It was a well-spent week from 21-31 July in Okinawa in attendance of “ricca ricca*festa”, the International Theatre Festival OKINAWA for Young Audiences 2017, as part of the Asian Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) Network, hosted by ACO Okinawa with the support of The Japan Foundation Asia Center. In total, 52 international programmes, suitable for ages varying from babies to families, were presented. I was fortunate to have been able to be part of the audience for 13 of these performances. This was the first time I had the experience of watching so many performances for young audiences. The following summarises my thoughts of the performances I watched:
1. Puzzle, by Lithuania Dansema Dance Theatre (for 0+)
An age appropriate performance for babies, the use of consistent, bright colours that reach out to infants; the use of consistent, subtle, gentle actions that mimic the body language of infants; the use of repetitive but thematically clear music were clear evidence of a performance justified by sound research in early childhood. While some may say that the performance lacked aesthetic intent (especially when compared to a performance like “Again”), or did not need skilled dancers to fulfil the role, I beg to differ. I felt that the subtlety in this performance was just right and age appropriate for its intended audience.
2. Baby Sauna, by Finland Loiske Ensemble (for 0-2)
I loved the live singing by the artist, the music was nicely curated for the purposes of the performance (although the sound engineering could have offered it more justice). The use of water in the performance, along with organic items such as branches and leaves were refreshing, and conveyed the context of the performance well. While the programme’s intended audience was 0-2, I felt that slightly older toddlers from 8 months onwards may have enjoyed the performance more.
3. pling, little thing, by Germany Theatre o.N. (for 2+)
Fun, playful and engaging. The use of stones as the main sonic object for this musical performance relates the human experience back to Nature, and reminds me of the relation between Human, Art and Nature. Just like how ancient instruments were made of natural material, such as in the Chinese philosophy of “Eight Tones” (八音), having a musical performance focussed on the use of stones is a reminder that we do not need sophisticated instruments such as the piano or violin to engage in music-making.
4. One Morning I Left, by Chile Teatro de Ocasion (for 4+)
A personal favourite of mine, the philosophies behind this simple, honest and straight-forward performance resonated with me very well. The idea of ‘imagination as play’, ‘exploration as play’ and using simple, daily objects as ‘instruments of play’ called out to me during the performance. The lead actress was approachable, supported by the male actor who was comical, and the live music and sound effects by the third actor-musician worked efficiently for the production.
5. Sticks Stones Broken Bones, by Australia Bunk Puppets (for 4+)
The actor effectively uses household objects through innovative manners to surprise his audiences, playfully creating shadow images that look nothing like the real objects. It was a fun and engaging performance, though its aesthetic intent did not resonate with me.
6. Goodbye, Mr Muffin, by Denmark Teater Refleksion (for 5+)
Another personal favourite of mine, the ingenious puppetry mechanism behind the table prop used by the main actor in a storytelling manner was highly captivating. Through the story of a dying guinea pig, I found the approach highly suitable to create an awareness about the topic of death with young children. The disposition of the main actor was calm and composed. He told the story in a personal, yet removed manner that was truly well balanced for the emotions to be relayed for young audiences. The use of a live musician with the storytelling was intimate. However, I wished that the cellist was more engaged within the content of the story.
7. Three Little Songs, by Japan ACO Okinawa (for 6+)
This was a confusing performance for me. The impetus for the content of this performance stemmed from a re-imagination of 3 fairly tales, namely “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast”. While the attempts to modernise these tales to contexts relatable to modern society were evident, its relation to the original tales was futile. The use of a live violin in the middle of the performance was incomprehensible. The sound design was very much mediocre, and did not reflect the professionalism of a commissioned work.
8. Possessed by Love, by Japan ACO Okinawa (for 9+)
I have not had much experience watching traditional Japanese folk drama. This was clearly an attempt at contemporising traditional forms of Japanese folk drama, retaining elements such as the folk story and use of live musicians, but done in an alternative manner. The storyline is typical of an Asian folk story, the mode of presentation, while resembling that of traditional forms, lacked the subtlety evident in traditional Japanese forms of drama.
9. I on the Sky, by Canada DynamO Theatre (for 9+)
A dynamic performance combining drama, music, dance and acrobatics. While the content addresses that of refugees, and played out the emotions a refugee may face, it very much resembled the aesthetics of “The Sound of Music”. The storyline was rather cliché, as were the use of costumes, set and props (highly western, reminded me of Russians; Nazis). Perhaps the issue of refugees would have been more resonant if the set considered a more international rather than Western perspective.
10. Children of the Ocean, by Japan ACO Okinawa (for 9+)
Strong actors, interesting thematic ideas for a children’s theatre. Simple but effective use of costumes, sets and props that was playful in nature, but at the same time reflected the gravity of the themes explored. However, I felt that the performance was too long. There were repetitive segments which I felt was unnecessary. Thus, I felt less engaged that I would have been given the strong cast and theme of the production.
11. Les Miserables, by Japan ACO Okinawa (for 9+)
An interesting, minimalistic performance. However, the programme liner notes was misleading as it had indicated the performance as ‘object theatre’, but the artists indicated otherwise. It is curious why the story of “Les Miserables” was chosen, given that the medium of language was strictly Japanese, while the festival seemed to indicate towards an “international” one. While the visual aesthetics of the production was pleasing, the production was too long and uncomfortable. I wonder if it was appropriate for the intended age group as well.
12. Kuuki, by Japan-Poland Japan Union of Theatrical Companies for Children and Young People (for 0-18mths)
Intimate and engaging for babies, the concept of this performance was captivating, although the movement artists could have been aesthetically stronger to convey the language of their movements in relation to the performance. The accordionist was highly professional in comparison to the movement artists, and was what kept me engaged during the performance.
13. Again, by Denmark Aaben Dans (6 months-4 years old)
This was my favourite in terms of aesthetic level. I was amazed at how a production for very young audience could be loaded with such aesthetic quality. The atmosphere of the space was heavily transformed by the lighting, and the set design communicated sensory information that could not otherwise be communicated. The dancers were highly skilled, and performed aesthetically while still maintaining a level of engagement with the audience.
I have certain points of contentions in reflecting upon all the performances that I had watched. Firstly, being an artist where sound is my main inquiry, I wonder, what is the role of sound and music in TYA? The use of sound/music in the performances ranged from – a sound/music performance, recorded music of live instruments, recorded music of MIDI instruments, live musicians, multi- instrumentalists, some of which resonant to me deeper than others. It makes me wonder, how as a practitioner in sound/music can I create a TYA? Secondly, colonialism, westernization and globalization had become a page in history. While global discussions have moved towards ideals of post-coloniality, indigeneity and cultural relativism, might it be about time to focus efforts on the development of more TYA works that speak closer to our hearts as Asians? Thirdly, children view the Arts holistically, should we still be discussing the artforms based on their disciplines of visual art, music, dance or theatre?
Apart from watching, discussing with my Asian TYA Network groups and reflecting on my experiences of these performances, the most invaluable experience was getting to know regional producers, artists and artmakers from my neighbouring countries, the South-east Asian (SEA) region. It was a precious opportunity for me to understand each country’s artistic activities, challenges and networks. The accessibilities and affordances of the Arts (and particularly, TYA) in each country is also rather diverse. I feel that the strengths and weaknesses of each country’s experiences in TYA had been shared, and it could be the future agenda of this network to foster deeper understanding amongst these SEA countries, to assist one another in the development of TYA not only locally but regionally. Nonetheless, funding almost comes forth as a challenge. Thus, it seems most realistic from this point on to foster the personal relationships gained and developed during the TYA Network Programme, and for us to take initiatives to reach out to one another, keeping one another informed of our activities, some of which we may be able to participate in.
In conclusion, I value the opportunity to be part of the “ricca ricca*festa Asian TYA Network Programme” greatly. The experiences have taught me a lot, provoked me to think further about my own practice as an artist, and motivates me to create TYA programmes that I hope to be able to show in this and other festivals in the near future.