Purni Morell is the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre here in London. I first met her when we met to redesign their site. She impressed me right away by the way she envisioned creating children’s theatre. Create it as you would any other theatre. Treat children like equals. Don’t dumb down.
This was quite different from my experience. Perhaps this is partly due to being from North America, where so much is dumbed down, it seems…
In this article for The Stage
, Purni says, “I’m often asked why it is that there is so much excellent work for children coming out of Belgium, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia. I don’t think it’s about funding or longer rehearsal periods or purpose-built buildings – most of that is not true anyway, much the same pressures apply there as here. No, simply, in those countries, children are treated as people, with respect… In those countries, children start school later, they have fewer tests, and society gives them room to discover who they are, to understand adults and to be understood by them, as equals.”
My husband Daniel and I see shows at the Unicorn all the time and we love it. Just as good, and often even better, and ‘adult’ theatre.
Purni goes on to list five things to change in children’s theatre in the UK, summarised below:
1) Stop treating theatre for children as ‘provision’ and start treating it as art.
- More commissioning does not necessarily create better art.
- Until theatre for children is commissioned and created by artists in the same way as any other piece of work, we are doing our children a disservice.
2) Just call it all theatre and don’t focus so much on differentiating who it is for.
- Stop using phrases TYA (theatre for young people); CYP (children and young people) etc.
- Really great work reaches everyone, regardless of age.
3) Stop using the words ‘charming’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘magical’ in marketing copy and in reviews.
- Nobody of any age, considers his or her life to be in any way charming, enchanting or magical. Fascinating, yes. Interesting, yes. Confusing, complex, extraordinary, astonishing, changeable – yes, yes, yes.
- We go to theatre for more interesting and complicated reasons. And so do children.
4) Adults experience the theatre with kids as you would with adults.
- Pay attention to what children are listening to in the theatre without interfering, offering beverages, shushing or asking whether everything is okay or whether they understand.
5) An end to all-white casts, across the board.
As Purni says, “Children are not the future. They are the present. They’re actually here, now. Let’s start making better art on that basis.”