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Centring Children’s Voices

Empowering theatre’s young audiences

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Published: 14 May 2021

By: Caleb Lee


Now is the time to seize the day
Stare down the odds and seize the day
Minute by minute that's how you win it
We will find a way
But let us seize the day
Courage cannot erase our fear
Courage is when we face our fear
Tell those with power safe in their tower
We will not obey!

Seize the Day by Jake Feldman

These lyrics are sung zealously in Disney’s Newsies—a show based on the true story of young newsboys seeking fair compensation for their work from tabloid giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. The strike, which lasted almost two weeks, halted newspaper circulation throughout the city and all of New England as more than 5,000 children demonstrated across the Brooklyn Bridge, banding together as they fought to survive. This story is a rally for the marginalised, urging grassroots to speak up for the powerless and agitate for change. It is an excellent performative protest that resonates just as much as today as it did more than a century ago. The recent Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter movements have thrown a spotlight on social injustice on an international scale.

Across the globe, the pandemic has revealed the breadth and depth of inequality experienced by young people. Closer to home, the deaths of over 100 people—including children—as a consequence of military-led violence in the ongoing Myanmar protest have sparked fierce debates about nationalism, democracy and civil rights. All these signal a fractured world, but also bring to fore the collective efforts of people working towards decentralising political powers as well as their cries for justice and equality. While public acts of dissent and political demonstrations might not be legally permitted in Singapore, theatre-makers and cultural organisations have found innovative ways to empower children and young people, keeping their voices and hopes very much alive.

This fervent spirit and commitment to the next generation lies at the heart of Esplanade’s March On!—a new festival for children aged 7–12 that explores contemporary issues through participatory arts experiences and multi-disciplinary programmes. The carefully curated activities, as festival producer Rachel Lim states, “place children squarely at the centre of the creative process”. Focusing on four programmes—PLAYlab+: Process Insights, Educator’s Dialogue, In Hope: Future Praxis of Theatre for Young Audiences and SEEDLINGS—which I had the opportunity to witness online, this article discusses the experiences of artists and educators who perform for and work with children and young people. In doing so, it illuminates the importance of centring children’ voices and asks how, and to what extent, they can continue to be included and engaged in meaningful ways.

Children as co-creators

Within the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) sector, there has been a shift from frenzied productions to slower ways of working. The Artground and Gateway Arts, for instance, have introduced artist development programmes—GroundBreakers and Collective-in-Residence respectively—that offer artists the opportunity to discover different ways of art-making and a space to create new aesthetic experiences for children. These programmes do not demand artist produce a final product, but place an emphasis on the creative development. The inaugural PLAYlab+ similarly adopts this ethos and approach, giving artists the creative freedom to improvise, experiment and engage with ideas and practices.  It invites them to slow down, explore, reflect and research and become fully immersed in the creation process, rather than fall back onto formulaic and stale approaches of art-making. What this means is that artists are able to focus on the doing rather than the done, prioritising quality over quantity. 

One unique feature of this programme is that it considers children’s feedback as central to the rehearsal practices and creative process. This is not a common practice in the commercial world since it requires additional resources and time on the part of the artist or company. Whether through playful participation, drawings or interviews, inviting children into the creative process can open up constructive conversations, encouraging new ways of seeing and doing. Nick Wilson, who examines the relationship between creativity and the cultural and creative industries, provides a useful perspective to reflect on these interactions. In Social Creativity: Requalifying the Creative Economy, he moves the emphasis away from the economic imperatives of the creative economy and individualistic notions of creativity, and calls for a consideration of “social creativity” that focuses on the “collective and relational nature or creative practice” (2010, p. 373). Attending to social creativity, he suggests, invites “interaction across boundaries” that can enable “the reproduction and/or transformation of social values, and the realisation of human beings’ creative potential” (Wilson 2010, 373). 

The feedback sessions chime well with Wilson’s idea of “social creativity”. It challenges the top-down approach of making TYA by creating a feedback loop between the artist and young audience, and, in doing so, enables new forms of knowledge to be socially and collaboratively produced. As theatre-maker Judy Ngo, one of the participants, observes:

It was interesting to see how the play changed….the children’s ideas and movements informed and shaped the work as we went along.

Adding to this perspective, musician Zee Ang, asserts:

We were all inspired by how the children interacted with us in their own ways…. And for this to happen, it is important for artists to be observant, spontaneous and reactive to our audience.

Zee Ang presenting on behalf of her team.

These dialogical encounters not only inform the creative process, but shift the young audiences from passive consumers to active producers and co-creators, encouraging a constant re-evaluation and rebalancing of the status quo between adult and child. Furthermore, it recognises that their innate imaginative capability is comparable to that of adults. In ways like this, this feedback loop not only contributes to the making of new art experiences but also engages and empowers children in the process; expanding the possibilities of TYA and prompting questions of what it can become.

Beyond PLAYlab+, this open and dialogical approach also forms the bedrock of SEEDLINGS—a programme designed and facilitated by artists Faye Lim and Gua Khee Chong that centres around children’s ideas and experiences. Through multidisciplinary encounters and provocations, children were given the opportunity to interact with designers, directors, artists and programmers and amongst themselves, enabling conversations to flow from talks about their thoughts on the performances they witnessed to more personal anecdotes and sensitive reflections. During the public sharing session, children were invited to summarise their experiences as well as give suggestions for future programmes they would like to see at the festival.

Three participants from <em>Seedlings</em> interact with an installation as part of <em>March On 2021</em>

<em>Seedlings</em> participants interacting with Dr Masayo to ask questions and find out more about the work.

The idea that children link what they see to their own knowledge and experience challenges presumptions that equate spectatorship with passivity. These activities were less about didactic learning but instead encouraged creative expression and idea generation. The sustained relationship that was forged between facilitators and children over the course of the programme meant that there was room to experiment and explore; encouraging them to tap into their imaginations, grow and shape themselves beyond the periphery of their minds. These reflections not only enabled them to make sense of themselves in relation to their environments at their own time and pace, but also provided rich insights into their beliefs and self-representation.

What is revealing is that such a programme is particularly well placed to contribute to public engagement, where it is valued for its capacity to generate informed discussions by representing and understanding children’s contemporary cultural life. When asked about her experience, participant Riya candidly expressed, "it was a jungle of joy". This suggests that children’s imaginations are filled with limitless narratives and their experiences whether in the theatre, at home or in school are, I suggest, symbolic of how they are valued in society and a contemporary mark of active citizenship. In ways like these, listening and giving voice to children can, perhaps, encourage civic engagement and enhance social democracy on a small scale.

Space for dialogue

The pandemic has had a profound impact on city life and will continue to shape the way children live, learn and play. In times of crisis and uncertainty it would, of course, be easy for drama and theatre education to repeat familiar rhetoric about its benefits to young people. But as theatre-makers and educationalists grapple with the challenges of social distancing and working in unpredictable learning environments, it calls for a rethinking of what theatre means to children. What ideas still work, and what needs to be reconsidered? How can drama educators continue to engage children creatively in a changing world?

Some of these concerns were raised in the Educators’ Dialogue (in conjunction with the Singapore Drama Educators Association’s Connections) where participants were invited to discuss the challenges they face in formal and informal learning environments and suggest future possibilities. Facilitated by Rosie McGowan, Kenneth Kwok and Jian Hong Kuo, this lively debate tapped onto their collective insights, knowledge and experience to explore theatre education’s entanglements with digital technologies and propose innovative strategies for the sector moving forward. Amidst the discussion ranging from technological glitches to zoom fatigue, there were three broad ideas that emerged. First, there were concerns that social distancing protocols prohibiting physical interactions have eradicated the interactive and sensory experience—a central quality in drama education and theatrical performances. This has led drama educators to consider how the "live" can be recreated. Second, existing in the digital present has reconfigured learning processes and performance-making, whereby artists and educators are increasingly asked to design, present and mediate their work via online channels where possible. For example, the Singapore Youth Festival, an event that shines a spotlight on the achievements of youths in co-curriculum activities, was live-streamed this year instead. This shift, accompanied by new institutional regulations, has increasingly put pressure on theatre-makers to adapt and learn new skills such as film-making and editing, which they might not have the means to do so. Third, despite the numerous challenges, artists and educators have also turned this into an opportunity to engage children in meaningful ways. Zoom breakout rooms , for example, have become the new "safe" space, encouraging deeper conversations between educators and students. Here, children are expressing not just what they are doing, but also how they are feeling. 
 
These insights reflect how new ways of working are alert to the social and ethical implications associated with the speed of technological change and also prompt questions about how drama and theatre education can capture the imagination of young people in a changing world. Growing up in an increasingly digital age, the communication habits of today’s children and the way they express themselves differ vastly from previous generations. From creating performances on TikTok to curating multiple identities on Instagram, these reveal children’s ability to use technology in sophisticated ways; navigating seamlessly between offline and online worlds. Of course, it is equally important to recognise that not all children have access to these opportunities and this, it seems to me, begs further consideration about the social conditions in which knowledge is produced, transformed and disseminated. This recent move to digital platforms, however, offers new opportunities. As Kwok eloquently articulates:

Technology has always been there, but we haven’t been forward thinking enough to use it. And we should. The question is how do we reframe our thinking, so that technology is not just a temporary solution for the pandemic, but also a way forward.

Kenneth responding to Kuo Jian Hong during her workshop at <em>SDEA Connections</em> at <em>March On 2021</em>

In many ways, new and popular technologies, when harnessed effectively, can be used as a bridge to young people’s engagement and participation. Reframing theatrical activities thus has the potential to invite them and their care-givers into the creative process, enhance aesthetic experiences and build community-wide relationships via online channels; thereby provoking questions about the future of participatory work and audience development. Integrating technology in performance, as educationalist Christina Carson argues, develops innovative ways of “talking to audiences” that could “reinvigorate the theatre as a centre of public debate in the twenty-first century” (Carson 2011, 183). With the enforced "digital turn", her claim, which was made a decade ago, resonates even more deeply in today’s climate. The challenge, perhaps, is how to maintain a constructive balance between theatre and technology, in which the aesthetic and educational imperatives extend, rather than diminish, their capacity to excite, move and provide an imaginative vision of the future. There is, of course, no single solution and this ongoing search, in the words of Kuo, requires “compassion, vulnerability and openness”.

This delicious mix of optimism and contemplation is also captured in In Hope: Future Praxis of Theatre for Young Audiences—a four-way dialogue among Kate Cross, Bebê De Soares, Sue Giles and Adjjima Patalung that shed light on perspectives and practices in their respective contexts. Through the lens of TYA, the panellists discussed challenges and possibilities that emerged from overlapping boundaries of education, theatre and policy. The central thread that connects these concerns is that live performance is, at the moment, undergoing a significant change. In particular, cross-fertilisation between live and recorded media has become part and parcel of contemporary theatre-making practices and audience engagement. This has led the visual medium to be even more vital now that digital technologies have informed the language and aesthetics of theatre. Resultantly, the rise of new forms, new technologies, new thinking about drama, theatre and dance, and innovative approaches to story-telling (with growing budget limitations) calls for strategies, practices and programmes that can intersect with this shift.

What is pertinent to note is that while artists have found innovative ways to generate new forms of participation and spectatorship, some have also turned this into an opportunity to engage new audiences that might have been previously excluded from participating in the arts. This increased access is especially important in light of the growing awareness of the need for inclusion in theatre more broadly. For example, some progress has been made to better welcome audience members with certain disabilities, such as relaxed performances that are adapted to suit people with autism or sensory communication disorders. However, systemic issues of race, class and ableism continue to exclude many potential spectators. Echoing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which affirms children the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts, De Soares passionately asserts:

We advocate for every child, and fight for their right to be in contact with art; especially the performing arts. And through the digital, we have seen performances from Toronto to Alaska. There are children in places where theatres do not reach them… And this (digital) reach is beginning to happen. We are now reaching much more children and families and we should not underestimate this impact.

However, there is also a need to consider the other side of the argument. Describing the struggles of children in rural communities in Thailand, Patalung states that access to the internet and mobile devices might not always be readily available. And those who might be fortunate to possess these tend to isolate themselves. The paradox here is that while technology might enhance communication with people from around the world, it can also “further disconnect communities”.

These shifts and changes in the landscape reveal that the performance on stage only represents part of the creative efforts of TYA, and there are lots of ways for the field to grow and reach new audiences in this new chapter. Of course, some projects that set out to be inclusive and artistically engaging have sometimes missed the mark. But like any other creative endeavours, taking risks, improvising and figuring things out along the way is part of the process. Part of the success of creating works that are genuinely inclusive therefore lies in having conversations and finding ways that can encourage the exchange of skills, stories, and ideas across different communities, artists and stakeholders, recognising that creativity is always in the making, rather than ready made, and developed over generations.

As I watched these events online in my living room in London, I wondered if, and why, theatre in this challenging time still matters; especially when viewing a performance via a streaming device will not have the enchantment of a live theatre experience. There are no concrete answers, and it would be naïve to assume that all children will have the same response to a streamed performance or a simulated experience. However, the tireless efforts of the wider TYA community in trying to capture children’s imaginations illustrate that there is still a strong desire to cultivate creativity in the next generation and create a better future for them. And perhaps that is the point: theatre for children, has always been fluidly responsive and adaptive to political, environmental and social change. Therefore, it will continue to penetrate into the cultural lives of children and be the subject of many future debates.

Marching On

The events that I have illustrated seem to be in line with the sentiments of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who advocates for political change and social justice. His approach is simple and resounding: seek out conversations. He states:

So I am using the word “conversation” not only for literal talk but also as a metaphor for engagement with the experience and the idea of others. And I stress the role of the imagination here because the encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.

This suggests that there is a significant potential to develop new modes of collaboration through dialogue, and for theatre practices to address some of the concerns in the education and cultural sectors. The “imagination” that Appiah champions can enable us to reframe what fairness looks like, unlock innovative approaches for the unknown future and empower artists and children in new ways. Greater conversations between policymakers, artists and audiences can widen these practices as well as encourage political rhetoric and social thoughts. Here, I am reminded that because theatre has the capacity to enact social and political change, it must continue to include children’s voices and embrace their ways of understanding the world; it must advocate for building a better future grounded in present social relations that are politically, critically and affectively engaged.

Given the precarious times where fissures along nationalistic, political, religious, cultural and racial lines are widening, it is platforms like March On! that can continue to offer children an imaginative space, fire up their imagination and encourage dialogues that inspire change. And that change, more often than not, comes when established authorities make space for the voices of the younger generation. As governor Theodore Roosevelt in the final scene of Newsies proclaims: “Each generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day… I believe the future in your hands, will be bright and prosperous” (Newsies the Musical, 2017). Not only are these words a timely invitation for producers, artists, policymakers and researchers to pay attention to young voices, but also a provocation to march on; one small step at a time.

References

Appiah, K.M. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. London: Penguin Books

Carson, C. (2011) ‘Technology as a Bridge to Audience Participation?’ In Broadhurt, S. & Machhoon, J. (ed) Performance and Technology. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Newsies The Musical (2017). Directed by Jeff Caulhon. Accessed on 1 April 2021 from: Disney+.

The Esplanade (n.d.) Accessed 1 April, 2021. About March On!

Wilson, N. (2010). ‘Social Creativity: Requalifying the Creative Economy’. International Journal of Cultural Policy. 16(3), 367-381.

Contributed by:

Caleb Lee

Dr. Caleb Lee is Research Associate at Rose Bruford College TYA Centre and Co-Artistic Director of Five Stones Theatre.


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