Rewind about 25 years and I’m in the Gulbenkian Theatre at Canterbury seeing, by invitation, a jolly little play about a dog. It’s for three years olds. Yes – three year olds. I’m utterly amazed at the very idea. So much so that after the show I interview both actors – it’s a Polka Theatre touring production – about the difficulties of creating work for children so young.
I suppose there was a bit of quite brave pioneering going in with that tour although early years work had started in a very small experimental way in the 1970s. But by the mid 1990s it was just taking off. Since then there has been an explosion of fine work for pre-schoolers.
And often the audience members don’t even have to be three. Some shows, largely text free and using a lot of light, sound and sensation, are aimed at babies. From M6 to Half Moon and from Catherine Wheels to Oily Cart and Little Angel there are now many dozens of companies producing imaginative early years work.
Bravo. It introduces children to theatre, acts as a powerful educative force and provides work for actors and other practitioners. But – and of course there has to be a but – the audiences that I’ve observed tend to be almost entirely middle class parents and their children, the people who want to bring their families to the theatre and can afford to buy tickets. One also sees the occasional nursery class at daytime performances – and I suspect the parents have paid for tickets because they can and want to. It’s terrific, for those children of course, but it isn’t usually very inclusive in terms of the audience it attracts.
What can be done to dent this? Well, unfortunately, although theatre tickets for children’s shows have to be kept as low as possible for obvious reasons, it costs as much to put them on as any other sort of production. Margins are, therefore, usually very tight.
I’d like to see more sponsorship offering really cheap tickets for children’s shows. If only some wealthy company would take it on and put up the money, companies and venues with shows for children could apply to be part of it.
Secondly, much more needs to be done to enable children to be transported from school to theatre cheaply to encourage more primary schools to take children to theatres. Are any of the transport companies running schemes, for example? If not why not? Surely coaches which are not in use during the day for school runs could be offered? It just needs some willing, imaginative thinking. Big profitable theatre companies could do more to help teachers with transport to their venues too. And maybe there are private sponsors, local to the schools perhaps, who would consider this if approached.
It is quite wrong for children to go through their childhood without ever experiencing the transformative magic of theatre simply because their parents aren’t very well off or don’t know much about theatre. Education is about opening doors.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz