‘Children’s theatre doesn’t have a voice in the wider sector’

The theatre company Tall Stories saw the writing on the wall back in February when performances of its hit shows The Gruffalo’s Child and The...

Lyn Gardner

Under-appreciated and underfunded, children’s theatre appears to have been forgotten during lockdown. Lyn Gardner speaks to artists to hear how they are coping, adapting and what their hopes are for the future

The theatre company Tall Stories saw the writing on the wall back in February when performances of its hit shows The Gruffalo’s Child and The Snail and the Whale, which were in Hong Kong, were cancelled due to Covid-19.

Those cancellations had a ripple effect on tours across the world. By the time the UK theatre shutdown occurred in mid-March, Tall Stories had already felt the impact the pandemic would have on their model.

“We earn 98% of our income,” says Lucy Wood, executive director of Tall Stories, a company that makes high-quality shows for family audiences. Its work includes adaptations of much-loved children’s books such as The Gruffalo and
Room on the Broom.

“At the moment, the only sure income we have during this financial year is for a rescheduled tour of The Gruffalo’s Child in Australia in September,” says Wood. The company has furloughed staff and good reserves and knows it’s lucky to have tried and tested titles ready to go at the drop of a hat. But like all in the theatre sector, Tall Stories is aware of the very real difficulties ahead.

‘Young people are not going to deal with the magnitude of this moment and what’s happened with more quadratic equations. They need art’

All theatre is facing unprecedented challenges, but theatre for children is particularly hard hit. Despite the fact that Tall Stories is one of British theatre’s commercial success stories, and that funded companies with international reputations such as Oily Cart, Theatre-Rites, Starcatchers and Catherine Wheels make some of the UK’s most innovative theatre, children’s theatre still tends to be under-appreciated and underfunded.

“Most of the children’s theatre sector is made up of micro-organisations working on tiny budgets,” says Paul Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Imaginate, Scotland’s national organisation for promoting and developing theatre for children and young people, which produces the annual highly regarded Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. “These organisations are flexible and adaptable. Their work is very good, but they are often fragile too.”

Rhona Matheson, chief executive of Starcatchers – which works with communities across Scotland using the arts to enrich the lives of the under-fives, and whose tour of Little Top, a circus show for babies had its UK and Japanese tour cancelled because of the pandemic – says there is no shortage of brilliant theatre for children. “But it often feels more valued and has more opportunities outside the UK than within it.” This means that many working in the sector fear it may be overlooked as theatres start to reopen.

Sarah Argent, a Wales-based freelance theatremaker, whose work includes hugely successful and innovative pieces such as Baby Show, and who saw all her upcoming work cancelled on the shutdown, says: “Children’s theatre doesn’t have a voice in the wider sector, it is often forgotten and left out of the conversations.” Unicorn Theatre artistic director Justin Audibert says: “Work that is undervalued is often the work that gets cut when times get tough.”

Yet there is an argument that children’s theatre has never had a more crucial role to play than it will in the wake of the pandemic, because of the damage the lockdown has inflicted on children’s lives.

“Children have suffered a great deal,” says Audibert. He is worried about the mental health of youngsters, saying: “Those year 6 children who are making the transition to secondary school will never get back what they’ve lost. It’s as if their lives have had a jumpcut forward. But theatre has a role to play in helping them process that. Young people are not going to deal with the magnitude of this moment and what’s happened with more quadratic equations. They need art.” 

‘Most of the children’s theatre sector is made up of micro-organisations working on tiny budgets’

He believes that as creativity and well-being moves up the agenda in schools, every school in the country should have a deep and ongoing relationship with an arts organisation. JoinedUp, founded by director Kate Golledge and producer Sharon Kanolik is already exploring how artists and theatres might offer schools the support they will need to provide education for all children, and Kate Cross at the Egg Theatre in Bath dreams of “using our space as a second classroom”.

But Cross also argues that children need the opportunity to see great theatre shows and not just participate in creative learning, which she describes as the “low-hanging fruit in the children’s sector”.

She continues: “Too often the default view of children’s theatre is that it’s purpose is to educate. Nobody thinks theatre for adults has to be educational: we think adults deserve art so why shouldn’t children have access to brilliant art too?”

Imaginate’s Fitzpatrick agrees: “Participation is important, but you wouldn’t ask a child to write a story but not think they also need to read a book, so why do that with theatre?”

The question of how to deliver live performance in the upcoming months is the same one facing all theatre sectors. Tall Stories, which had a full schedule of UK shows booked over the Christmas period at the Lowry, Leicester’s Curve and in the West End, is reliant on venues reopening because its model is based on its daytime shows playing under the evening show. A big question is if and when school audiences will return?

Those in the subsidised sector worry the boldness and diversity of children’s work will be set back years as partner venues look for familiar titles to entice audiences back. “I can’t see myself touring a show called Muckers by Caroline Horton that includes the word vagina any time soon,” says Cross.

But there is plenty of imaginative, forward thinking from the sector. Starcatchers is looking at outdoor shows and shifting touring patterns in which a company would be based in communities over longer periods. Argent is speculating about brief encounters between a tested artist and small family groups.

‘Working with Oily Cart is about more than being a company that makes children’s theatre, it’s about being an ally and an advocate’

Oily Cart, the company that creates shows for young audiences with neuro-diverse and complex needs and their families, many of whom are shielding, isn’t planning any more traditional touring until 2022. But it will be reimagining the show Jamboree, co-created with non-verbal young people, taking it to doorsteps in the Wandsworth area of London in September.  

Ellie Griffiths, who took over as artistic director last year, says: “Oily Cart has always been good at tearing up the rule book and the current situation makes that all the more necessary. Many of the communities we serve are in an extreme position and we have a role to play to help ensure they are not invisible and forgotten over the next 18 months or two years.”

Griffiths adds: “The pandemic has been emotionally overwhelming because it has demonstrated how the people and communities we work with are left out all the time. To see basic rights being taken away reminds us how much they are excluded from the national conversation. Working with this community is about more than being a company that makes children’s theatre, it’s about being an ally and an advocate who works with them. The questions we keep having to ask ourselves are: is our work relevant, is it useful and how can we make ourselves most useful and relevant? It’s daunting, but it’s exciting too.”