• Adjjima Na Patalung, Fiona Ferguson, Luanne Poh and Hisashi Shimoyama, from second left, are all involved in organising children's festival
  • The character WaWa comes to life as a sand drawing in "The Rice Child"
  • "The Rice Child" presents by Crescent Moon Theater from Thailand
  • "Puno" by Papermoon Puppet Theater from Indonesia

More than just child's play

Art May 24, 2018 01:00

By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
THE NATION

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A forum held as part of the Bangkok International Children Theatre Festival 2018 looks at the very real challenges involved in organising plays for kids



“WHY IS it important to have an international theatre festival for young audiences?” This might seem like a silly question – kids, after all, deserve to have their imagination stimulated – yet it was also the major topic up for discussion at the forum hosted by the biannual Bangkok International Children Theatre Festival 2018 (BICTFest) last week at Chulalongkorn University.

On hand to give an answer to this and other questions were two representatives of renowned and well-established international festivals around the world, namely Fiona Ferguson, creative development director of the “Edinburgh International Children Festival”, formerly known as Imaginate, and Hisashi Shimoyama, general producer of the “ricca ricca *festa” from Okinawa in Japan. They were joined by Luanne Poh, artistic director of “100 and 100 more Festivals” of The Artground in Singapore and Adjjima Na Patalung, director of the BICT Festival in Thailand. 

Despite being rather new – this is only the second edition of BICTfest –and still medium in terms of size, Adjjima stresses its importance in focusing attention that young audiences need creative and artistic performances to develop. 

“These children are tomorrow’s adults so it’s vital that instil in them an appreciation of the arts. Live performance allows the audience to engage and share their feelings. The details and surroundings arouse and shape these young minds and allow the children to grow up as more complete human beings,” she says.

“They also learn about the cultural differences in the world. I believe and hope that we will see more people eager to experience this type of theatrical art.”

The Edinburgh International Children Festival is the role model of the successful festival. Inaugurated in 1989 and already preparing for its 30th anniversary next year, the festival has experienced plenty of challenges over the years.

“Putting together any festival is difficult,” Ferguson says. “There are always problems in securing funding and finding quality works including those made in the home country. 

“But children’s festivals are even more challenging. It’s the same here as everywhere: adults who haven’t seen high-quality works for children, whether theatre or dance, tend to have a real misconception of the standard. Making a good work needs skill and support, as well as recognition. Next year will be our 30th festival and we are relying on those skills, which are affected by government policy, how much money they have for theatre and how much value they put on the art. These are the main challenges,” she adds.

“In Scotland, we are exceptionally lucky that we have a relatively large number of artists in our population. That’s partly because Imaginate has been around for 29 years. But again, it comes back to the same thing: if you want to turn children’s theatre into a career, you have to be aware that a lot of people will pick adult work because it is more serious art. They don’t see how interesting or hard it is to create an artistic work for a two-year-old. 

And, Ferguson adds, because artists have to focus much harder on creating a work for a young audience than for an adult one, it’s really good training.

“For example, if you making a dance piece for six and seven year-olds, then you cannot go into the performance without thinking about the audience and what the response is going to be. Some adult artists don’t think about the audience but instead only look at the hook they want to see. The adult audience tends to be polite; even if they don’t like it, they will sit in silence. They will talk to friends about how they feel after the show. Children aren’t like that. You can feel the response immediately; if they are bored, they start fidgeting, playing with things and talking with friends. If they are enjoying it, you can feel their engagement in the work immediately and that’s very gratifying. Artists can still produce the work that they want to make and be driven by their artistic aims, but they also need to think about the audience,” she notes.

Japan’s “ricca ricca *festa”, an international theatre festival for young audiences, was launched in Okinawa back in 1994. Organised jointly across several towns on the island, it was the very first international performing arts festival for families in Asia.

It’s based on the belief in “nuchigusui”, an Okinawan word that means “medicine for life” or “medicine for long living”. This is no ordinary medicine though, but a nutrient for the heart, and so the festival strives to deliver quality performances that enrich the experience of art.

Shimoyama says that one of the key ingredients for success is giving children the opportunity to participate in the show. “Every year the schools organise a show on their premises because they recognise the importance of theatre for children. The festival also organises workshops for children so that they can be part of the show. Many artists try to understand the child’s world by lowering themselves and looking at things from the same eye level as the children and not from the top down. In short, these artists are seeing society from children’s perspectives,” he explains. 

Although Japan certainly has more artists wanting to create performances for adults than for youngsters, a new movement has been launched as part of the festival’s mission to be the hub of TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) in Asia. The aim is to cultivate creative activities by participating in the festival, which presents high-quality productions for children and young people from all over the world, and also actively organises symposiums, workshops, networking programmes as well as international co-productions.

Ferguson adds that children’s theatre is not just entertainment. 

“As the festival organiser, we try not influence the artist but we are always looking for works that don’t preach about, say, gender or immigration. But we are interested in works that talk about such topics in artistic ways. A good work tells the story not by confronting people but as something that stimulates conversation by a teacher or parent in the classroom or at home.”

Indeed, the performance, “The Rice Child” by Thailand’s Crescent Moon Theatre last weekend was a prime example of what Ferguson was explaining. The performance featured various types of arts including puppets, sand drawing, a shadow play through an overhead projector, and singing. Creative director Sineenadh Keitprapai, says the story of WaWa, which reflects the life of migrant children whose parents are labouring in Thailand, sets out to bring the problem closer to Thai children and their environment. 

“Teaching young children to get over their differences is not easy,” she says, “In our works for children we have to create provocative thinking but at the same time it mustn’t be aggressive. I’m thrilled to hear my young audience members engaging with the performance and speaking out loud to one of the other characters, Kao, not to bully WaWa or whispering how much they pity her to their mothers. They learn about life of others through these puppeteers.”

  THREE MORE DAYS

- The Bangkok International Children Theatre Festival 2018 continues through Sunday at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. 

- Find out what’s showing at www.BICTFest.com.