Getting down with the kids

Published August 23, 2010

Charlotte Marshall gets involved with Kids Week activities to discover just what is on offer in London theatre’s festival of family fun.

You know you are getting older when someone compares the movement of a puppet from Disney’s The Lion King to a slinky and you are the only audience member not to react with a vacant open mouth and confused stare, the rest only nodding in acknowledgement when a slinky is clarified as ‘being like that dog from Toy Story’.

This audience, sitting eager faced on the carpeted floor of the Lyceum theatre, average the age of five however, so all can be forgiven. Gathered together for one of the dozens of Kids Week workshops and activities taking place over the next two weeks, they may live in a world of PSPs and talking Tickle Me Elmo’s but their eyes still light up in awe as Timon – a wise-cracking meerkat for those not in the know – comes out to chat to them about being in the show.

Billed as a workshop where children can “learn more about the fascinating masks and puppets in Disney’s award-winning musical The Lion King” the hour-long session does that and more. In order to book a place on any of the Kids Week activities, you must have bought a ticket for the corresponding show which either follows or precedes the activity, thereby enhancing their trip to the theatre with a tantalising look behind the scenes.

Today, the participants are heading into the matinee afterwards and the idea of an hour talk does nothing to dampen their excitement. This is mostly because Stephen Crocker, the Marketing Manager from Disney’s The Lion King, makes sure the session is funny, interactive and entertaining both for the parents and the children. Members of the cast, including an incredibly graceful Narran McLean dressed as Nala and Zazu’s puppeteer Stephen Matthews, engage the children with anecdotes from working in the show and describe just what it is like to play both flora and fauna in the show.

As we learn in the next hour, amazingly there are literally 100s of puppets in the show and each puppet takes six months simply to re-cover and was cast from the original sculptures by Julie Taymor, creator of the show.

When it comes to asking questions, this group of interested kids doesn’t hold back, with dozens of questions about what kind of bugs Timon eats – from the kids, who squirm in delight when Timon talks about his love of squelchy insects – and whether the actors get repetitive strain injury – from the more restrained parents.

Talking to Crocker afterwards, he told me why he thought Kids Week was so exciting, “I think it’s a really important way to give kids access both to availability of tickets but also to be able to feel a bit more in touch with it, because it can feel so distant when you go to see a performance and you’re in a theatre full of people. To be able to have that access and a glimpse behind the scenes just makes it a bit more special and will hopefully give these kids a love of theatre for life. If I’d done this when I was a kid, I’d still remember it, I know I would.”

As brothers Oliver (nine) and Elliot (seven) explained to me, it was indeed “quite interesting” and Elliot and I shared the view on the best bit of the talk, with Elliott enthusiastically telling me: “The Mufasa mask, because it felt a lot heavier and looked a bit better than the other mask.” Just as he says this there is an almighty crash and the much-loved Mufasa mask falls off the bar after one too many pokes. It is time for the group to quickly retreat to the matinee and watch what they have learnt come to life.

There is a huge variety of Kids Week activities on offer. At the Lyric theatre, a Dr Martens-clad Dance Captain from Thriller Live is letting 25 children ‘Boogie with the Cast’.

After the slinky incident it is reassuring to know that this group have heard of Michael Jackson, with one young girl even explaining that she knows his late catalogue but the Jackson Five don’t really do it for her. As they are taught to sing ABC, even the shy children hiding at the back get into it with the help of two of the actors playing the Young Michael Jackson in the show and an enthusiastic dancer who can’t stay still as they all stand around the piano.

Song learnt, the kids are taught a routine that they somewhat depressingly pick up within minutes, whereas I would be lost after the first ‘wave, wave, down to the side, run on the spot’. Flanked by the two Michaels and attired in a way that makes me crave the days when I used to dress up to go to the theatre, the group shimmies and jumps around, half with furrowed brows, half giggling, in an experience that as nine-year-old Augusta and eight-year-old Sebastian told me later was really fun and “medium hard” to do.

When even the littlest children have the routine committed to memory, parents are called into the auditorium to watch their kids performing on a West End stage, which is a pretty impressive place to be allowed onto and an experience that most would never forget.

At the New London theatre, a Kids Week activity follows a matinee performance of the National Theatre’s War Horse, famous for Handspring Puppet Company’s puppets. The show is recommended for children over the age of 10, so the room is filled with children at the older scale of Kids Week participants. The atmosphere is noticeably different as many of the children separate themselves from their parents, one or two sit sullen faced and I begin to worry that the questions and enthusiasm might not make it past the hormones and need to look cool. The silence is broken however by a boy boasting that the play made him cry and dying to know which other members of his family “teared up” too. The rest of the atmosphere is cleared as Toby Olié from the show, muddy faced and dressed in his stage outfit, enters the group wheeling the production’s pesky goose and once again every face lights up and cameras come out in the presence of a puppet.

Olié enthrals the audience with stories about what it is like to work on the show, how much physiotherapy they need to keep performing in back-breaking positions and how he trained to become a puppeteer. The puppeteers have to study horses – the You Tubing of terms like ‘horse kicking’ dozens of times making for strange internet histories – and regularly stay at stables in St John’s Wood to muck out the horses and watch their movements. Ironically no one in the cast is allowed to ride a horse; a clause in their contract states that the risk of broken bones or injury is too great.

Anyone who has seen War Horse will know that, although the horse puppets used in the show are vast wooden structures and the puppeteers are clearly visible, within minutes the magic of Handspring’s work brings to life the characters as if there were real horses on stage. Controlled by four people, as Olié explains, the performance has to be a real marriage of thought between the actors, working in tandem to make each little gesture portray the horse’s feelings as obviously as possible. Even to make a realistic horse noise they must conduct a complicated Mexican wave of sound between them.

The highlight of this workshop is, as macabre as this sounds, when a puppet horse’s severed leg comes out. Luckily no one in the group seems traumatised by this and in turn we are allowed to see just how much hard work it is to hold and manipulate. As 14-year-old Andrew points out: “They’re so human and have so much life in them; it’s easy to forget that they’re actually controlled by a few fingers and thumbs.”

The group leaves totally enthralled and inspired by the workshop and it is clear that this is the real success of the activities Kids Week provides, truly enhancing theatre trips and creating experiences that children will remember. If the effect of Kids Week needs further illustration, Andrew’s mum explains: “He’s [Andrew] chosen to do Drama GCSE because he’s been really inspired by what we get to do here [at Kids Week].”

For more information about Kids Week shows and activities visit www.kidsweek.co.uk

CM