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No child’s play

By July 1, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE



How do we bring children back to the theatre?

Summer at Prithvi Theatre has always been a bustling period for children’s plays, overflowing with so many children that adults need to steer clear. But this April, there was a marked reduction in the number of children we saw. In the first couple of weeks, the noon shows had a consistently dismal turnout, when once children’s shows would always be sold out. Sales did look up as June approached, but the change was obvious.

So far and few

Summer Fiesta at the National Centre of Performing Arts saw a similar trend. Friends who conducted annual workshops for kids told me they had a fifth of the number of entries from the previous years. Recently, in Delhi, across three shows, the percentage of kids watching our children’s play was about 10%. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, considering we opened our ninth production for children this year.

One reason that emerged was that schools across the city did not close for vacations at the same time as they once used to. Some closed in May, while others in July, scattering the audiences. Another reason, some said, could do with global warming. No, seriously. More and more families are leaving the city to escape the cruel summers.

Netflix mania

There were other opinions: theatre was now part of the curriculum in some schools, and so the novelty of a dedicated kids’ season had been lost; children valued theatre less now with Netflix and the other streaming platforms out there. One theatre veteran even asked if it was because couples of our generation were just not having children. A thoughtful silence followed. Till it was broken by someone blaming the big Disney productions luring children away with their big budget summer razzmatazz.

But not everyone agreed. Shaili Sathyu, a pioneer in children’s theatre and founder of Gillo Repertory, said there’s no such crisis. Their shows are packed, and kids are flocking to see them. The crisis, she said, is in the content, in the quality of theatre for children. “Theatre makers are not challenging themselves while creating work for young people, and so not challenging the audience either. Too much playing to the gallery, old content, below par and under rehearsed acting,” said Shaili.

Good stuff around

I try my best to watch new productions for kids, and it must be said there is some merit in what she says. There is a lot of good stuff out there, but there is also a tendency for newer groups to use this as a way to get assured dates in summer. But the plays sometimes feel half-baked.

Shaili also said, “Performing for children only in summer is also not helping build a relationship between performers and the target audience. It is unfortunate that most groups don’t see beyond suburban Mumbai family audiences. Children are out there, everywhere. It’s time that theatre people made a little more effort to reach their audience, geographically, intellectually, respectfully.” Words to live by.

Gillo has been making the effort to travel not only to other metros but also to smaller towns through the year. This was a wake-up call for me as well.

Back in the day, our plays for children travelled to Bhopal, Dehradun, Jabalpur, Jaipur, Mussoorie, and Nashik, but of late we have focused only on Bengaluru and Delhi.

Propelled by this realisation, I have now lined up shows of our latest production in Tezpur, Pune, and, hopefully, Bhubaneswar soon.

I’m still none the wiser about what is actually causing this downward trend. Summers have been hot before, productions have been sub-standard before, and theatre has always had to fight for attention in a world full of easy distractions.

I am concerned but I am also prepared to work harder to get those youngsters back into the theatres. After all, it was a play for children back in 2008 (based on the stories of Ruskin Bond) that really put us on the map.

It’s time theatre people made a little more effort to reach their audience, geographically, intellectually

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