'Theatre from the very beginning! - a report from the German festival Theater von Anfang' (Tony Mack, Australia)

Theatre from the very beginning!

What exactly is cutting edge theatre for babies and young children? Tony Mack reports from the German festival Theater von Anfang an! in Dresden in late 2008.

I’m sitting in a small theatre on the outskirts of Dresden, observing babies as they experience a production from Mannheim’s Schnawwl Children’s and Youth Theatre called Das große LaLuLa (The Great Lalula). Based on the nonsense poems of German writer Christian Morgenstern, it reminds me a little of Absurdist theatre. It’s a strong sensory experience – each sound, each movement seems to be amplified, and the nonsense language is spoken as though it is being invented by the performers as they are speaking.

The response from children, even babies in their parents’ arms, borders at times on astounding. A 10 month old baby watches every second of the 35 minute show, claps in time with the music and screams with frustration when someone in front blocks her view. Twice the actor bobs out of sight for a few seconds and she screams again. The second the actor comes back into view the baby stops screaming and returns to her fiercely intense observation of the proceedings.

At the end, without losing a beat, the kids are all on stage, playing and mimicking the actions of the performers. The opposite of “colour and movement” children’s entertainment, this is serious stuff in the way that children’s play is often serious, intense and focused.

Theater von Anfang an! (Theatre from the very beginning!) is Germany’s first theatre festival for the very young, and the culmination of a two year project of the same name coordinated by the Children’s and Young People’s Theatre Centre in the Federal Republic of Germany (KJTZ). This extraordinary project, focusing on the four German cities of Berlin, Hamm, Mannheim and Dresden, involved theatre companies, childcare facilities and universities in a range of activities. The outcomes of the project included new theatre productions, a festival, symposia, workshops, academic research and enhanced competencies and training for German professionals working in education, theatre, academia and childcare.

 

According to KJTZ Project Leader, Gabi dan Droste, “The background of this project is the current discussion in Germany about education and schooling in early childhood. The perception of childhood has changed fundamentally in recent years in the wake of this debate. Childhood is being viewed as a part of life that has its own value. Children are being taken seriously as subjects from the very beginning: from birth they are being understood as fully valuable, competent, active and curious people who are socially competent as well as being perceptive and cognitive.”

The duration of the entire Theater von Anfang an! project was from September 2006 to December 2008. It built on previous exchanges during the 2005 Augenblick mal! festival in Germany, and started with an awareness of other European work (such as that of Agnès Desfosses in France and Roberto and Valeria Frabetti in Italy) and research (such as the European Glitterbird project and earlier Norwegian Klangfugl network) in this area.

The process of research, understanding and aesthetic development undertaken in Theater von Anfang an!, however, was unique and imbued with the academic and aesthetic rigour usually associated with German practice. Childcare workers, artists and academics started from a common point, the interplay of “seeing theatre and playing theatre”. This process was expressed in Gabi dan Droste’s original project description:

“The artists and theatre educators will go to the childcare facilities, play (theatre) with the children and play for them. The children will come to the theatre and experience artistic performances. The theatre educators and artists will incorporate the experiences that they have with children into their artistic and educational work. The childcare workers, on the other hand, will use their experiences in their educational work with the children.

As it unfolded, the sequence of these activities was informed by educational, artistic and aesthetic ideas, and contributions from both external experts and the project participants.

Curating a festival of German theatre for 0–3 year olds would not have been a possibility in 2006, when the project began. Festival Organiser Michael Rockstroh comments, “There were only about two shows we could have programmed at that time in the whole of Germany. Now there are 22 that we could select from.”

Nine productions were selected, and the standard was high – in a few cases exceptional. For an outsider, there seemed to be a few common practices in the performances. In most instances performers would invite the audience into the performing area, and even take them out at the end. In these first few moments a mood of concentration and focused reflection was established. In the case of O Himmel blau (O Sky Blue, a co-production between Hamm’s Helios Theatre and Ania Michaelis) a stern-faced performer, Ania Michaelis, appeared in the foyer and gazed intently at the children before seeming to come to a decision. With a shrug of her shoulder she beckoned the children to follow her as she stalked into the theatre. Intrigued, they did just that.

Sometimes this seriousness seemed to verge on the scary but, oddly enough, more for the adults than the children. Holzklopfen (a rough translation for this co-production between Helios Theatre in Hamm and Strasbourg’s Théâtre Jeune Public would be Wood Knocking) began with a grim and rugged man (Michael Lurse) striding from the back of the stage towards the audience with an axe. And a very sharp one too, we learnt, as he chopped wood quite near the audience – some small boys were so excited by this they were literally jumping up and down.

A second common practice was inviting the audience on to the stage at the end or to a nearby area for activities linked to the show. As with the strands of Australian participatory and interactive theatre for children that go from present day back to the 1970s, at this point the ‘play’ became ‘play’. In Holzklopfen the performer shovelled a series of paths through the wood chips that covered the stage, and then invited the young audience members to walk them. In Funkeldunkel Lichtgedicht (rough translation: Sparkleydarkly Lightplay), the audience got to play with shadows at the side of the performing area, whereas in Das große LaLuLa the children moved seamlessly onstage to play with the kitchen utensils and roll down the raked stage.

The productions that worked best for me were minimalist in design, and quite subdued in performance. Frau Sonne und Herrr Mond machen wetter (Mrs Sun and Mr Moon make weather, from Dresden Young Generation Theatre) had a clever use of video technology and a most inventive set, for instance, but it seemed too much – and with the performers racing from one area to another to create the seasons of the year, they had less time to maintain a personal contact with their audience. I quite liked Das Mond-Ei (The Moon Egg) when I saw it last year in Bursa, Turkey, but its sheer invention too seemed at times to get in the way of the performers’ contact with the audience.

Most successful for me were Funkeldunkel Lichtgedicht from Dresden Young Generation Theatre and Rawums (:) from SCHAUBUDE Berlin, two very different performances. Funkeldunkel was directed by Ania Michaelis, the performer from O Himmel blau, and is a lovely exploration of light and sound with three performers and a musician. Bernd Sikora’s music in particular is superb, and with much of the stage and the auditorium in darkness for most of the performance, it tested the accepted rule of no blackouts and prolonged darkness for young children. Rawums (:) is a more contained show with two performers in a circle reminiscent of a circus ring. An “excursion into the wonderland of gravity”, it enthrals its audience with sequences of actions centred round both falling and flying.

The professional development program was extensive for a small festival, with workshops, “scientific stimulations”, discussions and “production talks”. Organisers very generously provided simultaneous English translation for participants who didn’t speak German, which was of great benefit to the festival’s visitors from around Europe and the three Australians who had made the long journey – Producer/Director Cate Fowler, Carclew’s Arts and Education Manager Leigh Mangin and myself.

The participating academics made some very useful contributions in feeding research and ideas into the creative process, and documenting aspects of it. For instance, University of Hildesheim research during the Holzklopfen creative development and early performances highlighted the roles, participation and engagement of children and carers through the observation of body language and behaviour in cleverly edited video footage. Not so successful for me were the production talks, where academics and educators would discuss productions with the relevant artists in a critical free-for-all, which didn’t seem to be respectful or supportive of the artists involved.

A session on Saturday night entitled “Theatre for young children – Germany, catching on in Europe” featured two of the most respected international practitioners in this area, Agnés Desfosses from France and Roberto Frabetti from Italy. Desfosses runs her company ACTA in Villiers-le-Bel, in the northern suburbs of Paris, and is well known in particular for her influential production Sous la Table (Under the Table), which convinced some of the most sceptical European observers that theatre for 0–3 years could offer exciting aesthetic challenges and experiences. Frabetti, along with his sister Valeria, founded the Italian company La Baracca in Bologna in 1987, which received the 2008 ASSITEJ Award for Excellence at the Adelaide Congress. Their work has toured to at least 13 countries and they founded the first European festival of theatre for early childhood.

Their gentle advice, coaxed out by Gabi dan Droste, highlighted the responsibility of the artist for the art. “Pedagogues and teachers gave us a lot of good advice,” said Frabetti, “but we had to follow our own vision.” Desfosses stressed the value of patience in the development process, and together they assembled a list of qualities necessary for the successful development of a show for early childhood with a multi-disciplinary team – warmth, thoughtfulness, generosity, structural intelligence and a good connection between researcher and artist

Theater von Anfang an! was both a significant project and a significant festival, and has clearly contributed to a growth in theatre for the very young in Germany as well as linked German artists with best practice around Europe. The hospitality of the organisers also made for a friendly environment, where practitioners from countries such as Germany, Italy, France, UK, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia could make connections, see good work and bring the latest ideas and research into their own practice.

TONY MACK

For more information and articles about Theater von Anfang An! go to www.theatervonanfangan.de

Editors