All around the world, we are now collectively stumbling to figure out what life means after two years of being in a pandemic. While everyone has suffered loss and been hurt by COVID-19, young people, in particular, have been robbed of the childhood they were supposed to have. With World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People on 20 March, I talked to five theatre-makers and educators who work with young audiences about how the pandemic has impacted children and youth, and what the theatre community can do to help them make sense of the world, themselves, and the future.
When the pandemic hit, industries like theatre and the arts were initially stumped. How are we supposed to go digital with experiences that are rooted in live, physical interaction? For Anurupa Roy, renowned Indian puppeteer and founder of Katkatha, while the question was valid and real, there was no choice but to jump into the online medium. Without doing so, how would she still be connected to children? Shaizia Jifri, of Theatre Professionals Education, said she had to translate her work with teenagers into a digital space, and notes that because of her skill-set derived from theatre training and teaching, “the students [in the workshop] felt that this was the most connected they had been with each other in the pandemic.” By adapting their work swiftly during the lockdown, Anurupa and Shaizia were able to identify and understand the impact that distanced learning and social separation was having on young people.
Bringing back the joy
Shaili Sathyu, founder of Gillo Theatre Repertory that exclusively makes Theatre for Young Audiences, notes the many challenges that come from working with young people online. “If your only relationship with a group of children has been in the online space, it is very difficult to hold their attention and keep them engaged.” Shaili noticed that she was always competing with other screens or entertainment in the home for the students’ attention. In their position statement about ‘Exposure to Smartphone and Screen media in Children and Adolescents and COVID-19 Pandemic’, the IACAM (Indian Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health) reports that attention spans have been impacted severely by multimedia tasking, “the use of two, or more than two, digital media devices.” To understand and document this time in their lives better, Shaili started a documentary project where she would speak to young people across socioeconomic spaces in Mumbai about how the pandemic has affected them. Some things really stood out for her, especially how moments of naughtiness and rebellion transfer seamlessly from offline to online spaces, such as the sneaking of snacks when the teacher isn’t looking. Shaili recalls the joy with which a student told her about their online classroom shenanigans; it is a joy that needs to be celebrated and brought back with urgency.
I asked Neel Sengupta, a Delhi-based educator, how can theatre intervene to bring back this joy? Neel has returned to physical school, and he told me of his observations watching his students play a game that very day. He noticed how once the game has been explained, and the trial “kacha nimbu” rounds are over, “Something switches. Something in the mind and body clicks. The body’s in sync with your mind, and the space, and your gender has gone away, all your biases have gone away, and you’re just focused on the goal of playing the game.” According to Neel, this play is a step that drama can take towards the re-socialisation of young people, especially teenagers. Theatre offers them a free space to play that is safe, driven by care and joy, and addresses a need that is often ignored by the education system.
Using theatre in mainstream teaching
According to Anurupa, the system of education in India is hyper focused on cognitive learning and teaching of hard facts, maths, science, and numbers. In this very mainstream way of teaching, many kinds of learners get left behind their peers. As a puppeteer, Anurupa tries to use puppetry and the arts for students that have been dismissed by the system to be slow learners. By introducing them to the arts, “Students have the space to express and engage with the world sensorily, emotionally, kinesthetically, spatially, linguistically, and musically, which grows their cognitive skills. They become better at maths because their needs are being fulfilled.” In a way, theatre-supported learning almost becomes a therapy for students. Shaizia believes wholly that every child, no matter the situation, has been through some trauma, and “the only way to deal with trauma, is to make community.” Theatre does that intrinsically, as it makes people come together to actualize a common goal. When students get together to participate in and make a play, they are inherently creating a very strong bond that helps them hold and care for each other.
With support from ThinkArts and his theatre company Third Space Collective, Neel has recently produced a project about teenagers in the pandemic, that has also been devised by teenagers. Growing Up is a devised digital theatrical experiment that captures the mundane and the chaotic of the lives of four teenagers across Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. It is founded on real life stories and testimonies of young people in the country, and captures what it’s like to cope with a global pandemic in the most formative years of one’s lives. For this project, Neel let the young performers and collaborators take charge, which gave them a way to acknowledge and process the pandemic. The play strives to express beyond words by using code, social media, and pop culture to say what cannot be said in words. Despite having been devised entirely online, Neel realised how the team brought so much more attention, focus, and care to rehearsals—perhaps because it was the only creative outlet for a number of collaborators on the project.
Addressing a mental health crisis
So what do young audiences need from theatre-makers today? According Kirtana Kumar, there is a mental health crisis that is swiftly avalanching into us. Children need to feel less aloof and detached from life, and the only way for that to happen is if we put together all the different silos of theatrical practice, education, and pedagogy to work in congruence with each other. She condescends the function of theatre as just a culture-building activity — “We have to be done with this idea of having and building icons. Constantly reaffirming the canon of what is ‘good’, or ‘successful’, or ‘artistic’ doesn’t help young people to be engaged, or empowered, or creative themselves.” Kirtana speaks extensively on how sustainability, as a consciousness and a theme, can teach us to be happier human beings who are more informed about the various intersections that exist in our individual and collective identities, and build a strong, true sense of community.
In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben says, “A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.” This sharing of information allows a forest to thrive as a whole; weaker trees allow stronger ones to support them, protecting the entire ecosystem from external attacks. Imagine, if theatre and the arts could be a foundation that similarly holds young people… if theatre could exist as a network to nurture them in a post-pandemic world to be joyful, mindful, and loving.