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From Scotland to Shanghai Creating Contemporary Works for Children in Theatre

My adventure with China begins with the remarkable Forrina Chen. I met her when she was on a visit organised by the National Theatre of Scotland and I was still the CEO of Imaginate, an organisation committed to developing the performing arts for children and young people in Scotland, with an international festival at its heart. What drew us together instantly was our shared passion for the work. At it’s best children’s theatre is as good and as joyous an arts experience as its possible to have. We met, talked, shared ideas and discussed work and three years later I joined Forrina to be a small part of the fabulous endeavour that was ASK, a new small scale venue committed to providing brilliant theatrical experiences to local children and families.

A market like China is obviously interesting to any programmer, particularly one who comes from a nation of only five million people. The sheer scale of it is a little daunting even before you start to get into issues of content, style, language etc. From an international point of view it’s a huge opportunity. Smart companies from all over the world recognise the new and huge market in China. They also know now that they are generally going to be very well and professionally looked after. This leads to programmers and venues in China being bombarded with offers of work that, when finally put in front of a Chinese audience, don’t always work or translate very well.

It’s generally quite easy to take a piece from, say, Germany and get it to work perfectly well to Belgian or Scottish children. Our theatre in general has a similar structure and audiences grow to recognise and be comfortable with the form and variations from that form. This is not so easy or straightforward in a culture so rich and different as China. Storytelling theatre, the bedrock of most work from the UK, can be very tricky. As good as the on stage translators are, and they are fabulous at ASK, to recreate the correct nuance of the language and the rhythm of the piece can be very difficult, so I’ve tended to steer away from some very good shows that are too specific to their own country or culture. In the end, as obvious as it sounds, it’s shows that have a universal story that work best, narratives or emotions that everyone can relate to: stories of friendship, loss, family and discovery are things we can all relate to. It’s companies like ASK that will make this journey work in the medium to long term, finding the best international work that also has a connection with the audience. This is where the passion comes back in. It can only succeed properly when people like Forrina are there, watching, judging, learning about the needs of their audience. When I started working with ASK there was a sense of outsiders like myself recommending great shows and companies accepting our choices. Thankfully things have moved on. The Chinese are taking control of the process of choosing and creating work as they understand that their audience is keen to see work of sophistication, beauty and, above all, fun. My impression is of an audience who know a quality piece when they see it, and want more of it. The adults and teachers are also keen to explore the educational opportunities and packages that the companies and ASK offer.