Theatre has been part of children’s extra-curricular activities, at least in institutions that give importance to a well-rounded education. Increasingly, parents, who push kids to concentrate on studies, are also understanding that theatre, or the performing arts, help the child’s mental and emotional development, besides offering entertainment and information, which could explain the proliferation of workshops in recent years.
However, as a commercial enterprise, there are obvious limitations — kids cannot act in plays for long periods and because of school, they can be taken to watch plays only on weekends and during holidays.
The late Sudha Karmarkar was the pioneer of children’s theatre in Maharashtra, she founded Bal Rangbhumi - Little Theatre in 1959, and directed several plays for children. In Germany, Volker Ludwig co-founed Grips Theatre in the 60s, that focused on children’s plays. It was brought to Pune by Dr Mohan Agashe, and since the 80s, a few Grips plays have been adapted and others written in an entertaining style of presenting social issues concerning children and young people, with adults playing the roles of kids.
The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the oldest theatre group in the country, had started its children’s wing, Bal Manch, and has a repertoire of plays for children. Sanjna Kapoor was the first one to see the potential of an extensive children’s programme of workshops and plays when she established Summertime at Prithvi in 1991. It proved to be immensely popular, not only did grateful parents find a way of keeping bored kids occupied and entertained, it also helped develop a culture of theatre watching and respect for the performing arts among children.
Since then, there has been such exponential increase in plays for children that are performed by established groups like Ansh, Aranya, Ace, Akvarious, Yatri, Working Title, Ekjute, Rangbaaz, and T-Pot, to name a few, during the Summer and Winter vacations and many of them travel to other towns and cities.
Sanjana Kapoor and her core group went on to found Junoon, and one of their activities is taking plays and workshops to children across the country. The Summer season is an annual excuse for theatre folk in the city to let their imaginations run wild. And some very creative ideas come out this looming deadline. Some plays then become a regular part of the groups’ repertoires, and find they are in demand from schools all over the country, and oddly, even at a wedding, where Gillo Repertory’s Hanuman Ki Ramayan was staged.
Shaili Sathyu, who heads Gillo, says hers is the only group in the city that works exclusively with children, not just in summer but all through the year. She finds that now schools and parents want their children to get their cultural fix and theatre fulfils. Sathyu’s productions like Suar Chala Space Ko, Kyun Kyun Ladki, and Taoos Chaman Ki Maina have travelled extensively. She and her troupe travel across a chosen state, performing at schools, and interacting with children.
Recently, Sathyu started producing plays for toddlers. She thought it was too “extreme a space to get into” till Gillo co-hosted an event with ASSITEJ (The International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) and attended a master class for early years, by the Italian theatre maker Roberto Frabetti. It led to the production of Gillo’s first production for toddlers, Chidiya Udd, that took them to Bologna, where they got to see a lot more plays meant for little children.
Meena Naik has been working with puppets for years, in Delhi, Anurupa Roy’s Katkatha has done excellent puppet plays, Choiti Ghosh’s Tram Theatre specialis in object theatre for children. TIE in Delhi, Theatre World in Delhi, Ruchira Das’s ThinkArts in Kolkata, Chinmay Kelkar’s work with Goshtarang -- many others are joining the caravan, and it can only mean children of all age groups have access to workshops and plays.
For many city children raised on an entertainment diet of films, TV, and video games, a live performance can be a revelation. Many schools now have active drama departments and the bigger schools have lavish annual day productions.
Children high on information overload that the internet provides, have perhaps outgrown traditional fairy tales and are looking for more exciting contemporary work, which is now being delivered to them on demand.
Still, there is a kind of innocence in their way of seeing, an invigorating excitement that they bring into the theatre that makes performers delight in the rediscover of their inner child. Many kids come out of the theatre wide-eyed and completely hooked; they are the repeat audiences and theatre evangelists who then bring their friends to watch plays. It also makes it worthwhile for playwrights to create work aimed at kids.
Despite the glut of entertainment on TV for children, and such special effects laden films released at regular intervals ( Harry Potter, Superman, Spiderman) plus toys, video games and playstations, the relatively simple offering of a live stage performance has grabbed the attention of kids.
Admissions for workshops at Prithvi get filled as soon as they are open, with eager parents queuing up early in the morning for forms. Sanjana Kapoor started children's activities at Prithvi Theatre that were just for fun. Kids who came kicking and screaming to workshops, stayed on and came back for more. During vacations, she experimented with children's theatre on weekend mornings, and the response convinced her that there would be an audience for a month-long festival of children's plays. Her gamble paid off — shows and workshops are usually sold out. Kids who participated in the early Summertime workshops have grown up and bring their own kids to enroll them.
If there is a lack in the world of children's theatre, it is plays in regional languages. In Mumbai, for instance, the number of children's plays in Marathi and Gujarati, is minuscule. That could be attributed to the fact that the number of kids who are fluent in their mother tongue is decreasing.
Theatre Festivals for children are an excellent way of tapping the target audience—there are festivals of plays for children in Hyderabad and Pune, at Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, the National School of Drama in Delhi organizes Bal Sangam and Jashn-e-Bachpan.
Shaili Sathyu, who recently did workshops with children at Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh and Wada in Maharashtra, says that over the years of doing regular work, she has found that there is greater awareness among parents about the benefits of their children’s exposure to, and participation in the performing arts. “My only hope is that these activities should not be limited to the urban elite. We have to find ways of reaching out to underprivileged and rural children too.”
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