Joy of all joys, every Christmas we went to the Christmas pantomime! John Moss put on a yearly panto and the delight, laughter, shouts of enthusiastic children that the Playhouse witnessed, makes my heart sing in memory. I remember quite clearly watching Liz Edmiston playing Peter Pan. I decided then and there that when I left school, I wanted to act. The rest of the family didn’t have such a life-altering reaction but we always used to leave the theatre talking nineteen to the dozen, recounting and laughing over bits of of the show we’d just witnessed.
Going to the theatre in childhood transported us into another world where the improbable was made probable. It was a world where there was hope and dreams. It was a place where good triumphed over evil. Going to those pantomimes gave us all a lasting love and appreciation of theatre and the arts which we carried into adulthood.
Recently I met up with a friend of mine, Susan Danford. It is always wonderful seeing Sue. She has an eagerness for life that is infectious. She had just come from running a workshop for school children from deprived environments. The theme of the workshop was War Horse which was then taking South Africa by storm.
In Susan’s workshop, she and the children were exploring how horses move. They all cantered and galloped madly around the room. Utterly exhausting! I still remember, as a child, doing the galloping hand clap onto my chest. I have just tried it and yes, I can still do it. It is strange how things you learn as a child remain with you.
Several days later, Susan and other workshop groups, all boarded a bus and took their children to The Artscape Theatre where they all sat utterly enthralled and transfixed by War Horse. It was a heady moment for them. Going in a bus! Going to the theatre! And then seeing a play of the calibre of War Horse!
ASSITEJ SA was responsible for ensuring that over 5000 children got to see the international production of War Horse through the generous sponsorship of Rand Merchant Bank. Lesley Beake, director of the Children’s Book Network based in Red Hill, recounts: “None of our Red Hill children had ever been near a theatre. Many of them will never go again. When the boys came to the workshop, they slouched in full of attitude. When they left the theatre their eyes were shining… For us, as a reading organisation, the most heart-warming of all was the way they seized their books and immediately started reading them.”
Hopefully that experience will remain with them for a long time.
Susan suggested that I should contact Yvette Hardie, the World President of Assitej. She thought maybe in the future I might do some school workshops about my deafness and cochlear implants under the umbrella of Assitej. Or perhaps something connected to ‘my’ opera I mused.
Yvette Hardie carries a serenely organised air about her. She is the first African President of ASSITEJ International and has successfully championed the bid to bring the ASSITEJ World Congress and Performing Arts Festival to Africa for the first time in 50 years. The 19th ASSITEJ World Congress and Festival will be held in Cape Town in May 2017! The theme will be inclusivity!
On meeting, I asked her to explain exactly what Assitej is.
“Well, the acronym ASSITEJ stands for: Association International du Theatre pour l’ Enfance et la Jeunesse.” She laughed. “Yes, French, the organisation was actually founded in France. It’s aim is to promote high quality arts and theatre for children.”
On March 20th, The World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People is celebrated annually by ASSITEJ members in nearly 100 countries. This year it is using this day to highlight it’s initiative “Take a child to the theatre today”. It’s hope is that by the end of March more than 20,000 children will have had the opportunity to experience theatre for the first time.
I consider theatre vital to children. When I was performing in children’s theatre at university, I played an evil witch. This witch played havoc with a small pig. The pig escapes and the witch is duly vanquished. After the show, I was standing chatting to my friends when a young five year old boy accosted me. “You are a nasty person! I have a pig. If you had treated my Henry like you did just now, I would have got Dad’s sjambok and…and…you wouldn’t have been happy!”
Laugh! While not advocating the use of his father’s whip, I rejoiced because that little child had comprehended the injustice that was shown in our production.
This campaign of “Take a Child to the Theatre Today” is so important because theatre presents its young audiences with their hopes, dreams, and fears. It develops and deepens experience, intelligence, emotion, and imagination. It inspires ethical choices; it increases awareness of relationships; it encourages self-esteem, confidence, and the free expression of opinions. All of this through merely watching and experiencing theatre.
Could you support Assitej’s campaign? Which child might you take to experience theatre for the first time? Believe you me, they would love it. And what’s more so would you!