A tiny snake-shaped puppet made of woodchips scurries up a log. It struggles to reach the top. Just as it is about to ascend the peak, the log topples over.
According to a bunch of kindergarteners this morning, this is the best joke they had ever encountered. And then it happens again. The puppet scurries up an even bigger log. Wait for the punchline: it ALSO topples over!
Here it goes again! Silly woodchip-snake, don’t you ever learn?! And there it is, toppling over the log. Now the kids are laughing so hard I’m pretty sure some have peed their pants.
This moment, towards the beginning of the excellent play called Woodbeat by Helios Theatre from Germany, has been perfected for a kindergarten audience. The performer and Co-Artistic Director of Helios Theatre, Michael Lurse, has been performing this piece on and off for almost a decade. Yet somehow it is still full of life, happy accidents, and meaningful connection with the kids. The show is set on a beautiful stage, something like a cross between a rustic campsite in Algonquin Park and a hipster sandbox. An octagon-shaped playing space is built out of woodchips, and various logs, trees and wooden instruments grow out of the floor. Throughout the course of the play, we meet characters that are literally built before our very eyes out of pieces of wood and nails; we see an axe transform a log into wood fragments that become arms and legs for puppets; we see puppets appear out of piles of chips and slither along the ground. And all this is set to a live score created entirely from wooden instruments performed by Roman D. Metzner.
The minute you walk into the theatre you are calmed by the natural energy of the wood and the soft sounds of the wooden instruments. It’s like a brief interlude in a forest – a short course of “forest bathing;” which is such a lovely and rare thing for these inner-city kids to experience.
In a post-show discussion with some conference delegates, Michael talked about the hilarious log-toppling moment, and how it always elicits this sort of response from the children, no matter what country the show is performed in. He said he thinks the kids identify with it – they see themselves in that moment. They see a little thing (the very tiny puppet) affecting change on a big thing (the log). This reminds them of their own power – they are tiny creatures but can affect big change in the world. If they cry, they can move mountains. Michael joked, “Sometimes they even get that $100 toy if they work hard enough.”
I thought this showed a real clarity of understanding of their audience. An ability to look past the surface of a child and into their deepest thoughts; and an ability to not only ask “what is a child thinking,” but also “how are they thinking?” And this is where Michael started to talk about how he has a reputation in Europe for being the “serious children’s performer.” He doesn’t feel as if he needs to spend the entire show prancing around and trying to get the kids to laugh, because he usually finds that the kids are quite serious. They are faced with a new world of stimuli and they are carefully working through the meaning of it all. It’s a serious task, and he wants to honour the work they are doing.
It was around this point in the post-show discussion that my own son, Elliot, was climbing up and down the stairs in the theatre. As a new walker, this is just about his favourite thing in the world. “Look,” Michael said, pointing at Elliot, “He is working!” And it’s true. I’ve always joked that when Elliot encounters a new toy his internal monologue is: “Okay mom, off to work!” He can be so serious when he’s at play – it’s clear that the problem he is puzzling out is incredibly profound to him. Because it’s all he knows, and it’s new and perplexing. So to be able to attend a piece of theatre that takes this process seriously, for him and all kids in the audience, was really a pleasure.