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Adapting to children’s theatre

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Today, they announce shows six months in advance so schools can include the performances in their curriculum. But when Gardner & Wife  first started bringing in plays for very young children, they struggled to fill the theatre. 

This May, hundreds of school children in Penang, Ipoh and the Klang Valley will enjoy a restaging of Stuck. Based on the book by Oliver Jeffers, the play was extremely popular the first time in came on tour. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and if audiences are flooding in don’t tinker with it, right?

Yet for the couple behind Gardner & Wife, Diong Chae Lian and Richard Gardner, this was a chance to do things differently.

The script and songs haven’t changed and the set and costumes mirror the world created in the book’s illustrations. And while Adam Bampton-Smith was once again brought in, this time the UK-based director flew solo, without his actors. For the first time, this ‘imported’ children’s show is using local actors.

Seasoned newbies

Any regular theatre goer will have seen Aaron Teoh and Safia Hanifah in something. In Safia’s case, you may have even seen her in everything. She’s been present in hit shows including The Producers, Puteri Gunung Ledang, The Edge, P Ramlee the Musical and Dato’ Seri.

While Aaron Teoh too has done dramatic roles (you can’t get a lot more dramatic than a teacher found guilty of raping his underage student in Jade), he is best known for his work in musical theatre. Even as a relative newcomer to the scene, Adam’s voice and comedic timing – which serve him excellently in Stuck – earned him starring roles in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Of the two, only Safia has performed for children, as the imaginative Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical. However, she is quick to point out that Stuck was as new an experience for her as it was for Aaron.

No security blanket

The two characters in Stuck, young Floyd and his mother regularly turn to their audience for answers, help or just a chat.

Safia, Aaron and friend. Image by Gardner & Wife.

“I enjoy breaking of the fourth wall,” says Safia who plays, of course, the mother. The ‘fourth wall’ is that invisible barrier that separates the actors from their audience. When the wall is down, audiences advance from being mere spectators to becoming participants.

“With children you get that bounce-back… that instant response,” says Adam.

During rehearsals Adam and Richard acted as ‘audience’ so Aaron could get used to immediate feedback. However, as the actor discovered, two voices during rehearsal is nothing compared to the deafening enthusiasm produced by a hundred little kids hyped up on oh-boy-it’s-a-day-away-from-school excitement.

So unprepared was he that after one particularly wall-shaking roar from the audience, the actors stayed true to script claiming “I can’t hear you!” Adults in the audience gritted their teeth and braced themselves for the children to rise to the challenge. The seismic shout that followed should have knocked actors down flat.

Regaining control

“Anyone can get kids to shout,” says Adam. The tough part, he adds, is getting them to stop.

Aaron has figured this one out. In the role of Floyd, a kid with a knack of getting things – and himself – stuck, he runs to the front of the stage and beams at the audience.

“Hello!” he bellows, waving at the audience.

“Hello!” a hundred hands wave back and then all voices fall silent. It is, after all, Floyd’s turn to speak.

“They are naturals,” says Adam of his two actors.

Adapting an 80-word story into a 60-minute play

Okay, I admit I have neither counted the words in Oliver Jeffer’s book or timed the show. But you get the idea.

What the book looks like

“Adapting children’s books is very difficult,” says Richard. “Very few people do it well, and Adam is one of them.”

In Stuck, the book, Floyd is the only character. A few words may pepper pages covered in bright, funny illustrations. About 90% of the play is stuff Adam added with his team – dialogue, songs, even a character; Floyd’s struggling-to-be-patient and struggling-to-be-cool mother.

With all these additions, though, the Adam makes sure he stays true to the story that attracted him in the first place. The set looks like it was cut out of the book and even Floyd’s shirt was made to order to match the character’s shirt in the book. It is then up to the actors to bring the story to life, keeping it engaging, energetic and magnificently silly.

A successful experiment

There are advantages to engaging a touring group. The play is at the heat-and-serve stage, where everyone already knows their role. Aaron and Safia were new to their parts and so needed time to prepare, learn and rehearse.

What the live version looks like. Image by Gardner & Wife.

On the other hand, local actors could drive to work, saving the company costs in air travel and hotel accommodation. Cost savings go either to the production company, to the actors or are passed on to audiences in the form of more affordable ticket prices. Any of these things is a boon to our endlessly struggling industry.

A local team also means more flexibility if there were an opportunity to extend the run or bring the play back at shorter notice. International touring groups fix their schedules more than a year in advance, locking hosts in on dates and number of performances.

Finally, local actors get to work with someone new, in this case a director with years of experience in children’s theatre, a genre that is just starting to take off in Malaysia.

Floyd’s entire adventure starts with a kite stuck in a tree. He tries to knock it loose, making progressively more bizarre choices of things to throw up and which inevitably also get stuck. While Floyd fails, very cheerfully, at his original task and Gardner & Wife’s latest experiment succeeds, both deserve applause.

Stuck will be showing at PJ Live Arts until 28 May, at 10am on weekdays and 2pm on Sundays. For exact showtimes, check out their events page here.

Learn more about children’s theatre. Read: 5 things you don’t know about… performing for young audiences.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.