In a new Platform Paper published today by Currency House, Sue Giles, the internationally respected producer of theatre for young people, calls for adults to listen to our children and abandon what she sees as outdated barriers to their exploration and risk-taking.

Giles has been Artistic Director of Polyglot Theatre since 2000, leading the internationally renowned Melbourne-based company into new territory with interactive works, community process and inclusion of play in the company’s theatrical offerings for children. She is also Vice-President of ASSITEJ, the international association of theatre for young audiences.

She will be the keynote speaker at tomorrow’s launch of the Platform Paper entitled Young People and the Arts: An agenda for change. Co-hosted by Theatre Network Australia, the launch at the Coopers Malthouse in Melbourne will also include an industry panel discussion and contributions from young people in the sector.

Sue Giles with a young audience at a Polyglot Theatre production called Tangle in 2015. Photograph © Serana Hunt

This is an edited extract from Giles’ Platform Paper:

“What is it that makes a children’s work for theatre? The arguments about this definition are had at every festival in every country, in every rehearsal room around the world. There is a school of thought that says children’s theatre must have a particular aesthetic: colour and movement, slapstick, happy endings, simple story lines, engaging characters, costumes and songs. Blockbuster touring works like Disney on Ice, but also home grown works like Wiggles in Concert or High5, fulfil this brief and are considered purely entertainment for children and families. Distraction is central to this form of entertainment and it’s for this reason that ‘entertainment’ is seen as distinct from Art.

But entertainment is not a bad word. Respect for the audience as a discerning, sensitive, courageous and intelligent one, demands a high degree of rigour and thought in the construction of a work and you can certainly do this in entertaining ways. Highly entertaining Australian company The Listies have conquered children’s comedy through deep respect for their audience, with a focus on the subversion of the adult desire for control with hilarious results. Entertainment is valuable in partnership with the development of strong concepts, interesting form, deep issues, exciting exploration and experimentation; and belongs, rightly, to the youngest of us.

Denmark’s Teatercentrum proudly announces: ‘No topics are taboo: from harassment, paedophilia, death and destruction to every-day-life, friendship, absurdities and pure comedies.’18 Do we feel in Australia that we are barred from such confidence in content? In Denmark the culture of theatre-going is so well developed that the expectations have shifted accordingly. Their companies and artists attack ugly issues with air and the population has confidence in children to be able to receive strong works of theatre. In Cameroon I saw a play that portrayed child slavery—a real, living problem in that country. The artists asked the child audience if they would shout, and if they would shout in real life, in their own streets, if they saw this happening? The child audience shouted, ‘YES’ and wanted to storm outside immediately. The artists asked this, knowing that those with no power to stop the brutality of those stronger than themselves, could still use their voices to attract attention. In South Africa a show for children played out the rape of a young girl on stage and later the abuse of her baby. Really tough stuff  played in ways that disturbed but held its audience with compelling staging and the united hope that the girl in the story would prevail. These artists ask their audiences of both children and adults to discuss what they’ve seen and share their fury.

A discussion with theatre makers at one international forum centred on the ‘happy ending’. This is a highly contentious issue across the world: some German art-ists saw no reason for happy endings, some Brazilian artists protested the opposite: that their children led such troubled lives, why should they deal with sadness on the stage? In many countries in Asia artists prefer cheerful, upbeat performance that protects the child and others beauty and the aesthetics around design and style, reflected in marketing and merchandise. In Australia we definitely favour the happy ending. We’re not afraid to explore some trouble along the way but we like things to end well. Hope is one of the qualities consistent in theatre for young audiences. Even that devastating play in South Africa, with all the pain and grief that never went away, ended with faith in the resilience of human capacity to be happy.

Much of the content for children in Australia currently centres round interpersonal relationships: ideas of friendship, bullying, confidence in self, difference and acceptance. The connection made between education and the arts over the years has had the added effect of pigeonholing the work created for children as having primarily an educative purpose. In Platform Paper 41 Meg Upton and Naomi Edwards investigate the role of major theatres, where art for children and young people is framed as education, and rarely a valued part of the strategic planning of these organisations. Many in the sector struggle with this educational frame as it often overshadows the work done in other contexts.

At the Growing Audiences: Engaging Children and Families summit in Melbourne in November 2017 the panel was given the provocation ‘Why Bother?’ What bothers me is that people are still asking that question, that the benefit for the child is its own development, is still claimed as the strongest reason to engage them.”

This is an edited extract from the new Platform Paper by Sue Giles, Young People and the Arts: An agenda for change, published today by Currency House and launched tomorrow at the Coopers Malthouse in Melbourne