Theatre Too Many Penguins


Yasmin Sulaiman talks to the theatre-makers creating festive work aimed at the very youngest audiences

In the UK, pantomimes traditionally form the first encounter children have with theatre. But for children under three years old, the noisy drama of a panto can be an unnerving experience. However, in recent years, theatre- makers have stepped into the breach and in 2011, there’s a range of festive shows targeted at very young children across Scotland.

Clare McGarry is behind one of them. Last year, McGarry’s early years show Wonderland drew praise from critics and audiences at the Citizens Theatre. This year she returns to Glasgow with Little Ulla, a festive story about a mountain goat with a magical horn. ‘I was very aware of the gap in provision for that age group at Christmas time,’ she explains. ‘A lot of pantos and Christmas shows are entirely unsuitable for younger children. It can be quite a traumatic experience for them, to be taken into something where there is usually a scary, archetypal villain. And the length of them too - they can be nearly two-and-a-quarter hours. On the whole, it’s not generally a very positive experience for children of that age.’ Like Wonderland, Little Ulla will incorporate original songs composed by McGarry, as well as rhymes, dances and puppets. However, the key to keeping children focused, she believes, is not to over-complicate. ‘I think simplicity is they key,’ she says, ‘and that really is the most challenging thing about making work for this age group keeping it simple and having a narrative thread that they understand, that challenges them but is simple enough to keep the story ticking over. It’s about keeping it

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visual, having lots of reveals, remembering that it’s Christmas time and making them laugh. In Little Ulla, there’ll be two main puppets. They’re quite soft and tactile, and the kids get to meet them and shake their hand and cuddle them. They connect to them, and it’s that connection that keeps their attention I think.’ Lisa Keenan, education manager at the Tron Theatre, takes a similar approach. Keenan will write and direct The Night After Christmas at the Tron, an early years show in which two elves cook up a feast for Santa and his reindeer after they complete their annual present- delivering expedition. ‘Our show is going to be


in our studio space, so the audience is very much part of it and it’s interactive,’ she says. ‘We’ll have things to smell, touch and taste. If a wee child gets up and moves from their seat, it’s not going to be a big drama. Obviously, in a panto there is a lot of audience interaction too, in terms of booing and hissing and all that stuff. But if you were a three year old in an auditorium and there’s 250 people booing at the one time, that could be kind of scary.’ For Keenan, it’s also about relating to the way young children play. ‘It’ll be providing an environment for us to have sensory creative play. All the props in the kitchen will be used for storytelling. For example, tea towels

hanging up might end up being headscarves. It’s the idea of using everyday objects to become other things, as children do in play.’ In addition to Little Ulla and The Night After Christmas, the Arches will present Rudolph, a new work by acclaimed theatre-maker Andy Manley, and the Macrobert in Stirling will put on Too Many Penguins? for 0-3 year-olds, with regular collaborators Frozen Charlotte Productions. But McGarry and Keenan stress that theatre for an early years audience exists throughout the year. Both cite Imaginate’s Starcatchers programme for babies and Catherine Wheels’ work for children as pioneers. McGarry regularly performs in nursery schools and the Tron’s Tiny Tales and Tall Tales initiatives ensure that kids are engaged in theatre year-round.

‘At the Tron,’ Keenan says, ‘we try to programme work for young people throughout the year and not just at Christmas. A lot of children associate going to the theatre with just being about going to a panto, when actually there’s really good work on at other times. As a venue, we would hope to be able to engage people several times throughout the year and have them coming to see stuff so they know that theatre’s not just for Christmas.’

Rudolph, Arches, Glasgow, Fri 2 Dec–Tue 3 Jan; The Night After Christmas, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Sat 3–Sat 24 Dec; Too Many Penguins?, Macrobert, Stirling, Wed 7–Sat 24 Dec; Little Ulla, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Sat 10 Dec–Sat 7 Jan.