Marital problems, Brexit and insect extermination – rich content for children’s theatre

As New Perspective’s production of the world famous picture book, The Giant Jam Sandwich makes its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next week, the company’s Artistic Director, Jack McNamara – who adapted the book for stage – says that the key to successful children’s theatre is making the content as rich and complex as that for adult audiences. 

The world of children’s picture books is a place where imaginations go into overdrive, not only for readers but for those of us constantly looking for new sources to turn into theatre.

Like the best of children’s writing, we make sure our theatre for children doesn’t shy away from looking at issues in depth, even if that involves handling some potentially tricky themes.

Even a book as joyous and exuberant as The Giant Jam Sandwich, which presents a conflict between a community of villagers and a swarm of wasps, there are complex themes that we found worth mining. There is the matter of foreign invasion which, in the world today, feels impossible to ignore.

Without getting heavy handed, the story gave us an opportunity to explore negative attitudes towards outsiders. While the wasps in the book are generally villainous, in our production we tried to show things from their point of view and even have a moment where a character has a moral crisis about trapping them. We also introduce a story-line about the protagonist’s broken down marriage which haunts him throughout the story.

Of course we are sensitive to the fact that some children will be too young to understand divorce or may even be a little too close to that subject. But we present the story positively, effectively showing that marriage isn’t the only thing that can make adults happy! We’re not here to preach traditional values; we would rather reassure kids that people and their different lives are worth celebrating. On tour earlier this year, children responded in a completely mature way to that.

By taking this approach, I believe we do justice to the style of John Vernon Lord’s and Janet Burroway’s original book, which is beautifully messy and human, rather than sanitised. Vernon Lord himself is a big fan of this first production of his book, claiming: “I enjoyed it from beginning to end… a very clever way of extending the story.” He was also entirely sympathetic to the resonances with what is happening in the UK today. The private notebook of illustrations that he showed me were full of dazzling and scathing sketches of some of the ridiculous politicians we are all putting up with at the moment.

At their best, children’s books tell brilliantly concise stories in strange and provocative ways. Whether that is the tongue-twisting brilliance of Dr Seuss, the dry minimalism of Jon Klassen, or the outrageous humour of Babette Cole. These artists, among many others in this area, push their form as far as they can and bring readers, old and young, with them.

But work for children has often been connected to an avant-garde sensibility. The composer Carl Stalling’s music for the early Warner Brothers cartoons is considered some of the most progressive modern composition of its time; full of stop-start rhythms and bouncing between genres.

Inspired by all these great innovators, we believe that work for children should be as daring and brilliant as anything made for adults. That also means investing as much into our design, casting and dramaturgy as we would for our ‘grown-up’ work. With creativity being stamped out of the curriculum, it feels like a particularly crucial time to take children and their imaginations as seriously as we can.

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord & Janet Burroway, and adapted for the stage by Jack McNamara, runs at Pleasance Above at the Pleasance Courtyard, from 2 – 28 August (not including 14 August) at 10.20am daily. Book tickets here or phone Box Office: 0131 556 6550

To book review tickets for this show please contact the Pleasance Press Office: 0131 556 6558 | press@pleasance.co.uk

photo: L-R Jack McNamara (Artistic Director, New Perspectives), John Vernon Lord (illustrator and author)

Advertisements

Introduction to Directing – with Unanima

Each year New Perspectives offers tailored mentoring to an East Midlands theatre company – this year we are working with Unanima Theatre. They are an inclusive Community Interest Company based in Mansfield working with people with and without a learning disability and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder. New Perspectives have been supported by the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme to run a five-week ‘Introduction to Directing’ course led by their Artistic Director Jack McNamara with Unanima’s participants. Over the next five weeks he will keep a short blog on their work together. 


Love. Life. No Sat Nav
My first encounter with Unanima’s work was seeing their production of Love. Life. No Sat Nav; an impressive mixed media show built out of the participants own experiences of disability. During one scene a young performer, who had remained noticeably silent throughout the show, started communicating with the audience through words written on cards. Through this simple device she was suddenly able to talk to us, giving a strong sense of the personality that lay behind her silent demeanor. I was reminded of how actors fundamentally need clarity from a director, and how many of them might relish being directed through a selection of carefully chosen words on cards. I became keen to explore how this group might be able to harness their individual modes of communication in a directing context.

As a result I was pleased to get a grant from the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme to run a  five week ‘Intro to Directing’ course with ten of Unanima’s participants. The scheme is the one I trained on some years ago, and it has now been expanded to include entry-level programmes for directors less represented in the wider industry. While there is a lot of conversation and activity at the moment surrounding the creative case for diversity, what is specifically exciting about this opportunity is its focus on leadership. This is not simply about making people feel included or adding a sprinkle of diversity to mono-cultural institutions, but about investing in future decision makers, be that in a rehearsal room or leading an organisation. It’s exciting to think that, if enough people support and embrace it, the scheme could genuinely change what theatre directing in the future looks like.

Session 1: Scenes

IMG_0019 Session 1 We started with  a basic question: What, as directors, are we working with? A cluster of words came together: actions, words, actors, characters, changes, music, light, story etc. We put them on the floor as a reminder of what our business is and ultimately what scenes are made of. We then played a few games that each said something about the nature of scenes. The first involved standing in a circle with each person taking turns to walk to the opposite side. As they crossed the centre something discernible had to ‘happen.’  The event or moment of change could be as minimal as they liked, as long as we could somehow read it. While some could not resist the urge to break into a dance when they crossed the centre others decided on smaller gestures that left all of us debating our various readings of them. It opened up a conversation about physical language; is it easier or harder to express something physically and how do we talk to each other about achieving physical clarity? I like this game as a small version of what most narrative scenes are: a journey from A to B interrupted by a change (or a dance).

The next game was the usual crowd-pleaser ‘Bomb and Shield’, in which you secretly select someone as your ‘bomb’ to keep away from and another as your ‘shield’ to keep between you. This created a bit of noise against the more studied earlier game, but it was also a crude demonstration of the balance of relationships that can make up a scene. We then did an Augusto Boal exercise in which we arranged chairs in the space in order of the least to the most important. The participants then entered one by one and attempted to position themselves as the most prominent figure in the space. While the first few adopted high status positions, the others attempted to undermine them with increasingly disinterested and low status poses. The last person entered the space and simply stood in front of the others with her back to the audience, instantly becoming the most prominent.

This led us to thinking about stage composition. On a large screen we projected the same scene from Hamlet over four different contemporary productions and discussed how the elements were managed differently by each director. The participants each came into their own, relishing the complexity of the tableaus and the differing choices across them. We analysed eyelines and body language, we talked about who was in the most and least prominent position, we discussed how individuals were lit and dressed. We talked about the feeling we get from a scene, and the society reflected in a staging. We then discussed the more subliminal features of a scene, the design decisions that brought less logical ideas to the surface; how shiny walls were being used to cast ghost-like reflections or how soil on the floor brought death and burial into our thoughts. Some of the participants became passionate about how ‘wrong’ certain stagings were. “That is not my Hamlet!” someone called out at an image of a French production. “What is your Hamlet?” I asked her. She launched into a passionate tirade about the anger of the characters, the ghostly atmosphere, the pain of having parents who disappoint you. Hers was a Hamlet I definitely wanted to see.

I encouraged the participants to make their own short scenes, drawing from their background as devisers. The content of the scenes, prepared quickly with little thought, were less important than their staging. Group by group they presented their scenes and the remaining participants gave notes to each one; our aim was to gain greater narrative clarity, rather than embellish what was there. Which key moment of change do we have to mark to make this story clearer? What happens if we alter the characters formation or whether they are still or moving? What object or environment can we add to the scene to open it up? Soon these fragments began to take shape into focused mini-scenes, each participant making clear contributions to improve what was in front of them. It was a safe environment where each voice mattered and none of the suggestions offered were taken personally.IMG_0020 Session 1

Given the company’s devising background, I had initially feared that the processes of directing might be too low energy for group members over a sustained period. Yet it seemed the more focused and studied the exercises the more active their contributions became. There was a real appreciation for having the space and time to look, think and talk as a group, and a basic joy in being able to constructively influence what is in front of you and make stories clearer and more engaging. It struck me that directing simply calls for a sharper focus on the imaginative and communication skills that we all use daily. There is no foreign language being learnt here, just a bit of room to put our heads together and explore what’s possible.

Next week: Working with actors