Recently I watched few theatre performances for children in some of the mainstream theatres for children. (When I say mainstream, I think of theatre companies with venues, repertoire and actors on a payroll.) I was curious to see what my Chinese colleagues are doing. I went to support them, but I also wanted to see in which direction theatre for children in China is developing. After seeing the performances, I was extremely sad. I realized that theatre for children is not developing (it is not even stagnating) but is regressing.

Technology

In every theatre, the first thing I noticed was technology. The venues are exquisitely equipped with cutting-edge technology: dozens of spotlights, LED fixed lights, but also “moving heads”, top sound equipment, microphones, and in the back of every stage “Its Majesty Video Wall”. Technologically, theater venues belong to 21st century, ready to host any performing art and meet the highest artistic standards and demands.

As the sharp contrast to venues were the performances I saw. I don’t want to enter into any generalization, but I must say that I have already seen that kind of performances all around China in professional productions, in school productions and even in the productions with kindergarten children (I will write about this horror in some other posts), and I identify it as a standard that most of the theaters are following.

So, what do those productions for or with children that I saw have in common? In one sentence — they imitate TV shows, cartoons or picture books with:

  • video wall showing colorful realistic illustrations (sometimes even videos) in the back of the stage, 
  • very simple, banally realistic and cheap stage elements in front of the video wall,
  • extremely colorful and shiny costumes,
  • music with commercial songs and cheap music instrumentalization or sweet children’s songs from the American or British nursery rimes collections (oh, Chinese parents love their children to speak English and recite “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”),   
  • usage of microphones,
  • prerecorded singing (actors are singing on playback),
  • banal dance that fit into banal music,
  • more or less moralistic stories without deeper meanings, but with doubtful messages,
  • no dramaturgy,
  • no directing (I will write about directing in a separate post).

Video wall, with enhanced colors and drawings like in a banal picture book or a Walt Disney’s cartoon – trees with faces, cute mushrooms in different colors, birds, flowers, etc., is an unavoidable element and is, together with other elements of stage and production design (stage, costumes, lights, music), bringing children directly into the world of cartoons.

The usage of video wall in this way (I am not talking about Bob Wilson and his way of using the back light wall) is antithetical with the nature of theatre itself, theatrical language and is a fragrant surrender to computer technology and the language of television and movie industry. We can find this also in theatre for the adults. Here is a scene from National Theatre in Beijing:

Instead “modern”, the producers and directors of such performances with misusage of technology make this kind of theatre old fashioned. It belongs to the first half of 19th century or even earlier, to Renaissance time after the invention of linear perspective, when the backdrop paintings were used to illustrate space (and changed after every scene).

It is not enough to put a video wall, use microphones, dance and sing pop music, put contemporary clothes on, to make a performance “modern”. Modern means new and different way of thinking about theatre and its role in life of people (including children). Modern also means the new way of looking at the art itself. Modernism of the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th century, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, post dramatic theatre and the newest tendencies should have the repercussions on theatre for children too. More than a century ago, Stanislavsky have said that “theatre for children should be the same as for the adults, only better”. Why isn’t it better? Why is it so humiliating!

However, the worst, and the most humiliating of everything is the fact that all the elements of the performances were so painfully cheap! I am afraid that the usage of video wall, and a cheap quality of other production elements, are not the consequences of misunderstanding of the concept of “modern”, but rather business decisions. Theatre for children in China is a Show Business, and I fully understand producers: It is much cheaper to put a simple drawing on a video wall and save money, than to spend it on creation of stage design. Using a video wall is cheaper, easier to do and it is easier to perform the performance in any theatre. You don’t need to bring the whole set and pay for transportation and setting up the stage. It is enough to bring an USB with yourself. Every producer wants to earn as much money as possible with very little investments. And while I understand producers, I don’t understand parents. They are trying so hard to give the best quality education to children, they provide the best food, the best clothes, the best everything, and then, they are buying cheap theatre quality performance for big money. 

Chinese theatres (and the arts in general) depend on selling of the tickets. Chinese culture is market-oriented culture and theatres must function on a market as business companies. Only limited number of theatres are fully subsidized, but nevertheless, they also need to have significant income from the box office to justify subventions. Everything is measured by money.

Children are on the market!

Along with all the other theatres, theatres for children are on market too, following law of supply and demand. Theatres are sellers, but who are the buyers? Not children! Children do not buy tickets, their parents do. Children are consumers, but they do not decide what are they going to watch. Theatre, or shall I say the Arts for children in general, are in a paradoxical situation in which the buyers are not consumers. It is obvious in the auditorium during the performance. Parents / buyers, don’t watch the performance — they are on a mobile phone, We-chatting with who knows whom, only from time to time checking the child and asking: “How are you? Do you need to go to pee? Are you thirsty? Do you have fun? Good!”, and then, if the child doesn’t need to go to pee, continue chatting.

Although not a buyer, or because of this, a child / a consumer, the object and the target of business enterprise, not a subject, is the victim of the market bargaining. Theatres produce performances for parents and not for children. They produce what parents want to buy, and not what a child might want and need to experience. That is one of the reasons why all those performances are so educational and moralistic. Parents want to buy tickets only for the performances that are educational, “teaching a child something”, or moralistic in a way that they (performances) keep saying how children must listen to parents or teachers, how mama or a master is always right, how mama is always good and a child is always naughty, but mama will always, like Deux ex Machina in Greek tragedy, save this naughty child from any situation.

Many years ago, in Japan, I watched a terrible puppet theatre performance for children together with a friend of mine from Japan, professor at a university in Tokyo. After the performance, Yuriko, hoping to justify the actors said: “That is one of the best puppet theatre companies in Japan, but they perform mainly for adults.” I asked her, why did they do such a bad performance for children if they are so good in theatre for adults? Yuriko told me: “Ah, well, you must understand, they need to survive.”

I was shocked: In order to survive, they make theatre for children!!?? They are making theatre for their own survival! That is if they say: — “Who cares about children and their interests and benefits, who cares about aesthetics and the arts, they are children, they know nothing, let’s take money from their hands and run away! We need to survive, so who cares about children! Let’s charm parents that don’t know much about theatre for children either, and let’s make money!” — Isn’t that pure abuse of children and legal steal of money from parents with terrible consequences on children’s development? “Artists need to survive!” Why do they need to survive if they are not good enough?! If they want to survive, why don’t they go into a mine to dig coal or why don’t they sell potatoes on a marketplace!? (There is a Chinese saying: When an official does not serve the people, it is better to go home and sell sweet potatoes!) Why they need to do theatre for children to survive?! Why do they need to poison our children and earn money by selling garbage?!

Ah, well, that happened in Japan, not in China!

Who will stop this abuse of our children? When are we going to stop treating our children like idiots that know nothing? When are we going to stop selling them cheap things for big money and counting it while children are exiting a theatre with empty hearts, empty heads and empty brains?

Why are we doing theatre for children? Are we doing it for our own benefit and sake, because of our own existence and material benefit or are we doing theatre for the sake of the audience, because we have something to tell them!? Something important!  

What to do?

Let’s stop thinking about ourselves and only about ourselves. Let’s sacrifice our ego and our material survival for the sake of spiritual survival of children. Let’s sacrifice this big, fat sheep — 羊 to Beauty — 美 ! Are we ready for this? Are we ready to sacrifice our material life for the higher moral, ethical and aesthetical principles?

Let’s go back to the essence of theatre and start questioning ourselves WHY are we doing theatre, and why theatre for children? Let’s go back to poor theatre, emancipated of everything that don’t belong to authentic language of theatre arts. Let’s set ourselves free from unconditional tyranny of TV, movies and digital media and let’s get back to the essence of human communication, to our spiritual and emotional world and start communicating on different levels with our audience. Let’s at least try to find authentic theatrical language that will not surrender to technology. Let’s use technology in a smart way, and only if and when it helps us establishing theatrical language of our performances. Let’s make technology serving us, and let’s stop serving technology!

Let’s accept children not as the future people, but as people. Full stop! Let’s take them seriously and let’s serve their emotional, spiritual and cognitive needs. For that, we need to study children, learn about them, know them, know their dreams and their fears, their sorrows and their happiness… we need to ask them questions and not give them answers thus helping them to find their own way through Mountains and Seas.  

We also need to treat ourselves and art seriously. We must stop this artificial division on art for the adults and art for children. There is no “art for children” — art is art! We need to be more critical to ourselves and pose high standards that will raise theatre for children on a higher level and make it better, make theatre that children need and deserve.

Hungry artists

Stanislavsky also said: “Don’t love yourself in theatre, love theatre in yourself”. Luckily, more and more artists understand that. I am sure there are lot of artists that agree with me but are invisible (or I am an ignorant that doesn’t know about them), without real chance to present their work. (Please do let me hear from you!!!) They understand that there is only one way to survive in the arts — the way of sacrifice and suffering. Those artists are ready to sacrifice a big fat sheep, they are ready to sacrifice even their life, but they will not sacrifice the art in themselves.

(Xiao Zhen, puppeteer and storyteller, founder of Xiao Zhen Story Theatre, create and perform her own performances for children and their families. Her production “On the Way Home” has performed in over 35 cities all over China.)

They are ready to be hungry and invest last coin into their professional education, to the production of puppets or set for the performance, because they have something important to say to our children. They have a passion, talent and skill to move Chinese theatre for children forward.

Why don’t we listen to them and support them – they are the future and hope for Chinese Theatre for Children. They need support and not help, they are not disabled, they need cooperation and — structural funding.

(Wanny Liang (Liang wan yun)WU YUE children theatre, Guangzhou)

Structural funding for the arts and the artists and not only for the institutions is the way how our children can get better theatre in the future — theatre that they need and deserve! Artists also need better theatrical education and better insight into contemporary European theatre for children and young people, it’s philosophy and practice.

Oh yes, and another one — education of parents. A new program of education and enlightenment of parents is necessary if we want to raise new generation of children that will be healthy, happy, imaginative, creative, literate, with a high sense of beauty, empathy … and so on … and so on…

Magic word “education”!

To be continued.

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