Wee Stories Theatre for Children has had a busy time of it. They've produced seven shows and toured them round infant, primary and special schools as well as theatres and community venues all over Scotland in the past two-and-a- half years. The tour included a four-day stint at the Scottish International Children's Festival in May and three weeks at last month's Edinburgh Festival.
Set up by actor-director Andy Cannon and administrator Lara Bowen, this Stirling-based children's theatre company specialises in what it calls "story theatre'', a kind of theatre that combines high performance values with storytelling techniques to get the young audience involved.
Its last touring production, Sir Janet, encapsulates this approach. It was a "heroic tale of a wee lassie living in medieval Scotland, who saves the day when all the efforts of the big, brave knights and grown-ups fail''.
In the show, director Cannon plays the part of the storyteller and the wicked Sir Knight-Knight. As storyteller he asks questions and invites responses from the children and he encourages them to mime actions in the story.
The children become involved with the storyteller, so that when he introduces the wicked Sir Knight-Knight, whom he represents by carrying aloft the knight's grim-faced helmet, the youngsters who may initially be scared "a wee bit'', went with the story and with the illusion of being frightened, because they had already identified with Cannon as friendly storyteller. (A clever kind of "Brechtian alienation device'' for the under-eights, you might say.) A strong cast keeps the story pacy and comic with the brave Sir Janet proving she can overcome evil without ever lifting a sword. "In that way,'' says Cannon, "they all identify with a girl as brave and heroic and they see that situations could be resolved without resort to violence."
This is typical of the company's approach where issues are integrated to the story rather than the shows being issue-based or agenda-based.
"Our aim is to integrate theatre and story-telling,'' says Cannon, "and I feel there's not enough contact between audience and performers if you don't use the storytelling techniques as part of the production.
"On the other hand, the storytelling element also carries the serious content and makes the whole experience quite intimate for the young audience.
"Our basic philosophy is that if the set went missing we would still be able to do the show, because the story is the thing."
Watching Wee Stories perform Sir Janet to a Saturday audience which included parents - and a few lone adults - you couldn't but be struck by the rapport this approach establishes with the children who are more than willing to join in when asked, but who also sit enraptured throughout.
"In schools we not only do workshops if asked, but we always talk to the youngsters afterwards about the story-play. We discuss what went on in the story, what they thought of the characters and so on. It's a very good way to get them to think about structure as well as about content and issues,'' says Cannon.
In October they will tour Scottish schools with a new show, Labyrinth, based on the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, and they are presently working on a new adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, with which they hope to bring some seasonal story cheer to schools in December.