Admittedly as an actor I don’t relish being upstaged by a child, but as a parent and as a director I know how important it is for them to leave their mark on the world and how important it is to make the world a better place for our children. Again and agai,n I see children struggling not only with mathematics and physics and biology but also to figure out what life means and how it ought to be lived. In a classroom, outside a classroom, in a play field, outside a play field... their struggle is often a moral one. Those of us who work with children want to help them ponder on the rights and wrongs of this world. From the dawn of history the first moral philosophers were playwrights! Think of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes they all believed the stage was a place one could reveal truths not acknowledged in real life. One had leave and licence to speak freely! A place of public gathering yes, but also a place to introspect. Where the nature of common shared human experience is revealed. Playwrights use language to pose questions as to who we are and what is the purpose of life...
Let’s look at two very different plays adapted to stage from children’s stories. I am deliberately choosing a classic by Charles Dickens, Oliver. Firstly it belongs to a bygone era, secondly it is from the pen of a prolific writer. The story though written for children has meanings and overtones far beyond the world of the child. The story revolves the life of an orphan who is sold and resold... till he lands up on the streets of London and joins a gang of pickpockets. A loveable gang of young pickpockets who rule the streets! His innocent face and trusting nature melts the heart of Nancy who works in a bar and sadly of Bill Sykes her boyfriend, who puts him to work at robberies. The hardened criminal Bill Sykes uses little Oliver indiscriminately and finally Nancy sacrifices her life to save Oliver from the underworld and find him an adopted home in a “genteel” part of London. She wanted him to get a better life, one she could not. Even though the cast is with children from middle school to high school, we had staged this play at Siri Fort with over 650 children, it touched the hearts of many an adult. The triumph of Good over Evil. The belief in the goodness of mankind, that will win! The background of the play, the congested markets, the dark underworld were all a backdrop of the real world the playwright had inhabited. And perhaps much as he revealed it, he acknowledged we needed to rise above it. It was indeed a children’s musical but spoke and touched the heart of every adult present in the audience.
Another story for children is Matilda by Raold Dahl. A superb writer! A contemporary writer with the mind of a gymnast! A mind which dares to think so out of the box, it flies into the sky, taking children on a journey into the unknown! Replete with possibilities. We had reworked this story and set it to stage. The story hinges on the life of little Matilda, a very intelligent and curious girl who loves reading and wants to go to school. But born into a family where the father is a devious second hand car salesman, the mother a junk food and television fanatic... they discourage any kind of education or knowledge. It’s an upside down world, where the child turns out to be the “father of man.” Where she corrects this materialistic, selfish, ungrateful, insensitive world we live in. She learns the principal of the school is a mean, selfish woman who has disowned her neice and stolen her inheritance. Matilda works her “magic” to get her favourite teachers inheritance back and teach this mean principal a lesson. She even confronts the bullies in her school. She is a stellar pupil and a shining example of how children can set right this uncaring insensitive world we live in. It is delightful to see Matilda play tricks on her dominating principal and through the world of laughter and parody we are shown what we shouldn't become: insensitive, materialistic, greedy. The rose compass of correction that we all need. A spunky script that braves the unknown. Were children ever told they could lead? That they could correct the world? They could set an example? This story points them in that direction! It upstages our belief that children are mere children..
Next month we are staging this musical, Matilda, an abridged version, at the DLF Promenade Mall in Delhi (December 15th to 17th) with children as young as five acting alongside young adults. Because the play is meant to entertain a moving audience of shoppers, it is replete with song and dance.
Often as an adult I may say, “Ah! They are just a bunch of Kids!” and become condescending. But honestly taking on the challenge of ascending stage in an open arena, with no formal seating, is very enterprising and very brave indeed!
The stage is a great place to teach anything — could even be mathematics, history or literature! It is a very adaptable medium, where learning is real and hands on. One can be a professional director or an unprofessional guide, or a school teacher, it matters little, as long as you are having fun with the children. If you have fun, the audience has fun! Please believe in the bonding and growth in self-esteem that onstage activities provide. No matter what limitations you may have in terms of time, space or experience please allow your children to have a chance to be ontage. Let them lead! Let them DO a show, Do it! Do it! Do it! Let them upstage us!
(Sabharwal is a theatre director and author)