by Lauren Brotman
(Photo by Walter G. Breuer Performers: Michael Lurse, Marko Werner, Holger Queck)
Today I had an inspiring conversation with Lynda Hill about the special gathering of artists from Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Quebec and Ontario who are all coming together to engage the very youngest of audiences with beautiful, sophisticated theatre over the next two weeks for Theatre Direct’s upcoming Festival.
As Artistic Director of Theatre Direct, and the driving force behind the festival, Lynda felt that 0-5 years old is the perfect time to get young people to experience arts and culture. “There is such rapid development from 0-5. It is when they are most receptive and therefore have tremendous potential to develop a lifelong love of the arts.” Lynda felt that there was very little in the way of rich theatrical experiences for children of the preschool age and under. “Because there are needs that are specific to babies, specific to toddlers and specific to preschoolers we felt we would be wonderfully challenged and be at our very best as artists, challenging all of our capacities, all of our faculties to present the kind of theatre that needs to be created for that audience – theatre that is magical.”
Hill’s impulse for the WeeFestival began with programming the production of H2O by Germany’s innovative Helios Theater. “The title H2O inspired me to weave the theme of water through the festival. Water plays a large part in all of our lives. So dynamic as a force, water is what connects us all.” The festival venues, for the most part follow the path of Taddle Creek a hidden creek in Toronto that begins at Wychwood Barns, flows down Spadina and then East to Leslie’s Spit.
Lynda feels that over the last ten years our theatre for young audiences community has not been afforded a tremendous opportunity to see the work from international peers, the last international festival for young people being The Milk International Children’s Festival of the Arts at Harbourfront which after 25 years, came to a close in 2006. “Toronto is the largest city in Canada and if we’re not putting importance on the celebration of art for young people it sends an unfortunate message to the rest of the world.”
A huge amount of energy has gone into creating a stress-free environment for the parent and the child. The WeeFestival is meant to be a gentle, welcoming, place that is respectful and sensitive to the audience. “When a parent wants to bring their child to theatre or an art gallery or a concert, there’s such worry that the child is going to be disruptive and those times when they may be disruptive is often because the experience hasn’t been tailor made for them. When a child experiences something that has been made for them, the child responds with tremendous appreciation because they are happy to have something that speaks directly to them.” WeeFest is meant to take a step away from the kind of activities and events that are often marketed toward children which can be loud and crowded, abrasive and aggressive in sound which can be stressful and over stimulating for children.
According to Hill, the Department of Heritage, along with their core funders at the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts and the Toronto Arts Council, showed tremendous leadership and vision by welcoming WeeFest as a brand new initiative into their programs. “We said clearly that this cannot be a revenue-driven undertaking. It is the right of every child to access, participate in and experience arts and culture and therefore our ticket prices are going to be accessible and we’re going to look for every opportunity to extend that to children who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.” Revenue represents barely 15% of the overall budget. “The funders said: We get this. And we want to support that.”
An entire week will be dedicated to children that are knee high and that Lynda feels are often overlooked as legitimate young citizens of our community. As well there are dozens of activities, productions, events and conferences that are equally available to those who wish to observe. “The presence of a festival like this, the action of offering a festival like this has an impact on everyone because it suddenly proposes this idea that the art offers the truth that we expect as adults.”
The hope for the festival is that it is a new beginning, a fresh start, an open door of mutual learning. “We’re learning as the child is learning the truth about us and the truth about themselves. We have the chance to hear from our audience and the hope is that parents and care givers, educators and observers really take the time to observe and reflect on the impact of the experience.”
My conversation with Lynda comes to an end, just in time for WeeFestival to begin – a festival that will hopefully be the start of a brand new conversation.
WEEFESTIVAL Theatre and Culture for Early Years May 12th – 19th, 2014 at Wychwood Barns, Alliance Française de Toronto, Tarragon Extra Space and the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse at U of T.