Norris & Power on NT children’s programming

Published October 23, 2015

When Rufus Norris took on the biggest job in British theatre back in April he brought with him a diverse programme of work that truly put the National in National Theatre.

He also brought Ben Power – or rather, slightly repurposed him – making the acclaimed dramaturg and former Associate Director his dependable deputy.

Together you’d be excused for thinking they’re an energy company – on further investigation it turns out that Norris Power actually is – and, well, you wouldn’t be far off.

When I caught up with the pair earlier this week Norris had literally 12 minutes before he had to be back in rehearsals and Power joked that he spent so much of his day there it would be easier to move into the South Bank venue. They sure do have, and need, a lot of energy!

It’s not really surprising; they’re doing a lot for a lot of different people. From collaborations with regional companies to fully accessible productions integrating captions and audio description, the duo’s first year is showcasing the NT as a theatre for everyone. And that includes children!

Three of the productions opening at the venue in the next month – okay, 35 days, we exaggerate – are for young audiences. Damon Albarn’s new musical wonder.land is for audiences aged 10 and older, page to stage adaptation I Want My Hat Back promises to cater for everyone between 3 and 300-years-old and Power’s adaptation of The Comedy Of Errors, part of the National’s Primary Theatre project, aims to introduce children aged eight to 12-years-old to Shakespeare by not only staging it at the NT but touring it to London schools.

It makes sense though, right? Young people are, after all, a significant proportion of the population. Even Norris and Power admit that. But it’s not merely about targeting a big chunk of potential theatregoers. Not with these two; they’re both fathers and they know all too well the impact that theatre can have on children.

“It’s really important that high quality theatre is available to young people. It both awakens them to the power of what theatre can be – I think most of us who love theatre fell in love with it at a young age – but also it encourages creative self-expression.” There’s a genuine passion in Norris’ voice when he tells me how important he believes theatre to be for young audiences. Whether it’s a result of his childhood, his career or his own family – “I’ve got kids, I loved theatre when I was a kid and personally I’ve made a lot of work for young people during my career” – this man has a plan for children’s programming: one big and beautiful beast of a plan.

“The long-term aim would be to try and make sure that we have, in any given year, work for every age group.” There’s a catch, there must be a catch. “You can have strong aims and ambitions” – Oh, here we go – “and I do have this simple, strong ambition for the National, but it is going to take a while to achieve it.”

Well that’s fair enough, especially when the current home of many of the NT’s offerings for children, the Temporary Theatre, is, well, temporary. Thankfully the iconic red building’s limited residency doesn’t sound like it’s going to stand in his way. “Primary Theatre like The Comedy Of Errors is of course going to continue, whether that reverts back to the Dorfman where it has been before or we use some of our other spaces.”

… And breathe. This news will come as a relief for the young people who enjoyed Power’s adaptation of Romeo And Juliet in 2014. After all, its premiere proved so successful it returned to delight audiences with Shakespeare’s classic love story for a second time. Back then, when Power first collaborated with director Bijan Sheibani on the project, the Bard’s work hadn’t been staged as part of the Primary Theatre initiative for several years. “It felt really important to get back to Shakespeare for that audience and get it right. The key is not being patronising or trying to water down the original. You just want to be really clear and precise in conveying the meaning of the language.”

The result with Romeo And Juliet was something that “absolutely honoured the original and was completely accessible”. Norris has only good words to say about Sheibani’s work; he actually calls him a “master” at creating Shakespeare for young audiences. And as for Power, no words are needed here, he made him his deputy, remember?

So for those who didn’t see Romeo And Juliet, what can they expect from the pair’s latest Bardic enterprise? Power, or as we’re beginning to refer to him, The Expert Condenser – these Shakespearean adaptations tend to have a running time of just 60 minutes – believes the “full throttle funny and dynamic bits” were what made his take on the tragedy such a triumph. And this was the thinking behind making one of the great playwright’s best-loved comedies his next project. “The Comedy Of Errors, this purest farce with real potential for enjoyable physical comedy, and this story about siblings divided, about looking for your family, losing your family, being lost in an unknown city, all feels quite accessible for a young audience.”

Who doesn’t love a bit of purest farce and physical comedy? Certainly not us and, while we may not be as down with the kids as we’d like to be, we’re pretty sure there isn’t an eight, nine, 10, 11 or 12-year-old out there who wouldn’t LOL at the prospect of it either. “The idea is, if this is your first experience of Shakespeare, which it definitely is for most people who are going to be watching it – and for a lot of them their first experience of theatre full-stop – we just really want it to be memorably enjoyable.”

So memorably enjoyable in fact that Power hopes they will come back for more. “That’s what we’re thinking about now, how we hold on to the audience, hold on to the artists. How we can make space for work for everyone from three-year-olds who will come to I Want My Hat Back through to primary age audience members who are coming to Romeo And Juliet and The Comedy Of Errors, and take them through to the programme that we have for our adult audiences. You hope that you get people and you keep them and you make them excited about theatre and you make them excited about the National Theatre.”

If you, like us, are excited about what the National Theatre has to offer children in the run-up to Christmas – or, indeed, in the future – you can book tickets for its shows through the venue’s website. But if you fancy taking your family to see Norris’ production of wonder.land and book tickets through us before 26 November, you might just find yourself on the receiving end of an incredible trip to Broadway.