Why theatre? Why opera? Why children?

During a time when slashed budgets have threatened arts education across all disciplines, this piece by writer Philip Pullman, originally published for London’s Unicorn Theatre in 2004 is as timely as ever.

Philip Pullman by Lisa Barnard
Philip Pullman by Lisa Barnard
Why theatre? Why opera? Why children?

Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air. They need to hear real music played by real musicians on real instruments as much as they need food and drink. They need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for.

The difficulty with persuading grown-up people about this is that if you deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise, they die visibly, whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and their starvation doesn't show. So the grown-ups who should be responsible for providing these good and necessary things –-teachers, politicians, parents - don't always notice until it's too late; or they pretend that art and music and theatre and so on are not necessities at all, but expensive luxuries that only snobbish people want in any case; or they claim that children are perfectly happy with their computers and video games, and don't need anything else.

I'm not going to argue about this: I'm right. Children need art and music and literature, they need to go to art galleries and museums and theatres, they need to learn how to play musical instruments and to act and to dance. They need these things so much that human rights legislation alone should ensure that they get them.

But just let's think about the theatre for the moment.

The experience of being in the audience when a play or an opera is being performed is not simply passive. It's not like watching TV; it's not even like watching a film in the cinema. Everyone in that big space is alive, and everyone is focused on one central activity. And everyone contributes. The actors and the singers and the musicians contribute their performance; the audience contributes their attention, their silence, their laughter, their applause, their respect.

And they contribute their imagination too. The theatre can't do what cinema does, and make everything seem to happen literally. There are no pixels up there on the stage; what happens is caused by physical bodies moving about in real space, not by computer-generated imagery on a screen. So it has limitations. That isn't a real room, we can see that it's painted canvas; that isn't a real boy, it's a little wooden puppet. But the limitations leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. We pretend these things are real, so the story can happen. The very limitations of theatre allow the audience to share in the acting. In fact, they require the audience to pretend. It won't work if they don’t.

But the result of this imaginative joining-in is that the story becomes much more real, in a strange way. It belongs to everyone, instead of only to the performers under the lights. The audience in the dark are makers too. And when it all works, the experience we take away is incomparably richer and fuller and more magical than it would ever have been if all we did was sit back passively and watch.

When we are adults, and if we're lucky enough to have developed the habit, we can find our own way to plays and operas; but children can't do it on their own. They need to be taken. They need to be helped to find their way into the experience by people who've been there before, and who can tell them something about it and excite their curiosity. A little knowledge helps a great deal. A theatre especially set up for children helps even more; and plays presented by people who know how to perform for children without talking down to them, or being facetious, or leaving their brains behind, are best of all.

I can remember evenings in the theatre, both as a child and as an adult, which were among the most important things I've ever known. Seeing Frankie
Howard as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic when I was nine, and laughing so much I fell off my seat; watching Peter Hall’s production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre, and feeling a sense of awe at the gradual unfolding of this ancient, savage, profound story; more recently, simultaneously helpless with laughter and shivering with pity and terror at the extraordinary Shock-Headed Peter. If I hadn't seen those things, my life would be much the poorer. Theatre feeds the heart and nourishes the soul and enlarges the spirit.

The best description of the way this happens comes in Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moominsummer Madness. The Moomin family, after being flooded out of their home, find a refuge in a floating theatre; but none of them has seen a theatre before, and they are puzzled by the oddness of this house with its rooms full of wigs and costumes, and stairs that end in mid-air, and doors that have stoves painted on their other side. Emma, an old stage rat, comes out of hiding to tell them about it, and says "A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that's where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they'd like to be if they dared to, and what they really are."

No-ones ever said it better.

Philip Pullman

For more on the discussion of diminishing arts education in our schools, tune into this episode of MPTV’s 4th Street Forum entitled, “WILL OUR CHILDREN DANCE AND SING?”  Host Raul Vasquez is joined by guests Rob Goodman, Managing Director, First Stage; Kari Couture, Community Arts Specialist, Partnership for the Arts, Milwaukee Public Schools;  Jennifer Snyder Kozoroz, Director of the Progressions Program, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestry; and Bill Jackson, Actor, Director and Choreographer and Former Drama Teacher, Milwaukee School of the Arts and South Milwaukee High School as they discuss this question and explore solutions.

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