The taboo of childhood: playing with possibility in theatre for youth

13 Feb 2018

On experiencing Play, A Theatre making workshop for Children, with Suzanne Osten

By Avril Cummins

Suzanne Osten, pioneer and revolutionary in the realm of theatre for young people, sits in a circle of twenty workshop participants and bangs loudly on a chair. She is not struggling to get our attention; she is encouraging us to make instant emotional connections with sounds. The sound of a chair scraping on the floor; the sound of birds chirping; a sharp clap – which for so many of us evokes distant memories of violence. As children, we vacuumed up our environments and retain these stories in our bodies. Only when we can begin to unpack our own stories can we truly engage with children on their own level.

This small body has big experiences.

When I speak of children’s ‘own level’, I am not referring to a simplistic, two-dimensional view of the world. No, says Suzanne, the only difference between children and adults is their size. But their capacity to think and to feel is in no way restricted by the size of their bodies: they are thinking, feeling citizens, and it is our responsibility, as adults, to affirm the agency and three-dimensionality of these humans.

Childrening is just as hard as adulting.

The world in which we (all) live can be a scary, lonely and confusing place, and we need to acknowledge that it is so for children as well, so that we can make work which speaks directly to their hearts. We do not help our children by pretending that everything is fine, because ultimately, children see everything. They see conflict, violence, fear, illness, death, rejection, and double-standards, no matter how hard adults try to pretend that everything is peachy. And how are they to deal with what they see if adults do not accept that they see it, and open discussions with them about it? How can they learn through their confusion and fear if we refuse to acknowledge it? This is where theatre for youth has maximum power: it can provide a safe space to address otherwise-taboo subject matter, enabling children to grapple mentally and emotionally with these ideas, so that if and when they do encounter them in life, they are prepared. To resist doing this would simply be irresponsible. And yet so often, theatre for young audiences is over-simplified and dumbed-down, negating children’s complex understandings of the world.

Moments from the Drama For Life symposium, 06th February, WITS University

Let’s go on a magic carpet ride!

Our aim, of course, is not to traumatize young people by exposing (or re-exposing) them to frightening ideas! Our responsibility, as theatre practitioners, is to use playfulness to create a more mythical, magical space, filled with possibility, in which frightening things exist but where the tools for addressing these ideas are also laid out. Theatrical techniques such as mask work, puppetry and pastiche can be used to create objectivity, so that the young audience can engage with these ideas from the safe distance of its ‘only’ being a story. This can open up valuable space for children to empathise, or project their own emotions into a space of possibility, so that their experience of these emotions is affirmed, and they gain a language through which to speak to their own experiences.

Emotions are ok.

In workshop with Suzanne Osten-learning to play

So many of us “grown-ups” lacked this opportunity as children. We feel our un-dealt-with past trauma flinch within us as Suzanne Osten bangs on the chair – expressing the angers and frustrations we were not allowed to express as children, because our three-dimensionality was rejected.

Let us not pass on to our children the trauma of being unheard.




Suzanne Osten was hosted by the Swedish Embassy,Drama for Life and the Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg from the 06th-08th February 2018. She led a workshop with various participants and theatre makers on the 07th February at the Windybrow Theatre.

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