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Why theatre for kids is more important than ever

Children's theatre group Theatre-Rites turns 21 this year. The artistic director explains why kids' theatre doesn't have to be dull

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Theatre is a great way to get kids away from their screens
© Barbara Hobbs / Flickr

In the summer of 1996 Theatre-Rites presented its very first production Houseworks, a site-specific show for children under five, commissioned for LIFT. That show began as a conversation with Penny Bernand, the inspirational artist and director of young people's theatre, who wanted to change the way children experienced live performance. We sat on her sofa and talked about how wonderful it would be to create a site-specific show in a normal house for under-fives. We wanted to create work which was as carefully crafted as some of the work being made for adults at the time. Then we laughed and thought it would never happen. Only a week later Penny met with LIFT who were seeking such a project!

Shortly after, the Young Vic approached us asking if we could take the object/puppetry and installation approach we had used on Houseworks, to create a show for their theatre space. This became Theatre-Rites' first touring show, The Lost and Moated Land. Since that memorable time, regardless of the fact that I was challenged by an immune disorder and Penny was battling cancer, Theatre-Rites continued to create work in the UK and internationally for young audiences that stirred the imagination and stimulated thought; constantly trying to re-define what theatre, which includes children in its audience, could be.

As they are removed from the school curriculum we need to provide children with an opportunity to engage with the arts as a form of expression

Penny sadly died in 2001 but she was very clear that she wanted the company to continue with its mission to create work which would stimulate young people's imagination; 14 theatre shows and 12 site-specific shows later I can honestly say it has been a thrilling and inspiring journey.

The aim was always to create work, which had ritual at its heart and celebrated the power of visuals to bring people, especially children, and ideas together. This has allowed us to liberate ourselves from the constraints of existing commercial successes and set scripts. We have been able to enjoy and enhance the skills of cross-artform, cross-cultural and cross-generational work.

It has meant we have collaborated with a stunning array of international and UK practitioners including our associate artists (with special mention to Sophia Clist), performers and puppeteers (including our regular collaborator Mohsen Nouri, currently in The Welcoming Party), musicians, designers, funders, commissioners, scientists, psychoanalysts, charity workers, educationalists and many, many more.

Twenty-one years after Houseworks there are very different challenges facing the children's theatre sector and as we celebrate, it is important to think about the thousands of audiences who have and will embrace our work.

Today we recognise how vital it is to offer children living in a digital world, access to live experiences. As the arts are systemically being removed from the school curriculum we need to support parents and teachers in how best to provide children with an opportunity to engage with the arts as a form of expression, as a career choice and as an audience member.

As we now approach our 27th show - The Welcoming Party - which celebrates inclusivity on so many levels, it is more important than ever to respect young people and offer them access to the power of live creativity at its best.

Theatre-Rites' new show The Welcoming Party runs at the Manchester International Festival from the 4 to 16 July.


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