A Play for the Future

ASSITEJ South Africa will host the 19th ASSITEJ World Congress and Performing Arts Festival in Cape Town from 17-27 May 2017. Yusrah Bardien and Alison Green spoke to Creative Feel about the event and more broadly, why theatre is important for young people.

The International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (more commonly known as ASSITEJ), which is funded by the National Arts Council (NAC), is dedicated to the promotion and development of theatre for young audiences. Every three years, the association holds a World Congress. The next one, in partnership with the NAC, will take place in Cape Town during May 2017, the first ever to happen in Africa in the 50-year history of the association. This is an achievement largely due to the energy of Yvette Hardie, now in her second term as the first African president of the global ASSITEJ.

Yusrah Bardien, Communications and Marketing Manager of ASSITEJ SA, describes the Congress as a ‘massive Olympics of children’s theatre’. This eleven-day feast of theatre from across the globe will have days dedicated to each of the association’s many networks, which include the International Theatre for Youth Research Network (ITYARN), the Small Size network, dedicated to the production of theatre for babies to four-year-olds, the Inclusivity Network, which creates work catering for a full spectrum of disabilities, and Write Local Play Global, which brings together playwrights for young audiences, among others.

While part of the Congress is geared towards association members, the event will also bring scores of theatre productions for youth to the country. Thus locals will be able to experience some 50 shows presented by ASSITEJ’s many worldwide members, with a strong focus on productions from African countries. The Congress will take place in Cape Town, but ASSITEJ SA is hoping to extend happenings to Durban and Johannesburg.

Bringing the event to Africa, and increasing the work of ASSITEJ locally and across the continent is important, says Bardien, who notes that a huge percentage of Africa’s population are children. ‘The current capacity of performing arts in South Africa won’t meet the need for theatre for children. Currently, at the National Arts Festival there are about 15 – 20 theatre pieces for families, out of about 500. That’s a small percentage,’ she says, adding that some of the pieces presenting themselves as adult theatre are in fact for families, ‘but there’s a stigma against making work for children in South Africa, when actually it’s so important. That’s arguably where the forefront of theatre is… but some artists are still reluctant to do it.’

‘People ask why theatre is important when there is so much need for houses, hospitals, food… But nothing in any of those things addresses the poverty of hope. And that is what theatre addresses – the poverty of the soul, the need for inspiration and hope. Live performance, that immediate experience of a human exchange – that’s where it happens, and after the performance the experience lingers on. Theatre can offer the ability to be transformed in some way… A lot of charity addresses the symptoms of poverty, whereas theatre can address a cause. If we address this aspect, then someone may be inspired to use what they have and empower themselves, whereas you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, because they’re depressed.’

Alison Green, Gauteng Coordinator for ASSITEJ SA’s Kickstarter Creative Arts Project, echoes the ability of theatre to affect transformation, also pointing out its role in developing important aspects of personality and community. ‘If you are observing a piece of theatre, you immediately have empathy for the characters in the show,’ she says. ‘You can understand other situations, which you yourself are not necessarily part of. I think that allows for growth and change and understanding, as well as empathy, and compassion within a community.’

‘The arts also allows for a fuller scope, or more holistic engagement with the world,’ she adds. ‘There are different ways of thinking about things, different ways of appreciating, ways of making different decisions – which I think is part and parcel of the experience of seeing theatre, or going to a gallery and observing art.’

Introducing children to quality theatre productions is also an essential aspect of audience development, a critical part of sustaining the industry going forward. It is the people who went to the theatre in their youth who attend the theatre as adults: ‘It becomes an experience that they want to share with their children and families,’ says Green.

Partly through its ability to convey a firsthand, ‘lived’ experience to its audience (in a way that film and television arguably do not), theatre can serve as a richly illuminating aspect of education. This was demonstrated recently when Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) called on ASSITEJ SA to initiate a series of workshops accompanying the production of War Horse in South Africa. Working with facilitators from the UK, ASSITEJ SA designed a series of workshops aligned with the national curriculum, connecting the production to themes from English, history, life skills and the arts. When the pupils finally came to the show, ‘you could almost feel the education landing,’ recalls Green. ‘The impact was just overwhelming – the letters, and the artwork, and the responses we had from the teachers and the learners was incredible.’ Of the value of ASSITEJ and their work on War Horse, Head of the RMB Fund, Yvette Nowell, has said, ‘Access to the creative arts is not a privilege. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be captivated, have their imaginations unleashed and to free their thinking through the power of the arts.’

Hence one of ASSITEJ’s priorities has been to convince theatres that productions aimed at young audiences can benefit from elements of education. They advocate for the use of learning materials to accompany performances, as well as workshops, Q&A sessions, and discussions with the performers and director. These tools can extend the impact of the performance.

Performances aimed at very young children (particularly four-year-olds and younger) bring an important benefit: they strengthen the attachment between a child and accompanying parent or caregiver. ‘If very young children are exposed to something happening in front of them, when they react, they will laugh or giggle, or scream, and then look to see the reaction of the caregiver,’ says Green. ‘There has been quite a lot of research done about that bond, and what happens during the experience of watching a live show. That has been very important in the development of creating children’s work: how do you provide the opportunity for those bonding experiences?’

According to Bardien, productions targeted at this age group – i.e. ‘theatre for babies’ – are relatively new to South Africa. In Europe, the idea has been around for some 30 years, spearheaded by practitioners such as Robert Frobetti. ASSITEJ SA has been instrumental in its local development, with new work being created by, among others, Magnet Theatre, Nicola Elliot, Kyla Davis, and Joanna Evans, whose production Patchwork has received rave reviews.

The Magnet Theatre’s Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking, directed by Mark Fleishman, is another example of a hit production aimed at teenagers. ‘That show has not stopped touring,’ says Bardien. ‘It’s been to virtually every continent. It’s one of the Magnet Theatre’s most successful shows. Through touring the play to ASSITEJ festivals, they encountered and were inspired by theatre for the early years, so they are now teaching a group of young artists to make work for babies, with input from leaders in the field globally.’

ASSITEJ continues to advocate for the importance of theatre (and the arts in general) for children, and furthering its presence in South Africa. ‘The movement is growing,’ says Bardien. ‘When we first started our family festival at the National Arts Festival in 2012, we had eight shows; then we had nine, then ten, and this year (in 2015) thirteen. That’s a steady growth, and a number of these shows are created by practitioners who have come through ASSITEJ’s programmes, like Richard Antrobus, Jayne Batzofin, Herbert Mokoena, Jenine Collocott, Elliot Moleba, Jon Keevy, Lereko Mfono…’

Securing the bid to host the ‘Cradle of Creativity’ as 19th ASSITEJ World Congress in Cape Town will be called, is therefore a big step. ASSITEJ SA is already at work implementing a series of projects aimed at developing work leading up to Congress in 2017, with productions spanning a number of performing arts. Amongst other things, the Congress should highlight the power and range of such productions, and bring about greater and deeper connections and collaborations between local and international practitioners, thereby ensuring a vibrant role for theatre in the lives of local children in future.

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