These past few years at the Stratford Festival, there have been various attempts to stage a children’s show. Admirable, smart in concept—an important step towards building future audiences—the delivery has more often than not missed the target audience.
Living as I do in the home of the Carousel Players—one of Canada’s finest, young people’s theatres—I have been regularly spoiled and almost always delighted by this troupe’s collective understanding of just how to connect with the K-12 population without talking down or speaking over their emerging minds, not to mention their minders.
I can only wish that Stratford’s artistic trust would also take the “risk” of selecting and producing a show that purposely embraces the younger set and then leaves just a few adult “scraps” for those who actually pay good money for the tickets.
Examples from the past include 2013: “Here’s hoping the next outing of The Three Musketeers might find a fresh coat of adaptive paint: if a family show is truly wanted…”—cross-reference below, and 2010: “The youngest amongst us were generally enthused but prone to walks along the aisles or uncensored commentaries when the stage got too adult and attentions waned.” —cross-reference below.
Director Jillian Kelley’s production—brought to life in association with Canada’s National Arts Centre—begins with promise: Alice’s (Trish Lindström) famous voyage through the looking-glass is staged with a wonderfully childlike innocence that brings extra meaning to the term stunt double. Unfortunately, that magically inventive transition fails to reappear with the same brilliance ever again (and Humpty Dumpty’s—Brian Tree with his hands merrily speaking for him—full-bore omelet metamorphosis drew a curious mixture of yuks and nervous laughs depending on date of birth).
But don’t take my word for it, the children around me were quickly more concerned with present-day reality (“Where is Daddy?”) and playing quiet-inducing games than attentively going backwards with Alice in her quest to find a seat at the throne alongside Red Queen (Cynthia Dale) and White Queen (Sarah Orenstein). One row ahead, an adult was more intent on—apparently—surreptiously checking her messages than savouring the well-loved classic as it played so colourfully (Bretta Gerecke’s design was a silent masterpiece of texture and colour) on the Avon Theatre stage.
James Reaney’s 1994 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s gem drew most of its laughs and applause from fellow Stratford company members who fully understood the in-jokes and heartily cheered on their colleagues as they could only expect when the tables were turned for their openings.
Here’s to a rethinking by management of “Who’s it for?” As has been successfully witnessed elsewhere, having the wisdom and courage to adapt/write and design a show specifically for precious, precocious young minds can truly be fun for the whole family as the adults are given licence to slip back to their earliest days of innocence and venture through the looking-glass and rekindle their inner child. JWR