What Theatre Can Learn from a Ravenous Caterpillar

Originally written for Spoonfed.

The auditorium is filled with ultra-violet light. On the stage in front of us vivid colours glow out of the gloom. Noise mounts in the crowded building, the performers can be heard approaching the stage, there is a palpable sense of rising excitement.

Not the heady sights and sounds of a club night, but observations of the first performance of Mermaid Theatre’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the Rose Theatre, where the toddler contingent of Kingston is out in full force. This mesmerising and interactive display of puppetry, light and music not only prompts thoughts about how other children’s theatre companies might take note, but also how theatre for adults could learn a few tricks from this ravenous little caterpillar.

One element of the Mermaid Theatre experience that stands out, aside from the stunning puppetry, is the noise. An announcement at the beginning of the performance informs us that this is a ‘no-shushing’ show, allowing the children to engage as vocally as they like with the material on the stage while refraining from the old pantomime trick of prompting the audience into responses.

For Jim Morrow, the director and production designer behind the show, this is an important element of his approach to children’s theatre. “The ‘no-shushing’ thing was my idea,” he explains with obvious pride. “I think it’s important to let children engage and interact with the performance. You don’t usually get that in the theatre, you’re always being told to be quiet.” The same importance might be attached to interactivity in theatre for adults, where the very vocal audience reactions of ages past have been replaced by an expectation of silence, preventing theatregoers from taking a more active and participatory role in what is being presented on stage.

As The Very Hungry Caterpillar demonstrates, giving freedom to audience members adds another layer to the viewing experience, allowing theatregoers to bring a new element to the show and make every performance different. A comedy stand-up show is often only as good as its participants and hecklers, while the Good Bad Movie Club at Prince Charles Cinema invites witty viewers to improve the awful films it screens with their own scathing comments; why not let theatre audiences enhance performances with their involvement?

Theatre is beginning to move in this direction by exploring more interactive and inclusive modes of performance, often directly involving audience members in the on-stage action. One such show is Lifegame, a piece of improvised theatre created by theatre company Improbable, which bases each night’s performance around the details shared by guests taken from the audience. Such an approach ensures that each performance is unique and allows the audience to dictate the direction of the evening by contributing to the content of the show albeit in a structured and prompted way.

“When you’re a child you’re so free and uninhibited,” Morrow observes. As theatregoers we grow up and lose that sense of freedom, inquisitiveness and desire for interaction, impulses that are ‘shushed’ out of us. Thanks to these acquired inhibitions and the theatregoing conventions that demand utter silence from audience members, we have taught ourselves out of being active viewers and have to be coaxed out of our shells by performers like those involved in Lifegame.

If The Very Hungry Caterpillar is, as Morrow hopes, the kind of show that will introduce younger generations to the theatre and keep them coming back, then it could inspire a new kind of freer, more interactive theatre, where traditional boundaries between audience and performer begin to disintegrate. Following the lead of other art forms, there is room for theatre makers to allow audiences the freedom to enhance their show without being prompted or restricted. Perhaps we all need to take our cue from Mermaid Theatre and learn to be children again every once in a while.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar munches its way into Richmond Theatre from 3 to 5 November.

Find out more about Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia on their website.

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