerging artists and professional theatremakers from all over the world interested in TYA, through a variety of exchange programmes, group projects and professional placements. Currently ASSITEJ has members from 100 countries across the world. All of us have a chance to see ASSITEJ’s work first hand at the Tifli – International TYA Festival that kicked of in Delhi this weekend. Tifli travels to Mumbai and Hyderabad from the 7th to the 9th of December. For a detailed schedule of Tifli and to get tickets for open shows, click here.

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Plays for all ages at the Tifli International TYA Festival

One of the first theatres to deal socio-critically with lives and living conditions of children GRIPS Theatre in Berlin.  Now almost four decades old the GRIPS’ plays have been re-staged more than 1,500 times in some 40 languages around the world. Nearly 100,000 theatregoers attend performances by the GRIPS Theater in Berlin each year, making it a theatre with one of the highest percentages of ticket sales. Each season, the GRIPS Theatre’s youth club prepares and stages a production. GRIPS also offers theatre education programmes, workshops and performances in schools. In cooperation with the energy company GASAG, the theatre presents its annual Berlin children’s theatre prize to authors of works for children’s and youth theatre. Inspired by this German endeavor GRIPS Pune was founded in 1989. What makes GRIPS distinct from other children’s theatre is that it takes issues from children’s world like lack of playgrounds, drug abuse, single parents as opposed to traditional children’s theatre where fairytales and other lighter content is performed. In 2015 as part of the Maharashtra Culture Center’s Children’s Theatre Festival, GRIPS Pune performed “Ekda Kay Zaala”, directed by Radhika Ingale, that talks about child abuse and good and bad touch using humour and music.

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Rehearsal still from Ekda Kay Zaala

Unlike most classroom learning, specific dynamics in children’s theatre helps children imbibe social values without being didactic. Theatre company Swangvale, in the production of its children’s play “Rang Rangeela Gittu Girgit” embeds the message of the play -to save and grow trees, through the play’s set and costume design that are made out of recycled material. Object theatre artist and winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award Choiti Ghosh says that, “Children share a natural relationship with objects which is part of their play. Objects occupy a neutral non-judgmental space through which children can explore the world. This gives children a greater interpretative power to read into the issues explored by object theatre.”

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Recycled costumes of Rang Rangeela Gittu Girgit

Theatre is often used to address and cope with particular childhood circumstances. Freedom Theatre from Palestine, has theatre programmes particularly for the young generation that provide them with important tools for dealing with the hardships of daily life under occupation.  The youth has always been associated as wheels of social change and revolution. Though various colleges across the country incorporate theatre in their cultural calendar or festivals, Shadow Liberation Project, an initiative of the students of the Srishti School Of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore) have opened their performances to the public. They use shadow theatre to creatively craft visual narratives of gender violence- a widespread issue in India.

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Freedom Theatre, Jenin, Palestine

Britain’s National Theatre in London holds an annual theatre festival called Connections which stages 10-15 newly commissioned plays for the youth across prestigious theatre venues in the U.K after careful selection. In India Thespo, born in 1999, provides a similar platform for theatre aspirants under the age of 25. It aims at creating a professional space for youth theatre with its year round theatre related workshops and training activities and commences with its December youth theatre festival of one-act plays. Now in its 18th year the Thespo Theatre Festival kicks off on the 13th of December at the Prithvi Theatre and NCPA in Mumbai.

 

Theatre for young audiences is definitely an upcoming career option for those with theatre roots. In fact quite a few theatre professionals can trace their beginnings to college days, making youth theatre for events like Thespo. But it doesn’t come without it’s challenges. Former IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) Mumbai’s co-ordinator Shaili Sathyu, now the artistic director of Gillo Theatre Repertory, a theatre company exclusively for children, says, “A variety in content for children is lacking. There are very few theatre groups performing quality plays for children and taking this genre seriously; regularity of performances is not viable for most groups (special rental rates would help); theatre connect programmes with schools (government and private) are still only starting in few places in India; very few performances are created for the 11 to 16 age group, most importantly there is a lack in understanding among decision-makers about the importance of aesthetic development of children (including theatre and other arts) and the scope of theatre activities in education.”

Children’s theatre is not a watered-down, sugar-coated version of adult theatre. The Godfather of drama, Constantin Stanislavsky had reportedly said that the only important difference between adult and children’s theatre is that the latter should be better. Better because children are honest spectators who will not oblige themselves to polite applause if their standards of engagement and  entertainment are not met. Better also because theatre has the greatest impact on an elastic mind, helping it expand, imagine the impossible. Better because through play, children can be moved to action in order to change the world we live in today.

Written by Payal Mohta

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