Is children’s theatre finally growing up?
(Or in which I finally interview Naseeruddin Shah)
Actor-director Naseeruddin Shah remembers seeing Arms & the Man, George Bernard Shaw’s satire on war and heroism, when he was six years old. “I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of theatre early enough in school,” said Shah. “I was studying at St Joseph in Nainital when I think I saw Shakespeareana [Geoffrey and Laura Kendal’s company] performing the play. Of course, I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved the funny bits and it stayed with me. It’s possible that it created my love of English language.” This fortnight, Shah will stage Arms & the Man at Summertime with Prithvi, the Juhu theatre’s annual kids festival.
For years, children’s play producers have been loosely defining their audience as ages three and above. But this year things are set to change. During this season of plays at Summertime, young adults can move beyond banal offerings of song, dance and slapstick humour typically meant for younger kids. They can catch Bijon Mondal’s Wonderland, which fuses the story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with Cervantes’ Don Quixote; Chandan Roy-Sanyal’s Two Blind Mice, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’sWaiting for Godot; and Manav Kaul’s Mamtaz Bhai Patangwale, a story about a child obsessed with flying kites.
Shah looks at Arms & the Man as an attempt to move kids’ theatre away from mindless comedy. He was appalled by the quality of some of the plays staged at Summertime last year, he said. “I don’t believe in underestimating children’s intelligence,” said Shah. “As it is, children are treated as morons all the time and I think they should be given something which challenges their intellect a little bit.” But, Shah added, Arms & the Man is also easily comprehensible. “The plot is not complicated,” he said. “It has beautiful language, charming characters and funny situations.” It’s a shift that Sanjna Kapoor, the director of Prithvi Theatre, is excited about. “Two years ago, we realised that we were finding it tough to fill Summertime workshops for children between the ages of 14 and 16,” she said. “Most of our focus had been on the age groups of six to 13 year-olds. We can’t expect teenagers to enjoy the same plays as younger kids.” Kapoor said that it was Shah’s experience at Summertime last year that made her think about an older audience. Accordingly, Prithvi has also tweaked its membership plan. Children between the ages of 6 and 11 are entitled to watch children’s plays free of cost for a year. Additionally, young adults, aged 12-16, will get a card that allows them to see any play (children and adults) through the year.
Kapoor has also asked producers to focus on age-specific plays for children this year. Mondol’s Wonderland, for instance, is for kids above the age of eight. “I am trying to create drama that educates and at the same time introduces kids to the grandeur of theatre, Mondol said. Similarly, Roy-Sanyal tweaked Godot to make it more appealing to children. Protagonists Vladmir and Estragon are ten-year-old boys, rather than old men, who play games while waiting for Godot. “A lot of people questioned me about doingGodot for children,” said Roy-Sanyal. “But I think it would be interesting to see how the kids react to it.”
Earlier this month, Aasakta, a Pune-based group staged Junglenama, a sensitive portrayal of the man-animal conflict prevalent in Indian forests today. At the beginning of the play, director Sarang Sathaye announced that the story was originally written for adults and that children might find it difficult to follow at times. But that didn’t deter Aasakta from adapting the story to stage. “Children today are more mature at a younger age and get the subtle nuances of a play,” said Ashish Mehta, the group manager of Aasakta. “You don’t have to tell everything explicitly in a play.” Shah agrees that the distinction between children’s plays and adult ones is overblown. “Kids seldom go to see children’s plays alone,” said Shah. “They are usually accompanied by adults. I remember seeing Peter Pan and Nagin at the age of three or four and the adults enjoyed it as much.”
By Bijal Vachharajani on May 12 2011 6.30pm Photos by Tejal Pandey