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April 25, 2018

Artists Meet Early Years – by Schoeme Grobler

The beautiful Teatro Testoni Ragazzi – La Baracca

Lees in Afrikaans, hier.

La Baracca theatre in Bologna, Italy, has been in the field of Theatre for the Young for 41 years and hosted the Festival Visioni in 2018 for the 14th year in a row. Not only does this festival focus on Theatre for the Very Young, but also on programs and collaborations with companies and artists from all around the world. One of these programs, Artists Meet Early Years, gives artists younger than 35, the opportunity to present their work as part of the festival in kindergartens and crèches in Bologna. I was fortunate enough to be chosen for this program together with 8 other artists from Germany, Romania, Israel, Greece and England. The overall goal: for us to observe the youngsters in their environment and collect suggestions and images useful for our own personal artistic research on creating work for the very young.

During my performance at the Scuola dell’infanzia Disney

For two days in a row we presented our work in a kindergarten or crèche. These presentations ranged from storytelling, visual arts, dance, music and theatre. It is interesting to note that in Italy, children with special needs are not in separate schools. A child can be placed with his/her caregiver in any school. As an artist, you might not have developed your show in line with a child’s special needs and now you have to adapt accordingly. In that moment the importance of truly observing each child as an individual in the audience, was evident to me. An artist needs to adapt to a child and not vice versa. Or as one pedagogue summed it up beautifully during a conversation: “See the invisible children.”

My first performance in the kindergarten was a challenge. As my work is very interactive, two factors challenged me: I was alone and the children did not understand English that well. Some other artists in our program shared similar experiences and this left us with crucial questions and valuable observations:

  • How to facilitate and set boundaries in a performance, without the use of language.
  • How to achieve the same artistic space in kindergartens as in the theatre.
  • How to develop the same discipline in a classroom audience as in a theatre audience.

This first day experience taught me the value of communication between artist and teacher. This communication leads to better facilitation and preparation from both teacher and artist. After my first performance, the teachers could give me some points to work on and even taught me some helpful Italian phrases! While reflecting I could also ask them to help me with a few elements. This was a win-win process and the following day, we had a different artistic environment and the show was a huge success. Teachers can be our best critics; they are after all living with our audience members daily.

We even had lunch at the kindergartens!

The latter is also what stood out for me at La Baracca; the relationship between the theatre and the education system. From the festival workshops I’ve attended, 95% of the participants were teachers. Lo Squardo Altrove is a group of teachers and pedagogues dedicated to  observe theatre for the young, to learn, but also to give feedback and support to artists creating work for the young. To share our experiences in the kindergartens with Lo Squardo Altrove was informative and wonderful for our own reflection

The theatre’s audience development also amazed me. La Baracca serves a loyal audience, who already developed trust in their work and realises the importance of theatre for the young. Before every show, there is an atmosphere of expectation and excitement from a fully packed audience of youngsters and adults, everyone open to share an artistic experience together. The adults (males and females) don’t have a mind-set of “I can withdraw, this is for children”. Rather, might I dare say, at times the adults were more engaged than the children! In South Africa we still face challenges with audience development, but may these possibilities inspire us to grow our audiences!

Some of the wonderful staff from La Baracca posing at the reception…

Above all, I will carry the people of La Baracca forever in my heart. Their passion is contagious. They are not afraid of hard work. If a staff member is not involved in a production, they will help with tasks in and around the theatre or dish up lunch for the festival guests. Nothing is beneath or above them and I believe that is their recipe for success. They will leave you feeling richer in yourself as you walk out of their theatre, or in my case, slippery slide out the theatre, due to the heavy snowfall! Thank you so much La Baracca for one of the best experiences in my life! May our paths cross again and next time we will hopefully be a bunch of South Africans!

ASSITEJ creates access for artists to opportunities like this. Many of these opportunities are within our reach, like the Cradle of Creativity hosted in Cape Town last year. When grabbing opportunities from ASSITEJ with both hands, you become part of a national and international network. A network of support, amazing mentors and friends who have one common goal: to change the lives of young people through the arts.

Thank you ASSITEJ South Africa, Alison Green and Yvette Hardie. Without the opportunities you created, I would’ve never discovered and lived out my passion for Theatre for the Very Young. My words are few, but my gratitude endless.

Schoeme Grobler

Artists Meet Early Years presentation at the festival

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