Just back from England and Scotland, I've been chilled by the temperatures but warmed by the creative vibrancy on tap for the young there. Enough to have me revisit a pet subject: the power of theatre to charge and change children's lives.
Three summers ago, the Traverse - Edinburgh’s thriving experimental theatre space - hosted a children’s drama fortnight mere days after my 13-year-old and I left that castle-crowned city. This time we landed in the thick of its Imaginate play fest for juniors. She now readier to watch the more complex Gods of Carnage and The Hothouse, her mother still curious about hundreds of excited kids queued for special daily shows. What they lined up for with such evident delight was stagecraft completely bold and beautiful in its themes, exuberant and engaging in presentation.
Closer home, a few earnest efforts fire budding senses with this passion. Sanjna Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar’s Junoon is an admirable initiative. Kids have also had a chance to attend summer theatre workshops at the NCPA or view Prithvi’s fine offerings of Gillo Repertory’s plays based on original stories published by Young Zubaan, Tulika and Katha. But think about it. How wide do parents cast the net scouting for stage options? Do we prioritise watching plays as a prime leisure and learning activity? When abroad, is it deemed money well spent on theatre tickets? (Pricey as they are, these add up to less than casual cash doled out for shopping.)
In Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment, he explains that narratives are tools helping a child through rites of passage leading all the way to adolescence. Some cultures wisely don’t fight shy of drama. With no clear separation of myth from folk or fairytale, Nordic languages have a single word for both: saga.
Young minds love saga. Their idealism yet undimmed, children are quick to respond to unfairness. Enthralled by bold adventure, they’re caught in the spell of primal stories performed with music, costume and lighting. Although kids seem more obvious movie fans, film doesn’t quite cut it the same way. Theatre is a live game - vital and immediate. Innate narcissism has children believe stage actors speak to them alone, for instant response: a collective gasp or individual laughter.
If theatre is cathartic, it is refuge too, a safe haven holding the key to break free from even chronic shyness. I see this transformative quality first-hand at a reading club run with my counsellor friend Rupal Patel. From wallflower to wild child, the quietest kids - invariably hiding the best imagination - come alive spontaneously to enact their favourite parts of the month’s book. Theatre therapy, if you will.
As Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre, says: “Theatre makes smarter, braver human beings. It connects the head to the heart.” Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens.
The A to Z of stage magic for young audiences
Theatre always Amazes, Beguiles, Cares. It lets kids Dream, Empathise and Feel. It is a Gift, a Hunger sparking Ideas. It explores Justice, Kindness and Love; it can be Mesmeric, Numbing and Obsessive. Theatre is Provocative, Questioning, Relentless. It gives Strength, Tenderness and Understanding to become the Voice of change in a fast shifting world, the Watchdog of its every mood and move. Theatre truly X-rays emotions and inner Yearnings with compassion and Zest. Go for it.