Going to the theatre is an important experience for children. But what is it that continually draws audiences back to live theatre against the forceful current of the digital age?
Splash ABC reports below on the magic of theatre and the huge emphasis Riverside has placed on caring for audiences of all ages, with experiences that are both comforting and stimulating.
Four-year-old Alex has it figured out.
Alex’s eyes light up. He points at the stage in front of him. A life-size replica of one of children’s author Eric Carle’s beautiful illustrations is manipulated expertly by a puppeteer on the stage in front of him. He exclaims, “Haha! A blue horse!” and flaps his arms so vigorously you think he may take flight (he does that when he is excited).
He looks at his mum, then he looks at all the people around him watching the same thing as him. He wants to see if they can see what he sees, and if they’re just as happy about it.
He watches the rest of the scene with anticipation, pre-empting each puppet a fraction before it bursts onto the stage. “A yellow cow.” “A purple crocodile.” His excitement and disbelief mounting. You can almost see the light bulbs of his imagination going off in his head.
Alex and his mum are watching The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show as part of the 2015 Sydney Festival, and the scene they are watching is from one of his new favourite books: “The artist who painted a blue horse“. Alex is witnessing one of his beloved picture books coming to life before his very eyes and the experience is magical.
It’s magical for so many reasons, one of them being that Alex simply is a child, and, for children, things like this ARE magical.
Make-believe realities in the theatre
What Alex is experiencing is the thrill of mimesis. The puppets he sees in front of him are two things at once: both a clever construction of fabric and glue, AND that wonderfully recognisable Blue Horse.
What brings them together is pretence – the fabric and glue are doing a thoroughly good job of pretending to be a blue horse. To interpret these two opposing identities, the human brain employs some very clever trickery in a process that cognitive psychologists have recently termed “conceptual blending theory” – the idea that our brains constantly hold multiple versions of reality simultaneously through the establishment of a blended, conceptual space.
Recent studies in theatre cognition, such as the work of Bruce McConachie, have begun to look at how blending theory operates for theatre audiences.
The debate about how children learn to distinguish fact from fantasy has come into sharp relief recently with Richard Dawkin’s comments about the impact of fairytales on the development of supernatural thought.
Dawkins has been quoted as saying, “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?”
He has since claimed that his initial remarks were misconstrued and that fairytales may indeed be a chance for children to learn how to disentangle beliefs around reality. “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true … So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility.”
Emotions are contagious
Learning how to disentangle fantasy from reality is exactly the kind of experience that takes place in the mind of children watching live theatre on stage, but it’s the communal nature of live theatre that makes this experience so thrilling.
Emotions are contagious. McConachie says, “Audiences will tend to laugh, cry and even gasp simultaneously. The more spectators join together in one emotion, the more empathy shapes the emotional response of the rest.”
When watching live theatre we simultaneously see both the real and the imagined and the very creation of this blend is electrifying to behold. Whether young or old, an audience is a very powerful thing to be part of.
When Alex looks at the blue horse and at the audience around him he enters into a perpetuating loop of satisfaction and make-believe, knowing that we are all in this together, that this is a safe and exciting world and where magic indeed takes place.
With this in mind, Riverside Theatres Parramatta places a huge emphasis on caring for audiences of all ages, with experiences that are both comforting and stimulating, offering one of the largest venue-based curated performing arts programs in NSW for school audiences and an annual festival for families in the September school holidays.
Riverside’s program this year features work from some of Australia’s leading children’s theatre companies, including The Listies, Monkey Baa, Queensland’s shake & stir, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre and Adelaide’s Patch Theatre Company.