Thursday, 28 May 2015

"There is only one of you": Statik and the Importance of Art for Children

Statik, the newest production by Action Transport Theatre which I saw this week at LDH, is aimed at kids but, as most good child friendly things, will be greatly enjoyed by adults too. Statik is a silent play using mime and clowning to tell the story of Mikey at his first day working at a radio factory. Mikey doesn’t really understand why his two co-workers don’t seem to want to have any fun, and he definitely doesn’t like the “No Sweets” rule. He tries in vain to fit in and follow the others’ lead, but when a child’s voice erupts from one of the radios that seems to like his way of thinking, he can’t help but play along; and bring his colleagues out of their monotony as well. Essentially it’s a story about breaking the mould and being yourself. It’s about refusing to accept the status quo, how breaking the rules can sometimes be really good fun, and, crucially how important fun is wherever you might be.

As an adult watching the performance, part of me sympathised with the stern and rule following boss. She was just trying to do her job after all and here’s this new guy messing everything up. Then I realised that was the retail worker in me talking and tried to look at the show like I would have done fifteen years ago, before the education system chiselled away at my rebelliousness and way, way before I ever had to manage a department in a store. I realised that adulthood had knocked the fun out of me and made me cynical. I saw how my months in a workplace not unlike Statik’s factory, had made me jaded. I’d become the kind of adult that bored me as a child. I imagine the message resonated in the same way with most of the adults in the audience. Anyone working in a job they aren’t passionate about, following arbitrary rules purely because they’re rules, will understand the feeling that you’ve let your childhood self down somehow, that 7 year old you would be somewhat annoyed that you’re not an astronaut yet, or an inventor, that you threw away all your Barbies and don’t play with Lego anymore (Disclaimer: We still, very much, play with Lego). Of course make believe and playtime don’t have that much of a place in adult life; when you’re working your hardest to pay the bills and get food on the table, you don’t have the privilege of letting your inner child run wild for a bit. But Statik’s message of fun over regiment, imagination before routine, individuality over monotony, gives kids the kind of vision of the future that they need, that we as a society need; where capitalism fails to crush your spirit and you keep on being you regardless.

The impetus for all this philosophising is the voice that emanates from the radio. Starting of as a baby’s giggle, the voice then gives the workers, and their audience, a healthy dose of childlike wisdom about being yourself, believing in things you can’t see, and not running around in circles for too long because it gets boring. Action Transport Theatre work with kids to create new productions and the soundbites in Statik are those of real children answering questions about life, the universe and everything. The point being that there’s an awful lot you can learn from a child. The repeated refrain of “there’s only one of you”, which at first sounds like a statement of loneliness and then becomes a mantra of self expression and staying true to who you are, gives Statik its main message – that being you is not only enough, it’s vital.

It’s shows like Statik that remind us why it’s so important for the arts to not only be child friendly, but child focused as well. There has been a certain pretentiousness surrounding the arts, a sense that forms like theatre are for the intelligentsia only, that only highly cultured adults will understand them to their full extent and anyone else is not welcome. This kind of attitude, though a lot rarer nowadays, still exists in some circles and it’s almost impossible to explain how important it is to challenge it. Almost. I’m going to try anyway.

Like I’ve said before, we think art is a human right and no one should be excluded from taking part in or creating it. Inclusivity promotes diversity and diversity is what makes life, and art, interesting. Including children in art is essential to its existence. If your child loves art at seven they’ll still love it when they’re thirty. You capture the imagination of a child and you keep their attention as an adult. Art for kids doesn’t just ensure an audience in the next generation and a new wave of artists to fuel creation, it also shapes education and can have a major influence on how children see the world and themselves as a part of it. We can all remember the films we saw as a kid, the books we loved, the music we danced to and the TV we watched when we came home from school. We learn from art, we see ourselves in it and we see the world outside of our experience. Art requires empathy; you put yourself in someone else’s shoes whenever you pick up a book or watch a play. Art inspires you and makes you think, it shows you what other people see when they look at life and invites you to see that too for a while. It’s massively important that children get to be a part of that too, that they can learn whilst being entertained and see things in art that they would never experience elsewhere.

There’s also a huge amount of value in seeing something that you know was created just for you. To have something speak to you in a voice that’s talking to you specifically, in a way you understand is a clear and simple message that you matter, that what you think matters and that you have a voice that people are listening to. For children, who are so often overlooked and ignored, this experience is invaluable. Shows like Statik with their message of self expression and their inclusion of children in their creative process not only speaks to children in the audience on a level they will understand, but also tells them that art can both be for and by them. It says that they can make art too, just by being themselves.

Art made specifically for children can inspire in countless ways. A piece of theatre like Statik might reassure a child who feels out of place that her originality is important and she should keep being her even when people are trying to make her change. An installation like Yayoi Kusama’s The Obliteration Room where attendees and their children are encouraged to stick dots all over the pristine white room and its furniture might let a child know that they can be an artist too. Even kids music from the likes of The Wiggles – though perhaps incredibly annoying to parents – might introduce a child to the guitar or inspire them to sing.

It’s clear that making art accessible to children is both vitally important and, thankfully, a growing trend. The Drill Hall is just one of many arts theatres making a concentrated effort to include children in its programming, with shows aimed specifically at a younger age group and workshops to get kids having fun with art. In our current climate, where arts funding is scarce, libraries are being shut down and all too often art is seen as a disposable luxury, it’s all the more essential that we keep making our efforts to make art inclusive and to try and ensure that every child has access to it in some form. The benefits of kid focused art to children are immeasurable, and as I saw in Statik, adults have an awful lot to learn from it too.

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