Grown-up attitude to young audiences

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Brian Hayward talks to three theatre directors about their approaches to children and subjects which were once taboo

Do children exist? This was the question asked recently of children's theatre workers by Suzanne Osten, director and founder of the Unga Klara children's theatre in Stockholm, who admits to having spent most of her professional life trying to identify how the psychology of children differs from that of adults and with so little success that she has begun to question whether there are wholly separate constituent audiences.

All she can be certain of is that no one wants to be a child: they all want to grow up quickly, get power over their own lives, become free. This is why the hucksters selling to the eight to 12-year-old "tweenagers" are so successful: they offer the trappings of adulthood to an age group of consumers who before had hardly more than cigarette smoking with which to mimic their elders.

Ms Osten's experience has been that when she searches for the Child, she finds only the child; every one is an individual with a personality as distinct as an adult's. She recognises that, like adults, children are moved by the emotions of sorrow, anger, passion, euphoria and curiosity. She reminds us that they live in adults' homes, where they share any anger and conflicts, often as passive bystanders.

She wryly observes that "physical size and verbal ability seem to stand in direct proportion to powerlessness in most societies". Eddie Jackson, director of Borderline Theatre, once said that he regarded child audiences as "little people". Ms Osten would agree, though emphasising the first word.

If this is true, then what topics need be off limits for the children's theatre maker? Sex, presumably, but what about death?

Five years ago, following a complaint rom a teacher, the Scottish Arts Council compelled Stephen Greenhorn to remove the scene from his version of Pinocchio in which the puppet is hanged and brought to life.

About the same time, I saw a remarkable piece of children's theatre premi red in Perth. Set in a Perthshire farmhouse, it spun a magical story of the missing talisman for the four elements, without which the world would freeze to death. Every five hundred years a human agent was needed to sustain the talisman in the cosmic collision of earth, air, fire and water. This time that agent was to be the children's mysterious, sea-going uncle.

Everything about the story - the mortal danger, the renewal and rebirth, the heroism of sacrifice and more - demanded that the uncle should give his life for the children and the world. Sadly, he survived in good health for a happy ending.

When I remonstrated with the writers, their answer was that they were writing for children and death was a forbidden topic.

Not so, however, for Ms Osten. "Unfortunately I have written a topical play," writes Ms Osten, observing that Gransen, her play about teenage suicide, was completed as news of a suicide pact between two French girls, aged 12 and 13, was reported in the newspapers.

Why does Ms Osten tackle what she calls "the great taboo of talking to young people about death" and invite her young audience to contemplate the meaning of life? Her answer is that children want something that is truthful and important as well as playful. She finds they are stimulated by tragedy and able to listen to serious debate. They want to be admitted into the adult thinking world. Above all, they believe that problems can be solved, answers can be found. Perhaps in that, too, Ms Osten adds mischievously, they differ from the rest of us.

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