/ 23 June 2017

Children’s theatre festival cradled creativity and encouraged empathy

Political satire: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is given a South African twist
Political satire: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is given a South African twist

In the history of South African theatre, you will be hard-pressed to find any plays for children that have become part of our story in the way that Woza Albert, Nothing but the Truth, Blood Knot, Sarafina or District 6 have. Yet, in mid-May, the South African branch of ASSITEJ (the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) hosted the 19th World Congress & International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People — the Cradle of Creativity.

The Cradle of Creativity was an 11-day exploration of theatre for young audiences that spanned three main venues (Artscape Theatre, Baxter Theatre and Cape Town City Hall), one fringe venue and four cultural hubs. The programme boasted 63 productions, 29 of which were South African. Of the 28 international works, 11 had an African partner.

This was the first time that ASSITEJ had the congress on African soil since its inception in 1965. The first of anything is always the most difficult, as a careful dance of balancing expectations and representations has to be done. It was with this in mind that the Cradle of Creativity chose to focus on the theme of intercultural dialogue.

In a country where the youth are disillusioned by the rhetoric of the rainbow nation as a multicultural safe haven and the threat of xenophobic violence, what does “intercultural dialogue” mean? What are the conditions necessary to facilitate exchange between two or more parties?

Theatre is often a space in which empathetic listening happens, and very often unknowingly. An excellent example at this year’s festival was Maloza — the Man Cub, a collaborative street theatre performance between Italy and Zambia for children seven years and up. The play was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and commented on poverty and the lives of many children who grow up on the street. The street, just like the jungle, is not the natural habitat of a child. The physicality, energy and acute storytelling thoroughly entertained the children at the Baxter Theatre.

One crowd favourite was a piece called Sandscape, a collaboration between Nigerian and Zimbabwean theatre practitioners made possible by the Goethe-Institut and facilitated by Magnet Theatre (South Africa) and Helios Theatre (Germany). The production was a culmination of a facilitated process of making work for children aged two to seven. The magic of the piece was in its assertion that play is theatre, and is just as engaging. Sand was dropped, dripped, rubbed and smoothed over black plastic sheeting, cups, buckets and umbrellas to create a silent playland.

Karoo Moose told the traumatic story of Thozama and her battle with sexual violence and reclamation. Chuma Sopotela, the 2017 Kanna award-winner, reprised the role of Thozama for which she won the award. The audience was profoundly moved by her performance. In light of abductions and murders of girls and womxn throughout the country, I could not bring myself to watch Karoo Moose — even though its inclusion was necessary, especially set alongside the darkly electrifying Animal Farm.

Based on the George Orwell novel, Animal Farm is a dark, witty, political satire directed by Neil Coppen and performed by Mpume Mthombeni, Tshego Khutsoane, MoMo Matsunyane, Mandisa Nduna, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Khutjo Bakunzi-Green. In its South African articulation, Animal Farm was a subversion of patriarchal norms. Five womxn tell the story of power-hungry politicians and exaggerated bravado in roles usually reserved for men.

Full Moon came by way of Lebanon. It is a puppetry piece aimed at 10- to 12-year-olds, told from the perspective of a wolf as he tries to understand the cruelty of mankind. The wolves, people and trees are animated so carefully you almost believe they are real. The story cuts across cultural boundaries as it references Little Red Riding Hood and uses the tale of Yusuf or Joseph from the Quran and the Bible as the story’s framework.

The festival challenged audiences and theatre professionals to consider seriously what it means to watch theatre and who theatre is made for. Several productions on the main festival programme were aimed at children under the age of seven, three of which were for children under the age of three. An important addition to the programme was What Goes Up…, a piece of gentle clowning made for hearing-impaired children aged three to seven and using South African sign language.

Culture can be described in many different ways. The Cradle of Creativity encouraged participants to engage seriously with the culture of theatre (who the audience is) and the cultural practices of other people, as we find a place of understanding. The Cradle of Creativity was the birthplace of new ways to engage culturally and new ways to engage creatively with children and young people.

The theatre is the perfect place for discussion. A place where empathy reigns supreme. Dialogues are not finite; they continue long after the lights dim and the curtains go down.