Thursday, May 9, 2013

International Children's Theater Festival (2013)

Last time I was Fringing in New York, I missed an opportunity to see The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, Deep Sea Explorer. There were three companies that had arrived together from Perth, Australia, Tim Watts' Weeping Spoon, producer of Alvin Sputnik was one. Mark Storen (see below), whose A Drunken Cabaret I did get to see was another.

Watts' show received some very nice press, including an interview in The NY Times, and by the time it had come to my attention I was either scheduled for the same time or it had sold out. So I was surprised and delighted to see that it was on the slate of productions presented as part of this, the fourth year of PlayhouseSquare's International Children's Festival, a fantastic celebration of live theater arts which truly explore the vast possibilities inherent in and unique to live performance.

The festival proper opens today, May 9 and runs through Saturday but there are also school matinees, so yesterday I had an opportunity to sneak in and share this astonishing "solo" show with a roomful of kids that looked about my son's age.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, Deep Sea Explorer

I used italics around the word "solo" because though Watts is the featured person -- the guy with the recognizable face -- he works with an small, experienced team of artists and puppeteers to make it all work. And I use the word astonishing not only because of the delightful and surprising use of puppets, screens, video, live music, sound effects and darkness, but also subject matter which is at once reassuring, sweet, loving, and very, very bleak.

Let me put it this way, without giving away too much -- the premise is based on ecological disaster on a global scale. That's at the beginning. But following the protagonist as he manages and copes with his world sets in motion a melancholy hero's journey driven entirely by love. There is also an eight-inch tall hand puppet in a diving suit that can breakdance.

Sitting in this darkened room, as one with children, and one who works with children, I was at once thrilled and terrified. Can you actually do this? Sure, most of these kids have seen The Avengers, destroying things is part of their daily roleplay. But this is different, isn't it? Or is it. The very real threat posed by global warming and rising sea levels. Will there be nightmares? Or resolution to change things? Maybe both, who knows. Is it an artist's job to worry too much about what will scare the children, or just to stay honest, be clear, and be gentle.

Because that's, at last, what I saw in Alvin Sputnik. It is honest, it is clear, and it is gentle.

The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly

Yesterday, we saw The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, written by the Tasmanian Finegan Kruckemeyer and produced by the Irish TheatreLovett, which is not gentle, but rather brash, velocious, and has really great hair. Louis Lovett spins a yarn -- well, I mean, he unpacks it out of many boxes and then spins it, which is a terrible thing for me to have done to a metaphor -- and revels in his own personal awesomeness.

Though his work is very physical, he exhibits tremendous focus. It is very clear, inspiring movement work, and an inspiration to men like me, who do not think of themselves as lithe or graceful. I thought, I can do that. I really should try. Do not fear the clown, but set him free.

Because even though the production features a great set, comprised of boxes within boxes within boxes (even Lovett's costume is a box within a box within a box, if you follow me) and though Kruckemeyer has crafted an irresistible story (another box w/in a box which, like Alvin Sputnik features end-of-the-world elements) it is the direct, clear, concise, animated, fantastic and outsized storytelling of Lovett upon which the success of the piece rests.

These two pieces of children's theater -- which can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone, really -- acknowledge and honor their undersized audiences in two different ways. In Girl Who Forgot it is the weight of detail and demand for attention that puts kids on notice that there will be no dumbing-down, keep up, children, you will get this, and in Alvin Sputnik the almost absolute absence of narration for long stretches of the production where we all just watched spellbound as wonderful and even frightening things developed and played out in elegant ways.

But seriously, what does this all have to do with David? I am so glad you asked. On Monday evening I had the opportunity to hear Adventures In Slumberland read for the Playwrights' Unit. In general it was a reassuring success, most comments were very positive. The crew that had assembled to rehearse once and then read were instrumental in the reading coming off all right -- especially as there are several turn-of-the-last-century melodies which they learned on their own time, primarily by looking up ancient wax cylinder recordings on YouTube.

Having never before written more than something like a short sketch for children, I wanted to try something special and new, unpredictable ... but not so odd as to be incomprehensible. What are the lines? Where are the boundaries? How much will I allow myself to trust the child? Readers of this blog may expect to read more grappling in the months to come.

As should now be abundantly clear, a children's show can be anything, about anything, anywhere, or everywhere, or nowhere. Kruckemeyer himself held a workshop here a year ago (thanks Deb for chronicling his writing exercises) which cracked open my perception of what writing can be and how a story can be successfully built.

Tim Watts, Finegan Kruckemeyer and I have one mutual friend:
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Mark Storen.

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