Arts Aloud Interview: Les Petits founder Oliver Lansley on pushing more boundaries in children’s theatre

Having seen Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs in the spectacular Royal Festival Hall, immersed ourselves in Adventures in Wonderland and been one of the first to catch Captain Flinn follow up, The Magic Cutlass, at Edinburgh Fringe, it’s fair to say we’re big fans of Les Petits, the children’s arm of successful theatre company Les Enfants Terribles. As Adventures in Wonderland gets set to make a return to The Vaults this summer, I caught up with Artistic Director Oliver Lansley, on what makes their approach to children’s entertainment so unique.

Arts Aloud: What was your reason for setting up a spin-off of Les Enfants?
Oliver Lansley: Les Enfants was founded on the principles of highly theatrical, colourful storytelling, and some of our earlier productions (such as Terrible Infants) had already blurred the lines between children’s and adult’s theatre. We’d done loads of touring and outdoor shows which had to be family friendly, highly visual and appeal to a broad audience and we didn’t believe that there should be a difference in how theatre is created for children. At the same time, James (creative partner James Seager) was tired of attending child-centric performances and feeling unfulfilled, yet as a parent it felt like a safe bet. With Les Petits we had to be fairly commercial in our approach to eliminate financial risk for parents, as theatre isn’t cheap. Captain Flinn is a great example of how we decided to recreate the sense of mischief and anarchy captured in our grown up shows, yet with all the familiarity, fun and silliness that kids will enjoy.

AA: What’s so great about having children as your audience?
OL: Grown ups always over-think things, and try to come at things intellectually. Kids are much more direct and accepting, yet more honest in their reaction, so it’s actually much easier to make a bad grown-up show and get away with it! Children either engage or they don’t, and they are surprisingly difficult to manipulate. They constantly surprise us with the things that they enjoy or react to in a performance, versus what we might have expected.

AA: What are the biggest challenges that you face?
OL: As we’ve all seen and read, both the funding and teaching of the arts in schools is seriously under threat, with many not seeing it necessary or essential. As well as the very real threat of our schools producing fewer actors and performers, the implications are much wider. The arts, in its broadest sense, from poetry to theatre, visual art to performance, all have the power to teach children empathy. Theatrical storytelling has the ability to touch you emotionally and physically, and gives you permission to interact. The collective experience of viewing theatre in a room full of strangers, is special and very formative. We obviously feel a huge sense of responsibility in creating theatre for children, in that we will either inspire them, or put them off for life!

“Risk is where exciting theatre is made…”

AA: How do you make your productions more accessible?
OL: Although in the past we have offered various workshops with schools, we could definitely do more to make our work more accessible, but it is a challenge with our levels of production. The First Hippo on the Moon for example (adapted from a story by David Walliams), is a tricky one to take into schools because of the level of costume and puppetry, and the sheer cost of moving and setting it all up again. Local theatres, however, could definitely do more to bring the art of theatre to schools, focusing on the importance of the shared theatrical experience as the most obvious route. They could also maximise opportunities for touring or visiting theatre groups to reach out to the local community during their visit. It can feel like a risky undertaking, but risk is where exciting theatre is made. We need to believe in the educational value of bringing together schools, actors, parents and theatre groups.

AA: So what can we expect from Les Petits in the coming months?
OL: As well as The First Hippo on the Moon continuing its tour, Adventures in Wonderland will be returning to The Vaults. There are also plans for Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: The Magic Cutlass to return, but for us, projects have to be led by the story, and the best way to re-tell that story. We don’t set out to make immersive theatre, it all comes down to what excites us and what excites the audience. Immersive theatre for kids is such a new and different thing, it gives them the freedom to reach out and interact with the story, that perhaps traditional theatre doesn’t always allow.

One other project we are currently exploring, is where we can take Les Enfants’ The Fantastical Flying Exploratory Laboratory – a large-scale outdoor show originally staged at Latitude last year. The follow-up to the slightly more grown up The Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie, it follows Dr Latitude’s global quest of discovery, set entirely in a hot air balloon. It’s absolutely bonkers.

We are so excited about bringing back Alice, which for us is a great example of what can be achieved in kids theatre, and unlike anything else. There’ll be some exciting new adventures in a caterpillar den and even more interaction with the mushroom, all achieved by colourful projection. The journey this time will feel much more joined up to visitors.

“Programmers really need to take more risks, investigate what is out there and take a punt, outside of just presenting the biggest shows for kids”

AA: Who are your theatre heroes and what advice would you give to theatre producers and arts programmers?
OL: For aesthetic we really admire the work of Improbable Theatre, especially Shockheaded Peter, which really blurs the lines between children and adult productions. Their work is influential and impactful, a pure storytelling spectacle. We can definitely trace the roots of Les Petits to that show. Complicite are also brilliant, in fact so much of our work can be drawn from European expressionism.

Programmers really need to take more risks, investigate what is out there and take a punt, outside of just presenting the biggest shows for kids (unless its us of course!). There also has to be a greater push towards kids theatre in general, with local theatres building a stronger sense of community within their site. They need to work hard to gain the trust of visitors in order to get them to explore what’s new, and get the conversation going.

Adventures in Wonderland returns to The Vaults from 13th May 2017
Launcelot Street, SE1 7AD
Admission Adults £26.50, Children £15.50
Running time 90 minutes, Age guidance 5-10 years
See website for more information and performance times

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Top picks for families visiting David Hockney

Yesterday morning I was at Tate Britain, lucky enough to preview the most extensive retrospective of the work of acclaimed British artist David Hockney. Spanning some 60 years of work, this exhibition is an undertaking for even the most hardy of visitors, so how on earth do you take on the task of navigating 12 rooms and over 200 works, if you’re visiting with the kids in tow?

Hockney’s work is brilliantly bold, colourful and popular, which also makes it quite accessible, but underlying this, it contains so many narratives and themes that children (and parents) can easily connect with. How to put your own stamp on things, how to get a reaction, but also how to replicate your own experience of being alive in the world when you’re moving at a hundred miles an hour!

Sadly, and a little short-sighted, Tate don’t appear to have much in the way of family related activities around the exhibition. West London Saturday school and after school group Imagine Art Club are running an Hockney for Kids event in May, which has seen an unprecedented response, but outside of this its pretty much a self-guided experience.

To help you get the most of this colossal exhibition, here’s my top tips for visiting on borrowed time:

Room 1 – Play within a Play
Illustrating Hockney’s playful take on reality versus illusion, this room will kick-start your interaction with the work. Is that a real person squashed behind the glass in Play Within a Play? And is that a circle on a blue background? Or a Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool? Is Blue Stools a photo or a painting? A great room for guessing games.

Room 4 – Sunbather
The perfect room to plot down with a sketchbook and replicate the stark colours and geometric shapes of Hockney’s 1960s and 70s LA. Here you’ll find sunlight, blue skies, palm trees and space, but look closer at A Bigger Splash, and you’ll find Hockney’s playful presence (painstakingly painted splash-droplets) amongst the flat and the brash.

Room 5 – Towards Naturalism
Home to the acclaimed double portraits, here things become more striking and spectacular, as Hockney began to paint more realistic, life-size representations of close family and friends. Go forth and find your favourite pairing. Although the static nature of this style eventually troubled Hockney (whose desire was to appear more dynamic), children will appreciate the humble imperfections present in much of this work.

Room 10 The Wolds
These large-scale puzzle-like Yorkshire landscapes produced for the Royal Academy show in 2012, continue to shake off ‘naturalism’, borrowing ideas from Van Gogh, with a three-point perspective offering a different window onto the same world. I had to look twice before I determined the real source of the life-like shadows on May Blossom on the Roman Road, and there isn’t a single young visitor that won’t want to get lost in Woldgate Woods.

Room 11 Four Seasons
If you’ve been racing through up to this point, you’ll welcome this unavoidable chance to stop and stare. Here, four, nine screen digital walls celebrate the seasons by repeatedly filming the same journey, in order to capture the experience as an on-the-ground observer. Enjoy the child-like excitement of crispy autumn leaves, the magic of falling snow flakes, and the emergence of spring sunshine.

Room 13 iPads
As parents, the subject of screen time forms endless debate, yet here, we see a master of art embracing technology to experiment with new styles and demonstrate the complexity of their thinking. There are some 78 iPad and iPhone ‘doodles’ in this room, and watching work ‘build’ provides awe-inspiring insight into how Hockney’s subtle touch turns a simple work of art, into a world-beating masterpiece.

Whilst studying at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960’s, Hockney lost direction, intimidated about what might lie ahead. It was at this point that his friend and art contemporary R B Kitaj asked him a poignant question – Why don’t you only focus on the things that you love? This sound advice led onto a lifetime of painting, drawing and photography, presented with unique character and a strong sense of wit. If you’re visiting this spectacular show with children, you would do well to heed the same advice. It’s impossible to do it all, so focus on what you love and all the rest will fall into place, and that’s your best bet for navigating this landmark exhibition.

David Hockney is at Tate Britain from 9th February until 29th May 2017
Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG
Open daily 10am-6pm
Admission £19.50 Adults, Children £17.50, Under 12s free (up to four per family)

Affordable Arts Activities for Half Term in London

Half term is fast approaching, and if you’ve been unorganised, don’t panic and throw away a fortune on last minute fun. Whether you’re visiting London, or lucky enough to live here, look to the arts and you’ll always find plenty going on. Here I gift you, Arts Aloud’s definitive list of inspirational activities, without the city price-tag.

Affordable Art

London is currently awash with fabulously free, family friendly art, much of which we have road-tested and given a big thumbs up! On the South Bank, it’s easy to while away a whole morning in the ever-reliable Tate Modern. Soak up the immersive acoustics and flying objects of Philippe Parreno’s Anywhen in the Turbine Hall (Reopens 10th Feb, Sun-Thur 10am-6pm, Sat & Sun 10am-10pm, Free) or interact with the best of new art in The Tanks. Plus don’t miss their BP Family Festival (11th & 12th Feb, Free) offering even more in the way of play, performance, sound and dance. Meanwhile, north Londoners should be privileged that the magnificent Passage/s installation by Do Ho Suh is currently on their doorstep at Victoria Miro, and visitors to artsdepot won’t even need to ward-off little fingers, as artist Yuen-Ying Lam invites interaction with all works in her latest exhibition To Hold and Be Held (12th to 18th Feb, Daily, see website for opening hours). If you made it to our recommendation at the Barbican a few weeks back, you’ll love the current 7-part performance art installation by Sonia Boyce: We move in her way at the ICA (Tues-Sun 11am-6pm, £1 Day Membership). Staying central, it’s your final chance to don some 3D glasses and get lost in the mesmerising digital art of Lucy Raven at Serpentine Gallery (until 12th Feb, Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Free).

Thrifty Theatre

When is opera ever free? Hardly ever. So make haste and kick-off half term in the East End, with Ulla’s Odyssey at Rich Mix, a nautical adventure which follows fourteen year old Ulla in her attempt to sail the world single-handed (12th Feb, 2pm, Free but ticketed, age 7+). The performance is preceded by an interactive workshop, giving kids a chance to sing and speak out (12.30pm, Free but ticketed). Half term also brings about a rare chance for families to enjoy a ‘taster’ of brand new children’s theatre in Theatre in the Pound at The Cockpit Theatre (14th & 15th Feb, 12-3pm, £1). Performances contain three, 15 minute shows and range from puppetry and opera, to Shakespeare, with a chance to have your say at the end. Alternatively, if you’re looking for theatre in a slightly more historical setting, grab the opportunity to introduce kids to the magical Wilton’s Music Hall. For a short run only, the equally magical (yet slightly more stupendous) Morgan & West’s Utterly Spectacular Magic Show For Kids (and childish grown-ups) promises brain boggling illusion and lots of crazy capers, not forgetting a whole lot of magic! (16th & 17th Feb, 11.45am, tickets from £5, age 5+).

Fabulously Frugal Festivals

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Imagine Children’s Festival? You must have been asleep for the last 3 months, I’ve been writing about it since November. Back at our beloved Southbank Centre, the pinnacle of the children’s arts calendar arrives in the form of a 10 day extravaganza of theatre, dance, literature, spoken word, workshops and installations. Yes, the big-ticket productions are pricey, but more than 50% of the programme is now free, with highlights this year including a free pedal-powered screening of The Little Mermaid with prizes for the best underwater-themed costumes and a free bedtime story in the Clore Ballroom to close each day of the festival. Also on a mission to use the arts to inspire kids, is SMASHfest, a festival dedicated to all things STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). The festival runs the entire week of half term at The Albany Theatre and Deptford Lounge, and features something every day, from comedy and variety shows, to interactive installations, experiments and film, many of which are ‘pay what you can’, or absolutely free.

Penniless Poetry

If the hustle and bustle of the Imagine Children’s Festival gets too much, then the serenity of the Saison Poetry Library is a brilliant place to escape, offering a chance to rest and peruse Britain’s most comprehensive collection of poetry. Prefer the words to come to you? Well there’s currently an interesting reinvention of work by Philip Larkin, some created entirely from Neon by artist DJ Roberts (Tues-Sun 11am-8pm, Free). For those who enjoy crafting their own poetic prose, Sara Hirsch will be hosting two drop-in workshops (15th Feb, 10.30am-12.30pm and 1-3pm, Free) at the Museum of London, inviting your input into a poem about the Great Fire of London, with a performance of the final draft at 4pm the same day.

**DISCLAIMER**Information and availability correct at time of publishing. Arts Aloud can not take any responsibility for scheduling changes or missed performances. Please check in advance of visit to avoid disappointment. Happy half term xx 

Inside Do Ho Suh’s colourful Passage/s

With one gallery in the heart of prestigious Mayfair, and the other nestled in the streets behind a busy City Road, Victoria Miro doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a destination for families. Yet in recent years it’s played to its strengths, drawing in a broader variety of visitors through its un-intimidating size and more accessible work, such has last year’s popular exhibition by purveyor of pumpkins, Yayoi Kusama.

Now, in a new exhibition by local resident and South Korean artist, Do Ho Suh, Victoria Miro continues in the same vein, through a show alive with themes of home, identity and family, presented in a way that is bold, colourful and playful, yet beautiful and intricate.

Passage/s is focussed on replicating the structures and ideas of home that have formed an important part of the artist’s life, from here in the UK, to his native Seoul, as well as other residencies in Berlin, New York and Rhode Island. Throwing light on the often hurried or forgotten places that fill a journey to the point of destination, Do Ho Suh encourages us to savour these important moments or spaces in-between, and enjoy them as a statement of the here and now. This all rang true for me as an incessantly busy, working mum.

Starting in the upper floor of Gallery I, you can get a good introduction to the detail behind Do Ho Suh’s incredible work. Created from stitching translucent, white polyester fabric, the Exit Series, 2016 casts a ghostly appearance of everyday fixtures and fittings, aspects that were joyfully identified by my young companion. Every light bulb, light switch and door knob is reminiscent of his stint in New York, and an homage to his (now departed) landlord of twenty years.  This section also provides a taster of his newer techniques –  using gelatin tissue to compress his structures into two-dimensional ‘drawings’, and onto handmade paper. More of this can be seen in kaleidoscope colour, and on a much greater scale, back down on the ground floor.

Also accompanying the works upstairs, is a large-scale video installation The Pram Project, 2015 which is definitely worth a watch. Don’t hang by the door like an apologetic wall flower! Get yourselves right into the middle of the space and you’ll be treated to the charming outputs of a series of journeys which were filmed by the artist’s GoPro camera, attached to his daughter’s pushchair. My little one absolutely loved the strolling sing-songs and it felt special to listen-in on the intimate chatter of a father and his daughters (in English and Korean), as they stroll through a range of localities.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is most definitely the Hubs, found through the rear garden and up the spectacular staircase to Gallery II. Having produced his original Hub, London Apartment for a smaller show in 2015, this hub is now joined by eight other structures to create an incredible walk-through experience, occupying the 25-metre-long gallery.

You’ll need to ditch any bags and buggies at this point to avoid making contact with the sides of the structure, but having done so you are free to carve your own path, or (as I did) let the little feet lead the way to a favourite hub. From the breeze blocks of Hub-1 Islington’s Union Wharf, to the ornamental shutters of a Seoul apartment, the experience is both magical and memorable. Without having to rush through, we turned around to enjoy it all over again, having realised that Do Ho Suh had cleverly succeeded in making the destination nowhere near as exciting as the journey.

Do Ho Suh Passage/s is at Victoria Miro until 18th March 2017
16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW
Tuesday to Saturday 10.00am to 6.00pm, Monday: By appointment only
Closed Sundays, bank holiday weekends and public holidays
Admission Free

Nearby: You’re only a 10-15 minute walk in either direction from two separate branches of The Breakfast Club. Make the journey and you’ll be rewarded with the best pancakes, and the yummiest peanut butter milkshake that you’ll ever have tasted! (No bookings taken, be prepared to queue at busy times).