SYDNEY CHILDREN’S FESTIVAL 2011 – Go! Take the kids!

Erth's touchy-feely, extremely life-like dragon was a huge hit at Carriageworks 2010.

The grandson and I went to Riverside Theatre at Parramatta yesterday to see the premiere of a new musical, The Chaos Fairy. It was all go out there. The foyer was crowded with kids and parents, a ringmaster warmed up the crowd, while in the courtyard kids were learning circus tricks, making collages and plaiting wool. The Sydney Children’s Festival has expanded this year from its base at Carriageworks, and a great thing that is.

I declare an interest here. I did a bit of work with producer/writer Nicholas Flanagan on his draft scripts of The Chaos Fairy, and my adaptation of Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything is also part of the festival. I was also involved as a storyteller at the very first edition of the festival a few years ago. But it is an event I wholeheartedly support as a consumer of arts for young people too.

The small theatre was full for the premiere of The Chaos Fairy, and the audience response was warm. However, the producers were concerned that it was going to be a battle to attract audiences to an original piece of theatre.

‘It’s getting harder to get audiences in here,’ according to Riverside Theatres manager Robert Love, ‘particularly for a kids’ show that is not based on a popular children’s book’.

I think that’s a great shame. Books, plays and films are separate storytelling media. Sometimes they intersect, but more often they don’t. Some stories make excellent books but poor films and some of the best theatre I have seen would never work in print or on the screen. And too often I’ve sat through theatrical adaptations of popular children’s books where a thin story has been padded out with lame songs, gratuitous slapstick and a few feeble puns (‘something for the adults to enjoy’) and performed by young actors in front of basic sets.

Perhaps I shouldn’t whinge too much. Some of my most satisfying work has been doing stage adaptations of books (Robin Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley, Randolph Stow’s Midnite and most recently The Book of Everything). All three are wonderful stories on the page, with excellent characters for actors to bring to life and exciting possibilities for imaginative staging.

Yet it is frustrating to the storyteller in me to feel I need to start each new project by trawling through the most popular current fiction for young people. Harry Potter on Ice and Twilight:The Musical – coming soon to a theatre near you! I read a lot of fine children’s literature but I seldom find a story which I think would work well as a play.

Film-makers may well feel the same when doing their umpteenth remake of a comic book or a 1950s TV series.

I suspect the problems of pulling audiences to quality, original children’s theatre have been around for a long time.

The first play I ever saw made a huge impression on me. My mother took me and my younger brother (I’m guessing we were aged about 7 and 5 at the time) to a theatre in Melbourne to see a play called Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip. We thought it was a beautiful show and we remember it still. Sadly for the performers and the producers, there were only a handful of people rattling around in the theatre. It must have been a great disappointment to the young writer of the piece. The box office failure of Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip could have led to him chucking in the theatre business altogether. Fortunately it didn’t. The writer was Barry Humphries, soon to become the housewife/megastar Dame Edna.

But the reason parents should take kids to the Sydney Children’s Festival is not to support the writers, the performers or the producers, and to ensure that the event continues to prosper; it is because everyone will have a very good time.

The Sydney Children’s Festival runs through the school holidays at Carriageworks, the Seymour Centre, Riverside Theatres, JSPAC Penrith and Newcastle Library.

For a full program of events, click here.

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