On being invisible… by Red Bridge friend and associate Shona Reppe

Last month I had the honour, nay, the privilege of being invited to be a delegate with the Red Bridgets at the Imaginate Festival (I know, I know its officially The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival now – but Imaginate is what so many of us still call it).

I had a golden ticket! To see shows from all over the world and hang out with other delegates and theatre makers. What a joy! So as an exchange for my free pass I now sit reflecting on what I thought as I watched these shows and sharing this with you, the invisible audience.

Now, I’m not going to pick through each show, I am not a reviewer, and to be honest I enjoyed some a lot more than others. I am going to talk about something that struck me and my companions as we sat in the audience. I am going to talk (briefly) about CONNECTION in children’s theatre and, sometimes the sad lack of it.

One show that really inspired me was The Invisible Man by Theatre Artemis – gloriously funny and finely crafted, and an extraordinary masterclass in connection with a young audience. This is no mean feat trust me. I have been making shows for children since 1994 and I learned quickly that one of the most important things to give your audience is genuine and authentic connection and presence. You want your audience to feel like this show could never be repeated and that’s because of your special chemistry as audience and artist. Live theatre should make you feel alive. It’s a no-brainer.

It’s not often I see a show and feel truly CONNECTED – Invisible Man really got me.  Ironically, the most present character was the Invisible Man himself. Rob was invisible. No really he was. You really couldn’t see him, but boy did he have presence. From the moment the piano stool compressed with his weight and the piano lid lifted followed by the tinkling of piano keys made him so real we (the whole audience) were transfixed.  He was there, we just couldn’t see him. Rob skillfully gathered children without patronising or ‘bossing’. He talked to them respectfully and with humour and they responded spontaneously, taking instructions, offering help, to a person they couldn’t-actually-see. They collected crisps for him and fetched Tv’s, they crawled on the stage floor and it was GLORIOUS. Connection made, the audience would do anything, clap to become visible, blow to disappear. Soon we were all under its spell and we had a unique experience. They didn’t demand anything from us for the first 15 minutes. We were allowed to sit, observe, laugh, absorb. Connection goes both ways. We quickly trusted them. The chemistry was there.

There is still a terrible misconception that children’s theatre should be all shouty and participatory in order to keep their attention. We see it a lot. However connection with an audience is different and essential – and something you cannot demand. Nor can you offer up a formulaic idea of how to do it.  So many shows I see, despite being beautiful, and finely crafted, are sadly lacking a true connection with their audience. There is an art to it that is massively underrated.  Children are an honest audience – and we see very clearly what happens when they feel disconnected. It can be painful to witness.  I can’t gush about all the shows I saw at Imaginate, to be fair all had merits and in the end its about personal taste, but I can’t help feeling that some companies aren’t as connected to their audience, or perhaps interested in being connected, as they could be or, in my view, should be.

So what is it? What is this connection? Is it eye contact – well no clearly not because we couldn’t  see the Invisible Man’s eyes. Is it participation? No. Not necessarily. At its core, I believe, is presence – being truly present with your audience; trusting, committed, authentic, fresh.  Being present opens up the ability for artists and audience to really see each other.  (We are not invisible after all).

So that’s it – my reflection on CONNECTION.  Now I’m off for a pint with Rob. I haven’t seen him for a while.

Shona Reppe is a theatre maker and designer, specialising in work for young audiences.  Her work is brilliant and award winning – check it out here. Shona worked with Red Bridge on Black Beauty and is a neighbour and close colleague.

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