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