Why would you ever study children’s theatre?

Written by James Woodhams

Studying theatre is a divisive topic. How can you ever be academic in a medium which is subjective, visceral, and often about elusive emotions? And how could you ever study making art, when it relies on being talented and gifted? Well, take actors – talent alone will never make them great. But neither will a purely academic approach. It is the combination of both that act (if you pardon the pun) to produce a performer who can move an audience with just one look, one word, even one well-punctuated syllable. This is relevant to any person who dares to embrace theatre – or any art form for that matter – from directors to stage managers.

Even when training is accepted as important, there is one area where this opinion is lacking – children. Children’s arts have long been overlooked, underfunded and pushed to the sidelines. There seems to be an idea that to be a real artist, you need to perform Chekov or paint the Mona Lisa, rather than illustrate a children’s book. But take a step back, and you see that children and young people are often regarded as the most open, brilliantly imaginative, and vulnerable people in our society. In fact, as an actor you are always told to be like a child again. Why? Because nobody can play more truthfully than a child. They put a saucepan over their head and suddenly they’re a spaceman; they grab a chair and suddenly they’re warding off a lion. Any actor, any director, any human being revels in the joy of this. The inspiration children provide should be reflected in the quality and quantity of work created for them.

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.04.06There is a whole, respected sub-sectioned category of film dedicated to kids, formed by many people I admire. Children’s theatre is not thought of in the same way – the idea is that you do theatre as a young actor and move on. This is wholly wrong. We need the best artists in the industry to make children’s theatre, just like the best cartoonists want to work for Pixar. There are only two MAs for theatre for young audiences in existence at the moment. Even if attitudes towards children’s theatre are slowly changing, our voices need to grow louder to match the voices of other great theatrical institutions. And why is it important that we do this? A study recently proved that theatre, more than any other medium, helps to form empathetic and more attentive humans. To make sure we do this right is why you study children’s theatre.

This is the first in my series of blogs giving an insight into my work and what it’s like to study children’s theatre. Each post will comment on one aspect, judging my previous, wrong ideas about what theatre for young audiences was, and hopefully showing you that some of the most exciting work that is happening at the moment is happening in children’s theatre.

I leave you with this anecdote, which I think is relevant to children’s theatre too. When asked if he could ever write a ‘proper novel’, a novel for adults, Philip Pullman retorted, “Would you ever ask a paediatrician if they could work on proper humans?”

James is a Freelance Theatre & Film Director. He is a lover of Theatre for Young Audiences, and would like to specialise in this field. He currently is studying an MA in Theatre for Young Audiences at Bath Spa University. Follow him @JCWoodhams

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