Carissa Lee sees Polyglot Theatre’s innovative installation Tangle and discovers a new world in theatre for children
When I was a kid in Mount Gambier, there wasn’t much children’s theatre. We saw Humphry B Bear (who was awesome, by the way) but that was about it. There was storytelling from elders, or a weird giraffe puppet in a health education van that sometimes visited schools.
Growing up on a farm without much money, I made my own entertainment. I put on little shows and dances, and often I’d drag my friends in to help. I don’t think they really understood my weird urge to express myself in this way. My brother was the most patient kid (and now the most patient adult), and he often had to deal with being commandeered to do shows for my mum.
I’m so glad that children’s theatre is around today. I hate to be a grumpy auntie about it, but we have a generation glued to screens, not engaging with one another or their families. Live shows are a super important way to stimulate the imaginations of children.
This is why theatre companies that specialise in children’s theatre such as Polyglot Theatre, which is now celebrating its 40th birthday, and Slingsby Theatre Company are so important.
In the past four decades, Polyglot Theatre has grown from a two-member puppet troupe to a company of 12 permanent staff whose work is stimulated by frequent international and intercultural collaborations, and is recognised as a groundbreaking company in the world of children’s theatre.
It has evolved from performing in school halls to internationally touring large-scale Play Space works, running numerous community projects, and advocating for the role of the arts in children’s development. Polyglot Theatre is renowned internationally for its distinctive blend of interactive and participatory arts experiences for children and families that boldly re-position children’s theatre at the forefront of contemporary art.
You can’t say they’re not busy. In 2017 alone, Polyglot Theatre staged 263 performances and held 172 workshops, reaching audiences of 44,940 people. In the preceding five years, Polyglot created 11 new works, gave 1226 performances, delivered 16 community engagement projects, undertook 6 international collaborations, delivered 767 workshops for 15,884 children, engaged over 1000 artists, sharing their vision with a global audience of over 351,000 people, in a touring schedule spanning far beyond that of any other Australian children’s theatre company.
And the company shows no sign of stopping. Highlights of this jam-packed year for Polyglot include its fourth visit to Japan earlier this month, where the touring team conducted workshops at the new Asian International Festival of Theatre for Young Audiences in Tokyo as well as in five schools in Minami Sanriku, a small town devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
In April, the company embarks on an Indonesian tour of Cerita Anak (Child’s Story), (Witness review of the Perth festival performance) https://witnessperformance.com/perth-festival- poetic-clarity-robert-lepage/ an immersive adventure on the high seas for young children and their adults that combines puppetry, song and shadow imagery in a collaboration with Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theatre.
A lot of children’s theatre is created with double levels of meaning: one that’s been created for for children, and another running in parallel that’s for the parents. But in different ways, companies like Polyglot and Adelaide-based Slingsby create productions that cater to everyone without needing to do this.
Andy Packer, artistic director of Slingsby, says that the productions they create aren’t just for childrenryone. “We’re speaking to the potential 40-year- old in the eight-year- old, and the eight-year- old in everyone,” he says.
This is a common line that both companies share, as Polyglot aims to create works that bring parents and children together, as opposed to running two different modes of entertainment within the same production.
I saw a performance of Polyglot’s Tangle one weekend in April. It was my first experience of children’s theatre and I found myself engulfed in a whole new world of laughter and elastic on a windy Saturday. Tangle took place in a lovely pocket of Abbotsford Convent, where the company has established its new home. It’s an interactive installation piece where each child and adult is given a giant ball of elastic to weave around golden poles in the space.
Helpers from Polyglot are always available, often playing and getting tangled up themselves. Before long, a colourful web is woven around the area, and every participant, children and adult, is wound into a world of wonderful knots, colour and accidental art. It’s especially magical because they created it themselves.
The day I saw Tangle it was raining. I turned up to find a sign informing everyone that we might have to get tangled later. A little girl was stomping in puddles with amazing fluorescent gumboots (note to self: I need gumboots). I was worried that the rescheduling of the performance would result in smaller numbers attendance. Absolutely not. Eventually the rain stopped. As the sun came back, so did the children. The light reflecting from the wet ground created a kind of shimmer around the tangle set-up, setting a glow across the faces of those who stepped into it.
I stood on the outside of the fence that separated the rest of the world from Tangle, taking notes, watching these little kids tie up their parents, knot elastic around posts and laugh at all being tangled together. One of the helpers came to the barrier and asked if I’d like to join in.
I was thrilled to be asked: I hadn’t realised that my adult-y way of thinking had made me assume that I wasn’t permitted to take part. It was pleasantly surprising to find that I’d secretly wanted to part of it. I grabbed a ball of elastic and made my way through the construction, tying things into bows, loving that I had a job to do.
Productions like these bring out the children in us, the organic need to play, in a way that suspends everything else happening around us. The wind made the weaving/tangles move like they were breathing, an extension of the lively audience inside it. Despite the rain and the cold, the participants thought nothing of the world outside. We had more important things to do, getting tangled in colours that outshone the Melbourne gray.
One of the intriguing and beautiful aspects of Tangle is the reactions of kids seeing their respective grown-ups respond to the work. They became excited when their parents participated in the performance with them, allowing themselves to be relax, to laugh and play with everyone around them.
I remember this feeling so clearly: the excitement when my mum, so often riddled with the stress and the pressures of being a single parent, took the time to have a bit of fun with us kids. I remember our first night at a new house, a bit fancier than what we were used to. Mum was playing hide and seek with us, which was a side of her we had never seen before. I’m forever trying to bring that quality out in her again.
A universality in potential audience is something that Slingsby considers a great priority as well. During our yarn, Andy Packer said that parents often think that they’re bringing their children to see a show, but often they end up equally as invested as their children are, because these performances speak to the hearts of everyone, not just to children.
The equal investment from adults and children can also change the awkward interactions about judgment after performances, that adults are so prone to. The dreaded: “Well, what did you think?” For kids (and let’s face it, all of us) this interrogation can be a bit sudden when you’ve just stepped out of a different world and might be still digesting what you’ve just seen.
Instead, there’s a bonding, a conversation about something that has been a shared experience, rather than a challenging expectation of immediate assessment.
Both Sue Giles, artistic director of Polyglot, and Andy Packer observed that in performances for children, the elements of play, performance and story are in the eye of the beholder. In conventional theatre, the performers on stage are the gatekeepers of story and the audience is a passive presence within the room, expected to sit and respond only within the world of the auditorium. But even theatre for grown-ups can be much more interactive – check out Robert Reid’s review of La Mama’s Uncle Vanya.
Conventional theatre can be limiting for an auditorium of tiny experts in imagination and play, and with no inhibitions when given the right environment to let loose. You can tell just by watching young ones jumping up and down, yelling in excitement, that some of these kids long for further involvement. And in true childlike fashion, they want to be the ones to decide how they are involved.
When I was a kid, I was super bossy (although I’m hesitant to use that term, I bloody owned it back then). I was certain that I made the best games. In Polyglot’s world, every child has an imagination bigger than anyone else in the world. Slingsby too has a beautiful way of inviting everyone to not only be that child, but to honour the amplified emotions in the dark rooms where they tell us their stories.
Sue Giles says that children aren’t afraid of giving feedback about what works and what doesn’t. This is why interactive theatre requires flexibility delivering these productions. Giles calls it “art by stealth”. Guerilla theatre.
These performances embed audiences in the shows, and permit kids to decide what the meaning behind the performance is. Something as simple as a ball of elastic can trigger play and stimulate imagination without screens or pre-set characters.
It’s striking seeing parents engaging with their children in these activities, allowing themselves to be wrapped up in the children’s imaginations. But it’s okay to be separate too. Both Polyglot and Slingsby allow parents the freedom to let their kids run off and be kids, knowing that the children are safe to learn how to be independent in imagination and emotion.
Slingsby gives audiences the opportunity to bring their own aesthetic to the space. A story isn’t being told to them: it’s about them. And they get to decide how they fit within these worlds. For example, in their currently touring show The Young King, groups of six to ten (part of a bigger audience) are led through a Corridor of Secrets, making hats to prepare them for meeting the Young King.
As with all theatre, not everyone necessarily enjoys what they have just seen. Packer says that if people have the opportunity to talk about the show and express what they didn’t like about it, they may come back and give it another chance, because there was an opportunity for them to have their voice heard. The performance wasn’t just something that happened to them. Their responses are as much part of experience as any other aspect. As he says: “The point of the work is how it is experienced within you.”
Slingsby hopes to give audiences the experience of delving into their own darkness or melancholy together with the performers, while still finding hope at the end. The audience needs to trust that the company will bring them back again. Packer believes that this will help children understand that in their dark moments, there is always a glimmer of hope.
As an actor, I’ve always wondered how these companies and performers rediscover the innocence within themselves and share it with young audiences. Sitting in the room with Polyglot’s Sue Giles, surrounded by her energetic Polyglot troupe, and speaking with Andy Packer helped give me a sense of how these gifted people honour the profound ritual of performance for families.
Packer says that a massive part of his company’s philosophy, towards audience members but also between company members, is the necessity to look after one another. To me, this seems like Indigenous academic Shawn Wilson’s idea of relational accountability around the stories that are told.
It shows us a way forward for performance. How do we make theatre the most desirable act? We ensure that when people want to be together, they come to the theatre.