Thoughts on: Theatre for Children
Children are sometimes assumed to be the worst audience to write for or play to. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Children often make the best audience, because they are almost always the most honest. Almost any adult audience has been vitiated by critics. It is not the critics themselves that are to blame; more the inner insecurities, the lack of faith in one's own taste and judgement, that cause their opinions to be so uncritically believed.
But if an audience has been told a show is bad, they'll try to blind themselves to its good qualities; and if they have been told that it is good, they will dutifully applaud out of a fear of appearing stupid if they don't. The result is a kind of psychic fog that has settled over many theatre audiences and which it is often extraordinarily difficult to penetrate.
No such fog has had time to settle over a young audience. Their responses are direct, spontaneous and occasionally brutal. This makes them both terrifying and intensely instructive. Terrifying in the sense that you always know immediately whenever you have failed; instructive in that you almost always get an honest response and can learn from it. Generally, what I know about writing for young people I have learnt from my audiences.
A common mistake to make is to imagine a young audience will only enjoy light material, or funny material, or fantastical material, and is incapable of appreciating or responding to anything serious. It is a disastrous mistake to make. It is the same as talking to any child: the worst mistake you can make is to talk down to her, and speak in a false "childish" tone of voice. The child will instantly recognise your insincerity and lack of respect and in her turn will have no respect for you. Young audiences are the same: the most important thing is to treat them with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Indeed, one of the main joys of writing for such an audience is the opportunity it gives to write about the things that really matter: and write about them in a poetic, magical, and potent way.
Years ago, when I was still nursing, I once had to look after a little baby boy. His name, I think, was Craig, and he had been born with a rare defect: his oesophagus never reached his stomach. The tube leading down from his throat did not connect with his stomach; and in the normal course of events the boy would have died.
He was watched day and night, and was kept alive through unremitting vigilance. He was fed through a tube in his stomach, and a hole had been cut in its throat. When the saliva that had been produced in his mouth was threatening to choke him - for of course he could not swallow it - we would have to insert something rather like a miniature vacuum cleaner into the hole in his throat and suck out his saliva.
And because the surgeons in charge of his case had high hopes that eventually, when he was big enough, they would be able to repair the break in his oesophagus so he could live and eat normally, he had to have food placed in his mouth at regular intervals so he became accustomed to the idea of food in his mouth.
It would always start to choke him and would have to be sucked out through the hole.
Such moments would distress him intensely. There was a music box attached to the side of his cot; and to distract him, we would pull the string and play him a little tune whose words, the music box assured us, told him that angels were protecting him and all would be well.
Angels or not, the power of the music was such that generally it would still his agitation and his grief.
Years later, I discovered that this tune came from Humperdinck's opera, Hansel and Gretel, and when Blue Tiger Music Theatre asked me to write a new libretto for them, Craig's was the story that immediately came to mind.
In the event, it turned out that the technical details of his story were too complex and distracting to communicate in the play's opening moments , and so I simplified the details of his plight and made them less specific. Quite unconsciously, here too I was employing a crucially important technique shared by the tellers of such tales: they are specific enough to stimulate the imagination, but wide enough not to limit it. The information they contain is poetic, and can be applied to an infinite number of individual situations.
So my version of the story begins with an adult stumbling into a room, which might be a memory, in which there is a boy in a hospital bed. The boy is frightened because he has to be separated from his mummy and his daddy for an operation. The nurse pulls the string of the music box, which plays the tune from the opera, and replays the story in his mind. And the courage, strength and resourcefulness shown by Hansel and Gretel as they face the terrors of their separation somehow give the boy the strength and courage to survive his ordeal.
Bruno Bettelheim has demonstrated very beautifully in his book The Uses of Enchantment that we make a grave error in assuming that stories like Hansel and Gretel are "just fairy stories" belonging to an empty and essentially inconsequential realm of fantasy. In fact these stories confront our very deepest concerns and offer us profound guidance to help us overcome them.
All of us, like Hansel and Gretel, have been lost, psychically and emotionally lost, lost in a deep dark and dangerous forest, and have had to confront a dangerous archetype of our repressed selves. Some of us have never escaped. Some of us have never returned home, and remain lost and wandering in the wilderness. Some of us have been eaten up.
I, too, had suffered enforced separation from my parents when I was a little boy, and my return back to them had been equally problematic. In fact one way of thinking about my life would be to understand it as a constant journey back "Home" - back to my own true self. A journey that also moves forward through the unknown forest: a journey to the Self I do not yet truly know.
In my case, the separation began when I was sent away to a boarding school at the age of eight. Like the two children in the story, I was lost and afraid; the rigid values of the boarding schools I attended seemed to offer some kind of refuge from the terrors of the world, just as the gingerbread house seems to offer them safety and shelter from the terrors of the forest.
But my training in boy's boarding schools had led me to split myself off from my anima, from the female side of my personality. Jung believed that we are all, whatever our gender, a mixture of male and female. All of us need to find ways to express our whole selves, male and female, and we damage ourselves if we try to cut ourselves off from their full expression. The repressed half returns to haunt us, in a most damaging and destructive way, and will continue to do so until we find a way of getting past her or him, and moving on.
My encounter with the Witch as an adolescent took the form of an obsessive desire to become a girl - a desire that horrified and shamed me , and that I tried to deal with in the most conventional, and most destructive way imaginable - by trying to deny it and cut myself off from it.
As the Witch reminds Hansel, fear and denial can only lead to destructive results:
"because you hate and fear me I'm going to eat you up".
For me, "my journey home" has been, and continues to me, a long and tortuous road to fully understanding I am not a divided being, either male or either female, but a whole one: both male and female.
In essence, although the object of prejudice and scorn, my dilemma as a young adolescent boy was the same as most boys in our society. Taught to fear , reject and mistrust our femininity, we grow up cut off from a crucial part of ourselves. The psychic and emotional damage that results is utterly horrifying. So many men, when confronted with the embodiment of their lost selves in wives or partners lash out with horrific violence- either directed against the woman concerned or against themselves.
That is why I begin the play by urging anyone who takes on the part of the Witch, whatever their gender, to avoid the usual stereotypes:
"The Witch cannot simply be ugly or grotesque.....This is particularly true if she is played by a man.
Many drag queens and pantomime dames distress me, not because they mock women, but because they mock femininity in men. Women can easily look after themselves: but the femaleness of men is fragile. Especially now.
Besides, she represents the Old Earth Spirit. You do not trifle with Her.
On the contrary, She must be treated with the greatest respect."
That is why, in my script she takes such pains to explain who and what she is:
"I am the seed in the ground.
I am the wind in the trees.
I am the waves of the furious sea.
I'm the deep dark heart of every story.
I live deep inside you.
I'm your deepest fear and your deepest desire."
And that is why she offers Gretel the opportunity to reach beyond herself. That is why she is able to teach her to fly. Gretel is not able or ready to take the opportunity: but it is always there. Always there for Gretel, always there for us too. But we need to believe, and we need to respect. Respect the natural forces all around us; respect the world in which we live.
This matters more than ever in a misogynist, and therefore ultimately life-denying, society such as our own.
Grimm's version of the story resolves the dilemma very beautifully. Up to now Hansel has been the leader of the two children - and he led them to the gingerbread house. But it is at this moment that Gretel's resourcefulness and cunning come into their own. She fools the Witch, her destructiveness is outwitted, and the children's journey can continue.
Or perhaps the Witch allows herself to be fooled. Perhaps the burning of the Witch is like the burning of the Phoenix in the old fables: she dies in order to bring forth life. In the story of the Phoenix, this beautiful bird burns in the heat of the sun after deliberately setting herself on fire. And in the ashes is the egg from which the new bird will be born.
In the same way, after the Witch and her house have all been burnt, Hansel and Gretel find treasure in the ashes. The suffering they have undergone leads them to the discovery of great treasure. Perhaps it is the same for us: the suffering we undergo in life need not be always destructive. Sometimes it can lead us to the discovery of strengths and qualities we did not know we possessed.
For my part, my gender confusion as an adolescent caused me profound suffering, and still sometime does: suffering I would wish on my worst enemy. Yet on balance, I am grateful for it: it has enriched me immeasurably. It is the foundation of my life and art.
So Hansel and Gretel return home; and the forest that once threatened them is transformed into a familiar and beautiful place. They find that the mother has gone: and although the story tells us that their troubles were at an end, and they lived happily ever after, I can only feel that the happiness is in a way provisional. It is like the boy in the framing story: the operation is over, and all is well again. He can return safely home: life can begin. And life is a new journey.
I had earlier found myself using a similar mixture of the personal and universal in my version of the Magic Flute, the first libretto I created for Blue Tiger. As in Hansel and Gretel, I had used some of the original melodies (the ones I liked) written new words to fit them, and weaved around them a story that was based on, but rather different from, the original story of the opera.
In Mozart's Magic Flute, for instance, Pamina the heroine is a rather traditionally passive and beautiful heroine. In my Magic Flute, she is a girl whose parents have been quarrelling, and who has ended up separated from her father. She has armed herself with a sword and gone into the forest to try and find him. She discovers that she doesn't have to conform to the traditional image of a girl, someone soft and beautiful and feeble who is always in need of rescuing: instead she, too, can be brave and strong.
Many of the school children who wrote to the Company after the performance said this was what they particularly liked about the show: that it showed that girls can be brave and strong. And also that boys can admit to being frightened (like Papageno, the hero, in my version of the story) and still be worthwhile people.
On their journey Pamina and Papageno meet a strange creature: the Genius of the Forest. In the Mozart opera, there are three of them: the three Genii who possess a magical wisdom that helps the heroes on their way. We couldn't afford three; we could only afford one - Shona Reppe, the show's designer and puppeteer. She has a fantastic stage presence but not an especially strong singing voice and in order to write a part that would play to her strengths I devised for her an androgynous character who has lost his/her voice. As Sarastro explains:
"Neither male nor female but possibly both. I conducted an experiment. I think I took away your voice. I wanted to investigate the possibility of recorded sound.
It failed. Such things happen. Now you're no use to me."
For me, Sarastro represents an aspect of the male archetype - intellectual, cold, controlling. He embodies the kind of qualities that governed the schools I was sent to - patriarchal experiments designed to produce rulers of the (by then defunct) British Empire. They took away my voice - in the sense that it took me another twelve years to recover enough confidence in myself to begin to discover myself as a writer; and in the much more literal sense that an insensitive music master inhibited me to the extent that I lost my singing voice, which even now I am still in the process of trying to recover.
In my version of The Magic Flute, Pamina, Papageno and the Genius manage to outwit Sarastro, and the Genius discovers his voice. In the second production, the Genius was played by Andrew Usher, a gifted young actor with a wonderful singing voice; and at this point I and the composer Pete Stollery were able to devise a song for him that combined the best arias of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. A song, then, in which both masculine and feminine were reconciled.
As so often in theatre, a magical and apparently fortuitous combination of practical necessity and personal memory somehow combined with one another to produce moments that reflected shared and universal concerns. Many of the schoolchildren who saw the production felt that the Genius was their favourite character, though no-one seemed altogether to understand why.
Perhaps it was because they intuitively understood what I was trying to express through the character. Perhaps not: it doesn't matter. A script should be like a gift. I bring to it all I possess in the way of intellect, emotion, and theatrical skill and I give it to the actors who in their turn give it to the audience. That makes it important for the writer to know when to let go: and what to let go of. Meaning is definitely something to let go: it is really not for me to have the last word on what the script actually means. That is for the audience.
And if I believe passionately that it matters, that it is of real and vital importance for children and young people to be allowed to experience theatre, opera, and musical theatre and to experience them practised at the highest level, this is not because they will somehow be "good for" the children. Dramatic art is not some kind of medicine that needs to be made palatable so that young people, or adults for that matter, can be induced to swallow it. It happens to be a fantastically rich, subtle, powerful and expressive means of communication that can help everyone confront and understand better the profound dilemmas that engage all of us all our lives. And in doing so, it can give the profoundest pleasure. It is never a question of creating a watered down version of adult theatre. Perhaps the really important challenge is to create adult theatre that is as good as, and as profound as, and as profoundly entertaining as, the best children's theatre.