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Interview: Polly Simmonds, Head of Creative Learning at Polka Theatre

Kitty Underwood

By Kitty Underwood Published 7 November 2022

We talked to Polly Simmonds, Head of Creative Learning at Polka Theatre, to learn a little more about the unique children’s theatre and some of their recent initiatives around children and mental health.

Tell us about who you are and what you do!

I’m Polly Simmonds, Head of Creative Learning at Polka Theatre and I oversee the strategic direction and development of Polka’s extensive Creative Learning programme. Creative Learning & participation is completely at the heart of Polka’s work.

We are constantly striving to create rich, dynamic and innovative experiences and offer opportunities for all children and families regardless of age, ability or background, to engage in the arts through our accessible and extensive learning programme. Our work is directly related to the artistic programme with projects either being inspired by productions or our creative learning work informing the productions.

What makes Polka Theatre different from other theatre venues?

Polka is one of the few theatres in the UK dedicated exclusively to children up to 12 years. Based in Wimbledon since 1979, Polka creates world-class theatre and creative learning opportunities to entertain and inspire.

Our recent capital re-development allowed us to re-imagine what a dedicated children’s theatre could and should be for young audiences and their families and we have created a vibrant space for future generations at the heart of our community. With two performance spaces, a café, indoor and outdoor play areas and a toyshop, Polka Theatre is unique in its totally child-centred design. We are a producing house, but also provide a permanent London venue for children’s theatre companies from all over the UK and abroad.

During our closure period we also took the time to re-look at our mission statement and are proud to work collectively across all departments with the focus on Empowering children to navigate their world through inspirational theatre and creative experiences.  At Polka, we have committed ourselves to prioritising children’s growth, creativity and well-being.

Why do you think it is important for children to establish an understanding of more complex emotions like anxiety?

Supporting Children’s mental health and wellbeing has never been so important. The statistics are alarming. Young Minds research (July 2021) shows that 1 in 6 children aged 5+ were identified as having a probable mental health problem. That’s five children in every classroom. More recently, the Good Childhood Report 2022 said that 85% of parents and carers are concerned about the impact of the Cost of Living crisis on their families. Help and support is urgently needed.

Identifying and then talking about emotions helps us all feel better and reduces the effects of feeling sad or scared. Helping children to understand complex emotions enables them to put their feelings into words and helps them better navigate the world around them.

We hope that by using our new free workshop films as a resource, and programming theatre that addresses their well-being, many children will find a way to understand and express their feelings and anxieties and start to look towards a hopeful and brighter time ahead.

The emotional well-being of children is just as important as their physical health and we know from the many testimonies we receive from teachers, parents, carers and children that our work helps children to build the resilience they need to cope with life’s pressures.

How do you suggest we do that in an accessible way for kids?

Children learn through play, and through physically “doing” and “taking part” hence why we have created these mental health and wellbeing films.

For example, the narrative of the Reception & KS1 workshops tells a story of a boy called Mo (a puppet) who is having to cope with a number of different worries, thoughts and feelings including anger, sadness and being worried.  The film is paused at certain points, and as a group, the children decide what advice they could give Mo, and suggest what techniques and coping mechanisms he could try to help him. By exploring Mo’s situation, the children can identify their own emotions, feel more empowered to find ways in which to help themselves, and be more aware and empathetic to others around them.

What do your new mental health videos include, and in what setting would they be used?

Our mental health films are a series of interactive drama workshops, for Reception to Year 6. During the films we look at routines, friendships, loss and the rollercoaster of emotions that children may be facing. The workshops use puppets, drama activities and role play to tell fictional stories which safely enable the children to explore these key worries and anxieties –making connections with their own experiences and feelings. We also share different coping mechanisms, including emotional regulation techniques, and breathing exercises – modified for children from reception through to Year 6.

The films can be used by teachers within their own PSHE lessons and are all accompanied with a full Teacher Resource Pack with individual lesson plans.

Do you think kids’ theatre is appreciated enough and do you think we are taking advantage of it as much as we can?

This is an interesting question. There is a pressure for all theatres regarding programming and revenue and we continually need to think about audience development but what is “kids theatre”?

Are we considering what children want to see? Are we thinking about the child when we decide on the artistic programme?   What do we want the child to think and feel after they have experienced coming to the theatre?  It’s incredibly important that theatre doesn’t patronise the children it’s designed to inspire. We hold all our work to the same high standards that would be presented to any adult audience.

As adults we can enjoy a bit of light entertainment (Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Strictly Come Dancing) and it’s also accepted that we’d also like to see “Macbeth” or “The Seagull”. This is because we want to explore the world, our emotions, understand what is going on with our lives and ourselves.  Children absolutely need this too – to explore their thoughts and views around families, friends, secrets, identity, acceptance, loneliness.

We know that live performance has a considerable and lasting impact.  For a child sitting in a theatre, watching a show, sometimes for the very first time, there is the potential to completely transform their lives. This is the power of stories!

And looking back at some of our past Polka productions: “To Dream Again” by Toby Hulse, this was a story about a girl coming to terms with her parents’ separation; “Child of the Divide” by Sudha Bhuchar – based around a Hindu child that is brought up by a Muslim family is a story about family identity and belonging; “Under the Rainbow” is the story of a refugee woman and her courageous journey in finding her place in the world. These are stories that will resonate with children, help them develop emotional intelligence and “help them navigate their worlds”.

What are you excited about that is coming up at Polka in the near future?

We are currently in rehearsal for both our Christmas productions, Crackers, a festive family farce that will be full of laughs, by award-winning playwright Charles Way. You don’t get many farces written for children, and this has a really inventive and magical feel that adults will also enjoy, what’s not to love?! And a return of the much-loved Grandad, Me and Teddy Too, celebrating the special place grandparents have in young children’s lives, written and directed by Sarah Argent – the character’s relationship centres around a digital-zoom connection, which feels incredibly fitting in this post-pandemic world.

In a sneak peek even further ahead, 2023 will see Polka stage a brand new main house show featuring brilliant puppetry and songs – Jack V Giant created by Peter Glanville and Barb Jungr. Jack, a brave young girl, goes on a magical journey inspired by the traditional fairy-tale story….with a few twists along the way. For our young audiences, our interactive production Let’s Build, which opens in April, puts 2-5 year olds in control in architect and town planning roles – creating their own maps, cities and surroundings in this interactive piece all about the changing world we live in.

And not forgetting all our weekly and holiday Creative Learning workshops at Polka including our storytelling adventure Teddy Bear Tales for family groups, our Comedy Act workshop inspired by Crackers, where we explore comic timing, physical theatre techniques and improvisational skills and our Make-Up Magic session for ages 8+ where children will have a go at creating their own unique stage characters using make-up and costume.

What mental health/kids wellbeing events and productions we should keep and eye out for at Polka?

Shows by companies like Tangled Feet, whose beautiful production of ‘Butterflies’ was part of our current Autumn season, are powerful and impactful responses to supporting young children through their fears and anxieties. Tangled Feet are returning to Polka with their new production in February 2023, Belongings which follows the journey of a young girl trying to work out where ‘home’ is – the show is inspired by work with young people who don’t live with their birth parents.

And to mark Children’s Mental Health Week, next February half term we will be running our Mind, Body and Soul multi-sensory workshops offering a space for children and families to relax and unwind.

You can book tickets to Crackers through the link below!

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