Triggering the Imagination: why children’s theater matters
An interview with Stefi Theodotou, playwright, director, animator
Theatre is a unique immersive learning experience for audiences of any age. There are numerous great shows around Athens to take your child to, and it is important that you do. Playwright, director, and animator Stefi Theodotou introduces her latest play, The Chair That Imagined, and explains why kids need theatre—it fires the imagination, gives them the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to comprehend it, and perhaps to change it too!
What prompted you to get involved with productions for children?
I have been fortunate to be involved with drama games for the past 12 years as an animator for theater playgroups. Children usually “bring along” their daily-life questions, social concerns, and personal truths. Getting involved with children’s plays was about my own need to address a larger audience with the knowledge I’ve acquired all these years on how to handle such concerns. Constantly being around children is a true blessing. It shapes your attitude, makes you a positive person, and helps you see the sunny side of life. My work—the way I can express myself—definitely touches me first, it is a sweet give and take.
Taking into account how, nowadays, technology reaches (is readily accessible and highly influences) the younger generations, do you think children can still perceive art through a book or a play?
Yes, I do think so, and what’s more, they need it now more than ever. Even though technology primarily facilitates and provides answers fast, virtual reality does not equally enhance children’s socialization or expression. A book, on the other hand, is always inspirational and offers the time and space to let your imagination free. In the same way, drama games entertain, bring children in touch with their instincts, and help them understand the functionality of rules and coexistence. So, when art meets experiential learning, and children get involved both physically and spiritually, then the messages are better conveyed, they become life.
It has been long argued that theatre, beside schools, can be another medium through which children can develop morally. What are the messages you consider important and are trying to convey?
Children’s theater can shape characters and personalities. That is why those of us involved in the field need to be 100% aware of our responsibility. I don’t think that theater should wag the finger at children about what morality is and how they should behave, but rather act as a place where children can express their needs and find solutions. I believe the same should be true for schools.
To give you an example, all children understand that they shouldn’t hit or push each other to get something out of the hands of someone else who refuse to share. And their need to claim won’t stop if an adult gives them a general rule like “don’t do it, it’s not right” without further explanation. At that moment, the adult without realizing it has taught the child not to claim, even when it’s right! A kind of theater that recognizes the need to claim, helps children understand why they feel like so, focuses on acknowledging the emotion, and shows them how to manage it, all the while teaching empathy as well, that is the kind of theater that provides effective solutions and is beneficial for all sides. If this is what is meant by “morality,” it’s not my priority to name it. Certainly, however, those of us dealing with children’s theater must first focus on having a moral responsibility ourselves before trying to nurture it in children.
How is interactive children’s theatre different from a typical theatrical production? What exactly is the animator’s approach to the children’s attitudes, moods, and reactions?
The animator needs to be present in the moment. Children can identify themselves in different parts of the play and want to be actively involved. Since an interactive show encourages this involvement, it can’t possibly limit them to when and how they’ll interact. The animator and all the actors need to be open to ideas, suggestions, and questions at any moment and to be able to integrate them into the play’s flow. We can’t pick and choose child participation, because children choose for themselves. And since you want to touch a child’s soul, you first need to hear them speak their truth. Consequently, interactive children’s theater requires tremendous flexibility, readiness, will to communicate, ruthlessness, truthfulness and the mindset to start each play with the conviction that your co-workers—from the first word to the last—are not just the actors, but also the unpredictable little spectators.
What do you find are the greatest challenges in the specific industry and what, if anything, could be done so that the productions are better integrated within our educational system?
I’ve always channelled my energy more towards the creative part, so that’s where I usually find the biggest challenges are. However, there’s a real need for theatrical performances (and theater studies in general) to be integrated into the educational system. That’s what our new play The Chair That Imagined is about: how children can learn better at school through theater and the use of imagination. State support in the form of grants would certainly help both the schools and the theater companies.
What works should we be looking forward to in the future? Any “dream” project you would like to pursuit?
My dream is to keep writing about what is happening inside and around me, and to communicate these feelings to older and younger friends through theater. Ever since I can remember myself, I’ve felt within me a source of inspiration that seeks to be intertwined with images and words, take shape, and acquire substance. I find redemption in the process, and when my creation finds its place in the world, I’m overwhelmed with emotion.
One such creation is Dromena (ΔΡώΜΕΝΑ) which is a private initiative that has been operating in Chalandri for 12 years. There are theatrical groups for children, adolescents, and adults, and it’s a place of creative expression, communication, and self-exploration. I can only hope that people come out of Dromena with big smiles and share them with the rest of the world!
Check out the play The Chair That Imagined at https://www.facebook.com/events/2401174616791202/?event_time_id=2408063989435598 and ΔΡώΜΕΝΑ at www.dromena.edu.gr
Photos are courtesy of Ms. Stefi Theodotou & ΔΡώΜΕΝΑ