Do you remember your first theatre experience? How old were you when you first saw a play or musical?
Axis Theatre, an award winning Vancouver-based physical theatre company, caters to audience members as young as three years old. Their plays are full of song, dance, comedy, clowns, puppets, wild masks and, above all, a good story.
Many of the players and staff for Axis Theatre are UBC alumni. Chris McGregor, artistic director for Axis and current theatre professor at UBC, says that children’s theatre aims to “bring down the fourth wall” by directly addressing the audience and allowing them to feel a part of the play.
Axis Theatre has recently begun their Wee Ones Series, a series of plays intended for an audience aged 3-7. Shelby Bushell, Axis Theatre's tour coordinator, says that there was no quality market for very young children and Axis wanted to step in and fill this gap.
She says these plays aim to be larger than life to suspend children’s disbelief. McGregor adapted the current Wee Ones play, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, from a short story which teaches children about the importance of friendship. McGregor believes that a crucial component of children’s theatre, and one that is missing from the work of other companies, is a narrative arc, conflict and journey to keep kids engaged.
For Raven Meets the Monkey King, a play which highlights the intersection of Asian-Canadians and Aboriginal peoples in Vancouver, children are encouraged to do their research before the big day. Axis Theatre provides online study guides for teachers and parents to use and gives kids the lyrics and choreography to pieces performed in the play so that they can sing and dance along during the show. This gives the play an organic, unique feel every performance.
“Kids are immediate and present,” McGregor said. He believes the best proof that they liked the play is when they go home and reenact it themselves.
McGregor also believes children’s theatre should strive to teach kids a moral lesson, without being didactic.
Hamelin: A New Fable is a retelling of the dark Grimm’s Tale of the Pied Piper. Unlike so many stories for kids, adults are the ones who must face the consequences of their actions and learn the play’s ultimate lesson — to always keep your promises. Beyond a moral compass, McGregor says children’s theatre should ask questions, but allow the kids to find answers themselves. “I used to think I was creating future theatre lovers with this work, but that’s a dangerous way to think. I just want to make kids’ experience now unique, thought provoking and fun.”
Axis Theatre not only provides a fun day for children, but allows parents and grandparents to view the play through children’s eyes. Parents have told McGregor that they loved watching their kids be amazed, be emotionally attached and go on this journey. Axis has had incredible success in its 40 year history.
Hamelin is currently fully booked with 226 shows and this next year they hope to launch a Canada-wide tour, said Bushell. They’ve been able to perform within approximately 60 per cent of Vancouver schools.
“The kids get so excited when we show up,” Bushell said. “The kids see the players as celebrities.”