June 01, 2008

Developmental Stages

Performing Arts Festival for Young People
May 9-18.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In only the second time in 43 years, ASSITEJ (French acronym for the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) has held its triennial world congress in Australia – and, again, it has chosen Adelaide as host city. Along with some 600 delegates the event gathered artists, teachers, parents and young people – around 2000 in all, plus thousands more school children attending the Performing Arts Festival curated by director, Jason Cross.

For nine days, theatre for children has not only been widely discussed but put on show. Jason Cross chose “Old Knowledge, New Word” as his theme and the focus was on traditional and indigenous themes as well as innovation and new technologies. Among the international performance companies were
the Kijimuna troupe from Okinawa and Pacific Island company ,The Conch, based in Wellington, New Zealand. On opening night, in the Ridley Centre, a smoking ceremony and exchange of gifts was held between local indigenous hosts and delegates and performers from the Creek and Kickapoo first nations in the US.

The centrepiece that night was Nyet Nyet’s Picnic – another big construction spectacular from the talented Snuff Puppets, in collaboration with indigenous groups. The giant Dreamtime creatures – bunyips, monsters and the ghostly Nyet Nyet women themselves – produced squeals of delight from the groundlings fascinated by the visuals, but the narratives, including some clunky satire on European invasion, were meandering and badly staged, making a celebratory event overlong, low in energy and sometimes hard to follow. In contrast Headhunter, from the Polyglot Puppet Theatre and the Ilbijerri company took a lively trip – in a bright red puppet car- through indigenous country and culture. With fresh performances from Megan Cameron and LeRoy Parsons and neat direction from Sue Giles and Wesley Enoch, the play not only touched on matters of history and regret but motored along some future paths raising pertinent questions for all young Australians.

The international program, like many of the events in ASSITEJ back in 1987, favoured traditional forms – but of a cautious and conventional kind. Gamoonjang Baby, from Play BST Korea, proved a rambunctious exception. Based on legends from the Jeju Island region, the brave heroine of the title, accompanied by tumultuous music and challenged by players using strange, earthy, grumpy looking masks, endures many travails before creating a golden harvest which is shared with the audience in the form of rice cakes. In its epic mix of shamanism, adventure and agrarian rite, Gamoonjang Baby provided theatre that was both fascinating and fun.

The festival set itself the daunting task of catering to audiences from one to eighteen years of age. I suspect fifteen would be a better target – and even at the pre-school end, there are open questions about the relative importance of behavorial and educative considerations and theatre for its own sweet sake. From Sweden, HalliHalla, an earnest two-hander about a boy and girl learning to share a ball, was scrupulously attentive to its young audience but very short on surprises. By contrast, Christine Johnston’s zany toy story, Fluff, not to mention local companies Windmill and Patch with The Green Sheep and Mr McGee and the Biting Flea – all confirmed what we already knew, that much Australian theatre for young people is both more inventive and intrepid than that of many international counterparts.

The older crowd is more problematic and the approach for adolescents still seems to be to play tough with the boys and largely overlook the girls. There was plenty about hoodies and hip-hop, gamer talk, tagging and getting into trouble. For instance, Kage’s Headlock, about a boy’s first 24 hours in remand, which valiantly used choreography to tell the story. But it was the funny text and freshness of performances that made Zeal Theatre’s Australia v South Africa more lightly effective and enjoyable.

And, confirming that the play’s the thing, writer Angela Betzien scored twice – with Hoods, an imaginative underclass Hansel and Gretel from Real TV in Queensland and Girl Who Cried Wolf, from Arena Theatre, an ambitious mix of schoolgirl angst, shopping mall satire and serial crime, with sharp video décor and music – all capably managed by Rosemary Myers, who, lucky for us, is now the newly appointed artistic director for Windmill here in South Australia.

“Tradition mixed with innovation” The Adelaide Review, No.340, June, 2008, p.28.

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