15-year-old Gully Thompson investigates online pandemic theatre for children and finds that La Mama’s Super Jenny! is pretty close to super
Theatre in the Covid-19 era brings a lot of challenges – the prospect of translating the effect of theatre to screen is a daunting task. The additional task of engaging a young target audience makes it more difficult. Right now, we are seeing various different forays into the world of theatre on screen and Super Jenny!, one of the first pandemic productions for young audiences, is an clever example of one strategy.
Super Jenny! is created and performed by Jennifer Monk, and intended for 3 to 5-year-olds. Hosted by La Mama, it’s an online event that occurs in two parts. It consists of a primary episode and a subsequent second part aired four days later, both 15 minutes long. The production is not a live performance; it’s produced and edited before the show goes to air, resulting in something rather like children’s television and educational programmes.
Thise show educates its audience through play, song and occasional episodic skits in which Jenny, the main character, transforms into her superhero counterpart to perform good deeds for the general public, teaching the audience about the value of helping others and providing assistance to those who are in need. The message is that positive and beneficial actions such can make any normal person a “superhero”.
The form is well-thought out and precise, and this show is an excellent introduction to topics that more children should be educated about but which are sometimes overlooked in educational productions. The themes explored include self-love, controlling emotions, using words to ask for help and learning sign language.
These are introduced to the child athrough various scenarios or simply with a lecture-style speech, which sparks the idea in the child’s mind. Jenny then suggests situations in which the skills can be applied so that the children can put their new-found knowledge into practise by themselves – an example of how Super Jenny! intends to incorporate an interactive element into the theatrical experience.
While the educational elements and content of the show have clearly been well thought-out and polished, other don’t seem as thought-out or refined. The two-part structure is useful for bringing back the audience while allowing time for the show’s ideas to have impact, but the second part itself does not seem to have been as refined as the first.
As with many children’s television programs or theatre productions, repetition a clear, set structure are the major tools that give a young audience a sense of familiarity and understanding. However, with a series that only lasts two parts, I wondered if the amount of repetition in the second episode was necessary, or if it was as effective as it is in most children’s media. Some scenes in the second part are actually taken verbatim from the first episode.
A musical segment that reflects upon self-love and positivity in the first episode, for example, is not only an enjoyable experience for the child to watch but also expands emotional understanding and has encourages interactivity with the child singing along. The roughly four-minute musical number is taken from the first episode and performed again, unchanged, in the second part. This happens with many other segments in the first episode, effectively making episode two a re-hash of the first.
Again, while this is a strategy used in children’s performance to reinforce knowledge learnt in an earlier part, it usually appears in long-form series. It seems a little perplexing to do this in a small, two-part special. With a show such as Super Jenny!, it might be more logical to present as much work as possible within its limited timeframe. On the other hand, it’s good for the second part to reintroduce content and expand upon it with new, relevant information, and this does occasionally happen.
The structure of Super Jenny! is very similar to a television program. As the show is not streamed live, it’s edited and shot with green screen and animated graphics. This is the method they have chosen to replicate or substitute theatrical experience, and I think it works in the moments where the child is given the opportunity to interact at home with games and songs that are performed in the show.
The immediate comparison for Super Jenny! is television shows like Playschool or other children’s educational programmes. The interactive elements used in the production are very similar to how these shows encourage a child to apply what they have learned through craft projects, singing along and other devices. The question is whether Super Jenny! is an alternative to theatre in the COVID era and if it’s any different from television.
While Super Jenny! can’t replicate the intimate and human quality of theatre, the substitute it offers is an engaging and informative production that would satisfy any child’s need for stimulation and entertainment. It’s not perfect theatre, but Monk has achieved a show that is entertaining and educational and also simply fun – which in my opinion brings it close to super.
Created and performed by Jennifer Monk. Music by Natalie Jeffreys, Amanda Testro and Mick Girasole. La Mama Theatre, premiered on Facebook June 30 and July 4 and available online now at La Mama.