ROBERTO Frabetti, a pioneer in “Early Years Theatre” based in Italy’s Bologna, had just finished giving a dramatised account of the birthday celebration of Piccololorso, a tiny bear, during the play Cikeciak, when the father of a two-year-old girl approached him. “She wants to ask you something,” the father said. The girl was looking for Black. Initially puzzled, Frabetti realised that she was enquiring about a co-actor who posed as Black, while Frabetti was White. This was six months ago, when the same play was introduced, in which colourful figures of tigers, pigs, donkeys, geese, rats, hippos and worms appear as guests of Piccololorso’s birthday party.
“For an adult, recalling a six-month-old incident is not a big deal. But for a two-year-old, it is a long period in her childhood,” says Frabetti. He was in Mumbai recently to conduct a three-day masterclass for 22 Indian theatre professionals, who are engaged in developing plays for young audiences. With the focus on 0-3 year audience, the masterclass titled “Telling with Your Eyes”, was centred on the principles of “doing theatre” to communicate and tell stories starting from who we are.
Frabetti is the creative head of La Baracca-Testony Ragazzi, Bologna, a theatre hub for tiny tots from nursery schools. Since 1986, Frabetti’s group has collaborated with the Municipality of Bologna for “Ilteatro e il nido” (Theatre and crèche), a project dedicated to children under 36 months.“The idea was to explore whether a child can be a spectator. After 30 years, we can say that they can absolutely be the audience of theatre as well as other forms of art such as dance and music,” he says.
The shows created by La Baracca do not follow any formula: some of the best-known plays are rich in body images, while some such as Spot and The Colours of Water use light and colours. However, Frabetti does not dither to use words. Who Stole My Pizza, a thriller, narrates the story of a fox who wants pizza on his third birthday and features cut-out characters of mouse, beaver and others.
More than being skill-based, the masterclass focused on creating an experience for the young audience, recalls Choiti Ghosh, founder of Tram Theatre, one the participants. According to Shaili Sathyu, artistic director of Gillo, toddlers often build a sense of self by getting to know themselves and their surroundings. It is at this stage that they build a relationship with space, objects and people around them. This masterclass, says Sathyu, reinforced the belief she always nurtured: “The tonality and focus of a play must consider what children feel and should not be based on our idea of children.” Among her productions, Sathyu believes Kyon Kyon Ladki — a play for the age-group of 5-12 based on the story of Mahasweta Devi about an inquisitive girl — explores this principle.
A myth about young audience is that they have short attention span. Frabetti started his masterclass by busting it. He showed video recordings of a performance, which captures audience of 1-3-year-olds watching a show in rapt attention, some even had soothers in their mouth. When Frabetti conceptualised his first play — Aqua, the story of a drop of water travelling to meet the ocean — he restricted its length to 10-minutes. Today, confident of holding a child’s attention, they create pieces which are up to 45-minute long. “Some children love theatre, some don’t. That’s normal,” he says.
Most of the Indian theatre practitioners create plays for children five years and above. In Mumbai, these plays are mostly staged during Summertime at Prithvi Theatre and Summer Fiesta at the National Centre Performing Arts. Next year, Sathyu wishes to develop plays for 2-4 year olds. “I wish to start the process by collaborating with balwadis (creches) and play-schools,” she says. The most important aspect would be to find intimate spaces that will accommodate 30-40 children, like a school or community hall. That’s the audience strength Frabetti prefers too.
Dhanedra Kawade, who has directed children’s plays like Rang Rangila Gittu Girgit, admitted to revisiting the way he created plays for the young audience. “They are attracted to visuals and sound. Children explore visually even if they don’t understand everything.” He wants to work on his next production, Panchatantra 2, likely to open in February 2017.