Paul Fitzpatrick, producer of Catherine Wheels Theatre for children, talks about how he engages with his audience

The area of children’s theatre remains undeservingly underdeveloped in terms of creating productions that relate, stimulate and engage this particular audience, understanding the child’s fantasy and experiences. What is suitable subject matter for theatre for children or young people? What does suitable for children mean? Is the purpose of theatre for children different to theatre for adult? At Kolkata, on the last leg of the programme around the metros looking at leadership on cultural creative sector, funded by “Creative Scotland” Paul Fitzpatrick producer of the famous Catherine Wheels Theatre Company from Scotland discusses some of the challenges he faced for the last ten years, “his deep artistic experience” and strategies of making theatre for children.

The graduate from Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now Royal Conservative of Scotland) and a Master of Philosophy from Glasgow University, started the company with Gill Robertson and is now one of the leading one in children’s theatre in the UK.

His interest in children’s theatre initiated after watching the children’s play “Red Balloon” in Glasgow, with all the tools of theatre and aesthetics completely different, with adults, young people and children watching together, sharing the same space.

How does he choose a theme? “As far as Catherine Wheels is concerned, we never start with a theme. What the theme is never interested us. What we are interested in is the story that the artiste wants to tell and the natural way to tell. The story can come from anywhere. One of our really successful plays, ‘Lifeboat’, was inspired by a newspaper article based on a true story. Once that original inspiration is discovered then we take that to the audience. They can’t come the other way. We can’t say we are going to do a story about X for audience Y. We decide on what X we want to tell and then when we know how we want to tell it, we begin to think which audience this one is for. That story ‘Lifeboat’ was about World War II, about friendship, about two girls, 10 or 11 at that time when they meet on board a lifeboat from Liverpool to Canada. We thought that it would be actually right for that age group, and so we did it,” explains Paul in his Scottish accent.

War is quite a popular theme, but it is difficult because war is a complex topic and they dramatise the context and do not show the intricacies of war. “I didn’t want them to feel bleak,” assures Paul. Love, fear and death are other themes. Parents often ask if there are any “scary” bits or not when the play is about death, but some children are scared, some not. “Fantasy works too. The play “Hansel and Gretel” was not the usual fairy tale but a topic of home.” The productions use a lot of music and have story – book sets, which are sometimes assembled by actors as young as two, on stage as a part of the performance. “They are neither educational, nor interactive and are not for teenagers but for traditional audience, family audience, enjoyed equally by children and adults,” informs Paul.

Imagine a play especially for 2-4 year olds! Their recent show “White”, for really little ones is very successful and immensely popular. Paul informs, “That early year’s work is really growing in the UK at the moment.” He was assured that one can do theatre for children under the age of four only after he went to see it. “I saw the first piece about 4-5 years ago and I was absolutely amazed by how transfixed the children were. And we are not trying to get them entertained. It was actually a very gentle, thought provoking, meditative piece about light which was the first show I saw. I soon realised, when I saw the children sat, having this experience, and thought theatre really does work for the early years,” says Paul with a twinkle in his eyes. “After this we decided to do “White’”.

Their productions two to three years ago were either for 5-8 or 8-12 year olds – the two age groups their stories end up falling into. So they approached an artist and expressed their wish to do a piece on the early years and wanted to know his thoughts. The artist said he had seen an image of a white muslin house in a magazine and began showing it to them on a white background and just said, what would happen if colour was introduced into that picture? And that was their starting point. They started then with the age group! But what is being communicated to these children? “With ‘White’ we are genuinely not trying to communicate anything on a symbolic level. What we were trying to do was what happens when things change. That’s all what we were investigating. It wasn’t very deep. When you see children playing they are inquisitive, curious, questioning themselves, what if, what if I put my hands into the fire? And that’s what we were asking with ‘White’, what if. However, since we made that show there’s been countless interpretations from the adults of what white means. They tend not to believe us. People think it’s about race, or diversity. People have even said it’s about sexual orientation of 2-4 year olds. And it’s none of those things,” mentions Paul. “However, if the adults accompanying the children retain to it, it’s absolutely fine. Lots of adults emotionally respond to ‘White’.”

The viability of the plays is explored with a test audience (of children) before staged. Children respond frankly, immediately. The four year olds say what they see but it’s really difficult to know what they actually feel. Whether it works on deep level or not is not the company’s job. Are their productions then just entertainment? “Well, I don’t know whether it is entertainment, art, or anything deeper than that. Our work tries to present a world that is emotionally engaging, thought provoking and I don’t think you have to be able to intellectualise or express in language what you are learning through or what we want to offer children and their families. So we leave rich experiences that may have some meaning later on in their life, even when they find the words to express themselves or they understand what it meant to them,” concludes Paul.