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Brief Encounter With … Michael Rosen

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Author of over 140 books, Michael Rosen has enjoyed a successful and diverse career as a writer, poet and broadcaster, and served as the fifth children’s poet laureate from June 2007 until he stepped down earlier this year. His best-selling 1989 picture book We're Going on a Bear Hunt has been adapted for the stage and runs for a limited season at the West End's Duchess Theatre from 9 July to 16 August 2009, directed by Sally Cookson.

Tell us a little more about We’re Going on A Bear Hunt
The poem or the song or the chant, whatever you want to call it, began life as an American summer camp song sometime in the 1950s. I started hearing it in the 1970s and started performing it as part of my one-man children’s show. Then an editor at Walker books, David Lloyd, saw me performing it and said it would make a great book, so I adapted it so that it would work on the page and would be long enough for a picture book. Helen Oxenbury then created these incredible illustrations that have turned it into a family epic.

How was the picture book developed into a stage production?
This is the genius of children’s theatre groups. They take a little book like Where the Wild Things Are, or a Dr Seuss poem like The Cat in the Hat and they turn them into stages shows. Children’s theatre is a greatly underestimated art and one of the brilliant things they do is create the dramatic spaces in between the verses and scenes that are in the books. It’s the brilliance of ensemble acting and there’s a long and wonderful history of it. It goes all the way back to Commedia dell’arte and that kind of theatre only really survives in children’s theatre and we should treasure it, it’s something very special.

How does it feel to watch your own words on stage?
It’s a very odd thrill to sit in the audience and see that happen. One part of you thinks it belongs to you and the other part of you has to accept - because otherwise why go into writing - that it doesn’t totally belong to you, it belongs to the people watching. I suppose the nearest every day experience would be when people pass on recipes or gardening tips. You’re passing on a piece of culture that then gets taken up by someone else and passed on to someone else. It’s a very nice system of collective sharing going on.

You do a lot of work in schools
I’m a great believer that the way we encourage children to get into the spoken or the written word is for children to some of the time to be spectators but other times to be participants in some kind of show and then to be practitioners themselves. There are three roles there - spectator, participant and practitioner. The creative arts are a wonderful way for us to do that. Bear Hunt, for example, is something you can watch, and something you can participate in and, as a lot of schools do, make your own. The children write them and then send them on to me, their own bear hunt books. It’s magic.  That’s what great moments in culture do - when people feel they can take something and run with it.

Do you think there's enough theatre for children in London?
We’ve got two specific theatres; the Polka and the Unicorn, and the Little Angel for puppetry. Well if you think how many children there are in London, it isn’t enough. There are many children who never get that chance to take part in this live story telling experience.

Why is there this shortage?
I think there's a serious problem with theatre in education. Most of the theatre in education groups have lost their budgets and lost their subsidies and found it very difficult to survive and that’s a sad loss. It’s so tragic what’s happened in education. Every single minute of the day has been broken into a learning outcome and so this crucial thing that it’s taken human beings thousands of years to develop which is transmission of ideas, linked to feeling, without a specific learning outcome has been squashed.

It’s a weird thing that happened in government around 15 to 20 years ago, when they panicked and thought the only way they could deliver school leavers into the labour market was to turn every moment of the school day into something that directly related to developing skills for work. And theatre for children has suffered as a consequence.  

- Michael Rosen was speaking to Laura Norman

We're Going on a Bear Hunt is at the Duchess Theatre in the daytime slot (times vary) from 9 July to 16 August 2009.


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