Danish recipe for good theatre

Denmark has listed the ingredients that have made it the leader of children's theatre, giving Scottish companies food for thought. Brian Hayward reports.

Denmark has much the same school population as Scotland but puts four times as much money into children's theatre and for that gets 10 times as many companies and school-based performances.

As for the quality of the work, children in Edinburgh and Shetland can be the judges. Courtesy of the Children's International Theatre Festival, last month they saw two Danish companies, Teater Patrasket performing A Strange Man and Meridiano Teatret playing Our Wonderful World.

How Denmark came to be the Shangri-La of children's theatre, and how Scotland can enter that happy land, are questions frequently asked, and last month Glasgow City Council and the Danish Cultural Institute co-hosted a day's seminar in the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, to try to answer them.

Michael Ramlose, a playwright and administrator of the Theatre Fair Play, traced the origin of the Danish children's theatre movement to the radicalism of the student revolts of the late Sixties, "when so many good things began". Danish students targeted "authoritarian theatre", by which they meant school parties being taken to the theatre to watch classic plays.

Curiously, in Britain this campaign seems to be starting now, led by the theatres themselves, with a leading Glasgow theatre director carefully distinguishing between school parties and "real audiences" and the Royal Shakespeare Company peremptorily abolishing school party discounts.

Thirty years ago the Danish radicals replaced "authoritarian theatre" and what they saw as bourgeois cultural indoctrination with their own theatre "collectives", taking political and issue-based plays to schools, libraries and kindergartens. By the time this radical zeal had burned itself out, Denmark had a tradition of small theatre groups touring plays that addressed the needs of schoolchildren.

As the politicos drifted away, they were replaced by young drama graduates for whom theatre mattered more than politics. At the same time, government decentralisation and an inspired funding system fuelled an upsurge in regional theatre and educational outreach work. As a result, there are now 75 children's theatre companies regularly taking plays into schools, 35 of them funded at least in part by national and regional government.

The companies very quickly ran out of suitable plays and so 10 years ago they created The Playwright Greenhouse as a training school for writers for children's theatre.

Jesper B. Karlsen was in the first cohort of 12 students for this essentially practical course. Child psychology figured, but little. "That had all been done," he said.

"We watched children at play and saw that they were very cruel, used bad language and had imaginations beyond our wildest dreams. We learned to write plays with many layers, with tough, challenging ideas, that persuaded children within the first five minutes that they wanted to watch."

Even so, they call themselves "the invisible theatre" because they work only in schools, where parents don't see them and most critics refuse to go. This isolation has spawned a solidarity that contrasts with the sometimes guarded reserve between Scottish companies, who vie with one another for coveted Scottish Arts Council funding.

Their solidarity is visible at the two major Danish children's theatre festivals, where the companies share experiences and ideas among themselves and practitioners from other countries. They exercise their own quality control with a kind of mutual criticism or peer assessment based on an informal list of criteria.

With an obvious gulf between the Scottish and Danish experience, it might seem foolhardy to try to blend the two, yet that is happening and between two companies poles apart in their style and structure. The 30-year-old TAG Theatre Company is partnering newcomer Teatret Carte Blanche, a one-woman company.

Actor, playwright and artistic director Sara Topsoe-Jensen's conclusion after meetings with Naomi Ludlam, TAG's assistant director, was that "we have absolutely nothing in common". Small wonder, when Carte Blanche's style is an idiosyncratic abstract theatre which was difficult to explain to the seminar but apparently is very accessible to young people. Nevertheless, the two are collaborating to create the final episode of TAG's four-year Making the Nation epic project.

This involves 15 Scots aged 15-17 travelling to Denmark to work with 15 young Danes over three weeks this month, culminating in a cross-cultural theatre performance. Then next month there will be a three-day festival of youth culture in Glasgow, bringing together 150 young people from youth theatre groups in Scotland and Scandinavia.

Ending the seminar on further positive notes, James Brining, TAG's artistic director, reported that representations to MSPs have elicited that "children are high on the agenda". Angela Hogg, the SAC's drama officer, pointing out that the council continues to ring-fence 20 per cent of its funds for young people, announced it is assisting Visible Fictions Company in a school-based scheme developing three writers for children's theatre.

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