Sunday 23 October 2016

Theatre: Festival for a notoriously tough - and tiny - crowd

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Child's play: Theatre Lovett will perform A Feast of Bones during the Baboró festival
Child's play: Theatre Lovett will perform A Feast of Bones during the Baboró festival

One of the perks of this job is getting to take people out to the theatre and feel really generous. But this comes with its own anxieties.

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What if people hate the show and decide theatre isn't any good, that they would never pay for a ticket themselves? In the two years I've been reporting for you every week, my most feared guests are kids - the step-kids, nieces, nephews.

When I'm in one of my Pied Piper moods, I'll take these juniors out to judge for themselves who's hot or not - there are sundry companies to choose from, such as Branar, Theatre Lovett, Monkeyshine, all joining forces for the Baboró International Arts Festival this week.

Fear sets in as soon as we've bought our snacks and taken our uncomfy bench seating. I'm not afraid my mini guests will be fearful themselves. Bambi's mum dies and that's life. I'm afraid they'll be left indifferent and keen to get back to their Premier League scores and Lego Ninja and Frozen vanity cases. I spend most of the show in deep suspense, checking their reactions, desperate for the sound a laugh. Unlike adults, kids won't laugh if they don't find a joke funny. They are under no such social obligation.

My pack don't offer charity laughs or tears of catharsis. At the Ark seeing Amy Conroy's The Princess and the Pea, the oldest boy maintained an unamused disposition until there was a "pee" double entendre, and afterwards reported that it was stupid and we weren't allowed to eat our popcorn. At Into the Water starring two eye-poppingly agile Riverdancers, the little girl just cried and wanted her mum. At The Magic Bookshop by Monkeyshine, the littlest boy bellowed out "IS IT REAL? What ARE they?"

Is it real? Good question. "SHHH. It's supposed to be real," I told him. One small victory was at Peter Pan in the Gaiety. The middle-boy sat limp and long-faced, until Captain Hook came on and he exploded into laughter. He then looked up at me for validation at every joke, meaning I spent most of the night looking at him, laughing supportively. On the way home he related back every single joke to me. We had a good time.

Very often, though, the scamps just sit still, gazing blankly at this ancient source of entertainment and I worry. Is this patronising for them? Are they aware it's patronising, like that clever baby in Family Guy? Or is it too damn arty and elaborate for their brutalist, crayon-coloured tastes? Should we have just packed it in for the cinema?

Kids are a tough crowd, with their assorted ages and developmental stages so precise and finicky with needs; their brand loyalty, their computer-game addictions, their tendency to fear the dark. So you really have to hand it to the companies who play at Baboró, and to the people who decided 20 years ago that it was time for Ireland to hold its own international arts festival for children, and import world-class theatre for the audiences who - let's face it - will be wheeling us out when we reach "second childishness".

Baboró grew out of the Galway International Arts Festival in the early 1990s, when two women with small children started adding children's shows and workshops to the festival. Patricia Forde, director of GIAF from 1990-1995, called it Baboró - a nonsense word coming from the traditional Irish song 'Oro Baboró'.

By 1997, Jean Parkinson had made it a stand-alone week for children, bringing over companies from Cuba, Spain, Denmark and Edinburgh, giving a stage to such characters and institutions as Little John Nee and Macnas.

At first, says Parkinson, it was a "sidekick" to the real event, seen as "something for the kids". They were mounting sets that they had to tear down in time for the main show that night. Adults may be told to switch off our mobile phones, but kids didn't know the rules. "Someone would come on stage," says Forde, "and say, this is live theatre, children, this is not the television. So, we don't talk during the show, or eat or drink, the lights will all go out and it will be very dark."

The difference between seeing panto and watching plays by smaller troupes was that an experience would stay with you. "Panto's great craic," says Forde, "but it's kinda fast food."

This year, under director Aislinn Ó hEocha, Baboró has theatre, dance, music, puppetry, film, animation, exhibitions, workshops and talks. Just a few picks: Feast of Bones by the slightly scary Theatre Lovett starring Lisa Lambe (ages 9+); Voyage by Monkeyshine (ages 7+); Droomstad by Dutch company De Dansers, an "ode" to children living in war zones (ages 8+); The Queen Has Vanished, a musical tale by Belgian company Kopergietery (ages 6+); Cruthanna by Branar, a bilingual show for babies (six months to two years).

"In Galway," says Patricia Forde, the festival's originator and now a children's author, "we give children the arts in October. That's their month."

Baboró International Arts Festival for Children runs October 17-23 in Galway.

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