A very special play

In a glowing tent, on tiny benches and cushions, sit rows of kids as young as 2 years old. They’re wearing slippers, to mark the fact that this is a special place, and they are entirely absorbed by the actions on stage.

Their parents, in the rows behind them, may be wondering whether their toddler will be the one who won’t make it through, who will need to be carried out, screaming.

But this is the Cargill Stage at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis. It was designed for kids this small. And the troupe behind the production, Dockteatern Tittut, from Sweden, is a master of the form.

A Special Trade, the Children’s Theatre Company’s third show for very young children, comes at the very beginning of a two-year effort to develop shows and curriculum for this age group, putting CTC at the cutting edge of preschool theater.

“We’re doing this because we’ve seen our colleagues, particularly in Europe and particularly in Scandinavia,” says CTC Artistic Director

Peter Brosius, “do some work in introducing theater at a young age. And the United States is woefully behind. And so we learn from them.”

Director Christer Dahl, of Dockteatern Tittut spoke with Minnesota Parent editor Tricia Cornell.

What’s different about performing for little kids?

In one sense, little kids are a better audience than any other age, because they have imaginations without bounds, without limits. They can imagine anything. And their emotions are so clean and sharp.

When you are 2 years old, you have experienced every emotion, every feeling in the whole world, and you have done it stronger than we adults do. When we are older, we have speech, we have thoughts that can make emotions easier to stand. But children cannot use language to hide emotions, so they are geniuses emotionally.

The thing that you must think about in a special way when you are acting for such small kids is that their brains are not yet developed. They cannot process as much information at the same time as our brains can. And they cannot yet discriminate between important and unimportant information. So if you have a big space, you cannot use the whole space at the same time. Kids get confused: “Oh no, what shall I look at?” You’ve got to concentrate, be spare, be clean. In the story, just tell what is really important, and then let the kids’ imaginations flourish.

How do you know when a play is successful? If you make a room full of kids laugh, is that the goal?

It’s very easy to make kids laugh. You can make them laugh hysterically for half an hour and then they’re totally exhausted.

When we started, 30 years ago, many people said, ‘You can’t do theater for small children. They cannot sit still for half an hour or 25 minutes.’ Now we are doing up to 50 minutes. If you do it the right way, it’s possible — well we haven’t actually managed to do 50 minutes, but I think 47.

You must let the child know where the focus is, the spot on the stage where the important thing is happening at this very moment. One way is with lights. The other is that the other actors or puppets give their total attention to the one that is acting or talking. And you give the children time to move their gaze before that actor starts talking. “Oh, that person is going to say something. I wonder what she’s going to say.” You have a rhythm in the play. You have one peak that’s funny, then you have something touching and something a little dangerous. You give the children a chance to use their whole brains, not just one little bit of it. Otherwise you overload that part of the brain and they get tired.

What has changed over the last 30 years?

I actually think children are smarter now, when there is so much information for kids. The kids who can handle it actually get smarter and faster.

Today we have much more complicated plays than we thought possible 30 years ago, for two reasons. One is that we have learned more about how we should tell our stories. The other is that culture change: Kids are used to thinking faster and to relating to much faster things than, for example, I was when I was a kid. We listened to the radio, for maybe an hour a day. It’s a great difference.

What can a 2-year-old get out of live theater?

What you yourself get out of the experience of going to a piece of Shakespeare, that is exactly what a kid can get out of going to a play for kids.

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