'Every day, I Go To Work To Play' (Dave Brown, Australia)

Every day I go to work to play. What am I?

I’m a theatre director for Patch Theatre Company in Adelaide, Australia. We create and produce theatre for 4-8 year olds. It’s a good as any job I can imagine.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Patch Theatre productions enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of children in places like Japan, Korea, Singapore, USA, New Zealand, Canada and all over Australia and I’m amazed at how universal children’s responses are to our shows.  If ever anyone questions me on the future of theatre, I invite them to sit in an audience of 4-8 year olds and be amazed! Children respond to good theatre experiences with such immediacy, joy and exuberance, you can’t doubt its power and impact.

Early childhood is such a wonderful time to engage with children through the arts. It’s a period when enormous learning and development takes place and our challenge is to make theatre for them that’s relevant in content and appropriate in form.

Many people’s view of children’s theatre is framed by commercial children’s entertainment.  There is a big difference between the two. Children’s entertainment is commercially driven and often linked to a television series and mass merchandising.  It’s usually big, noisy, colourful and empty.  I believe it’s the worst we can do for children and it doesn’t belong in any school’s curriculum.

Play-School presenter, actor and children’s advocate, Noni Hazelhurst says “As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Kids are being bombarded, on a daily basis, by the popular media’s increasing focus on commercial values rather than creative ones.  Millions of dollars are poured into making junk palatable.”

Quality children’s theatre focuses on creative values; values that Noni Hazelhurst identifies so beautifully. “Children can be encouraged to grow, develop and participate in the world if we expose them to beauty, truth and the power of their imagination.”

Creativity is a word that features a lot in my life. It’s a word that describes the process of making something new. As humans, we’re hardwired to make sense of things. We seek to find patterns in everything. We’re driven to make meaning from our world. Creativity is at the core of what makes us human. Creativity is expressed in everything we do; it has many languages including dance, music, mathematics, genetics, knitting and football coaching.

Early learners are completely at home with creativity. When Picasso said, “Every child is an artist; the challenge is to keep them so” he was celebrating the way children see the world as an amazing and wondrous place beckoning exploration. The challenge of keeping that love of learning and joy of discovery alive is the challenge Picasso refers to.

When we set out to make a new theatre production for children, we undertake a creative process that invites us to play like children. Let me explain.

There are two essential partners in creativity. I call them whimsy and logic.  Whimsy is daydream… flights of the imagination… out of control thinking …magical thinking … intuitive, impulsive, fanciful thinking. Most early learners are naturally whimsical.

For adults, whimsical thinking is more difficult because we live in a world where logic is much more valued than whimsy. Why? Logic is much easier to deal with. It’s solid and reliable and you know what you’re getting. You can also measure it and grade it, so it works very well for educational institutions and businesses and policy makers. The downside is that logic can dominate proceedings, which is a travesty because without its counterpart – whimsy - the gift of creativity can’t express itself.

Whimsy is at the hub of our creative processes when we create a new theatre work for children. We have a core idea, which we explore in a whole range of ways in an open-ended exploration of possibility. Does this sound familiar? Yes, it’s not unlike the way good kindergartens function. In fact as a theatre director, many of the notions expressed in the early learning curriculum framework are part of our creative process. The idea is “we all teach and we all learn because we all know something and together we seek to know more.”  

In the whimsical phase of our process, we explore our germinal idea through tasks, provocations, improvisations, research, play, exploration, experimentation and happy accident. We take two years to make our piece of theatre and two thirds of that time is devoted to this phase of discovery and evolution that is driven primarily by whimsy.
The rules for the performers during this time are: “don’t censor your ideas, work through your body not your head, be playful and believe that if you leap a net will appear.” In other words “trust” that whimsical play will deliver the goods and let the possibilities unfold.

We accumulate lots of ideas. We video everything. At some point much later in the process, we shift slowly from the playful, whimsical phase to a more logical phase, where we start to shape and refine selected bits of the accumulated material into a meaningful outcome – an outcome that gives form and expression to the idea or story we set out to explore. We use about 1/50th of the ideas we generate. There’s lots of disposable nonsense that comes from whimsy; that’s the nature of it – it’s unpredictable, which is another reason why it tends to be mistrusted. However, I re-iterate, creativity won’t happen without it.

Time and time again, I’m reminded that the lives we lead as artists making theatre for children reflects the lives of teachers and children in their processes of learning and development. There is a great synergy between our worlds.  

One of the challenges in both our worlds is for us to hang onto the whimsy that is such an important part of the creative process. The essential ingredient of whimsy is letting go of our need to be in control.  The science of whimsy tells us that it’s a process that works in the creative unconscious and to access it we need to stop trying to control things. This applies as much to early learning as it does to theatre making.  The teacher-responsive, child centred approach to early learning so beautifully articulated in the Early Years Learning Framework requires educators to let go of a need to control outcomes.

All the educational theorists tell us that the most effective learning environments have at their heart the invitation to play – to play with ideas, with problems, with materials, with story, with movement, with colour, with numbers, with words, with images – in processes shared with peers and led by our innately human, exploratory drives.

Children have those drives in bucket loads but the challenge is to keep them alive against the odds. As they grow older, children are set upon by an increasingly rational, adult world that often feels out of sorts with creative and whimsical play as a serious endeavour.  Our aim at Patch is to preserve and foster these drives; to give children the space, the time, the resources and the encouragement to imagine, play and create.  

We seek to provoke, tickle, prod and beguile children with performances that celebrate their experience of childhood, the joys of play, the whims of the imagination, the struggle to make meaning and the challenge of children growing and developing through the most complex and telling phase of their lives.

Thankfully, we are in sync with our early years learning framework and the wonderful work done in kindergarten’s and childcare centres as together we work at keeping the artist alive in the child.

Dave Brown, Artistic Director,
Patch Theatre Company – keeping the artist alive in the child