Today I saw a group of overexcited preschoolers walk into the Theatre Direct performance space, and walk out transformed – quietly curious, observant of the world around them, and modeling the beautiful energy of the actors they had just witnessed.
The show I started my festival with was called Traces, from Helios Theatre in Germany. A wondrous show, filled with moments of delicate connection and actors who were able to transform banal objects into points of focus for the children. This show becomes a window through which I get to experience the rest of the festival. It will also help me frame what this festival is about. Seeing the actors leave traces of themselves in sand poured on the floor, in fragments of photographs, in footprints drawn in chalk – this is a powerful metaphor to me for what this festival is all about. It helps me see the trace (the footprint) the festival will leave on all the lucky kids and parents who get to experience it.
The actors in Traces did not make funny faces. They did not resort to cheap laughs or silly voices to hold the audience of 2 – 4-year-olds rapt. They held the attention of the children in the same way that great actors hold the attention of adults: they were present, they were connecting, they were focused, and they were flexible enough to react to the room. They presented their content to us with gravity and generosity, showing us how beautiful it was. “It” in this case was not a Shakespearian soliloquy, but an artful design in a pile of sand, or a fragment of paper. The audience was rapt nonetheless.
Recently I spoke with Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of the festival and Theatre Direct. She told me how parents always say: “I never thought he’d sit still so long.” But she believes that a child, when fully engaged, “Can sit as long as you or I can sit. Just like us, if we’re watching a bad piece of theatre we want to run out. But if it’s beautiful and respectful of our intelligence, then we’ll stay. It’s no different.”
We also talked about the expectations we place on children at the theatre, and how essential it is to give children the opportunity to connect with good art. Not just flashy, silly, showy entertainment. She added, “Children are learning though repetition, modeling and cuing. So it’s sad if a child is only spoken to as a play-toy. They’ll learn something very different about themselves if they’re treated as the wondrous, complex beings they are. They rise to it. They open to you in a way that shows how complex they are. They engage so beautifully.”
What I saw today confirmed this for me. I saw children waiting with bated breath while an actor placed his hand on the floor, poured sand over it, and waited. The children were mature enough to know what would happen next. They somehow are only 2 years old but know the laws of displacement and cause and effect. A hush fell over the room as he pulled up his hand, leaving traces of a handprint on the floor of the stage. This was a powerful confirmation of fact for these children. But more than that, he was leaving traces of this experience on their memory for years to come.