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

Arts Aloud Interview: Tamsin Ace on creating the perfect arts programme for children

Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is now one of the biggest hitters in the children’s arts calendar.

Arts Aloud spoke to Tamsin Ace, Head of Festival Programme and a busy working mum herself, to pick her brains on what makes it so special.

AA: How did Imagine Children’s Festival first come about?
TA: Believe it or not, the festival is actually one of the Southbank Centre’s longest running festivals, even pre-dating Artistic Director Jude Kelly’s 10 years on the programme. Historically there was always a strong literature focus for half term breaks, but the idea was to create more of an ‘appointment to visit’ in the calendar.  Creating a ‘festival’ of arts meant that we could make it much bigger and also look for ways to incorporate broader aspects of the children’s arts scene, year-round. 

Did you have a specific audience in mind when you devised the festival? (For example, Early Years, KS1 or KS2) and how do you balance content for the range of visitors that the festival might appeal to?
Imagine Children’s Festival puts children of all ages at the heart of the festival, not just in the events and activities but every aspect, from including them in visitor experience teams to selling merchandise, serving food and generally running the show! That’s something that we are very proud of and love to shout about.

Children have always been a very important part of the community. Morning, noon and night we have always worked to create a space that children can be free in. As you’ve said, some parents perhaps feel that they sometimes ‘colonise’ the space with their young children and buggies, but the festival was keen to take things one step further and make a point of actively encouraging this family participation. We didn’t want to create a festival where children were invisible and it was run by adults.

The Imagine journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms

 

How is the festival funded and how does this impact on the content that is available?
Outside of the Arts Council funding that we receive, the remainder of the festival is funded in a variety of ways including ticketing, retail units on our website, sponsorship opportunities and contributions of other trusts. Every festival has a subsidy of some description but by funding it in this way it fulfils our ability to create a programme which has a careful balance of commercial and populist content, as well as aspects which are free or alternative. 

Typically, well-known aspects to the programme, such as the reimagining of well-loved children’s books, are easy crowd winners and certainly draw the audience, but once they are in we hope that the journey is very much one of discovery, where visiting families are open to discovering other art forms which they weren’t aware of previously.

Does the festival have any official learning objectives at play? Or is inspire and entertain the main aim?
Although it’s not our official call-out, I’d probably say the main aim is to ensure that what’s on offer both reflects children and challenges them. We spend a lot of time curating content for the programme and researching the very best in the children’s arts scene, but equally there are an array of artists who we might already be aware of that aren’t making stuff for a family audience, and perhaps could. 

Artists such as Eilidh MacAskill and her Gendersaurus Rex project is a really good example. Her work asks some serious questions about gender, feminism and sexuality. It would be brilliant to find a way to get children thinking about some of these issues in an appropriate way. 

In terms of learning, we feel that the majority of this comes from the quality, creativity and diversity of the work on offer. Bringing this to a new audience is the single biggest learning opportunity. 

In your view, what do you believe to have been the most successful or memorable aspect of the festival?
I’ve been at Southbank Centre for 8 years, taking over the Imagine programme 5 years ago, and I have seen so much growth in that time. 

Literature has really moved on and remains at the heart of the programme. We’ve built on our publisher relationships beyond the culture of ‘new releases’ and ‘junkits’ and now have a very carefully curated programme of author talks, signings and workshops. 

The expansion of the free programme has also been fantastic, with aspects running all day, from 10.30am to 4pm. Plus we’ve also transformed the dining space in the Royal Festival Hall to provide an abundance of seating in order for families to enjoy their own packed lunch on-site. 

The introduction of our ‘mini festival makers’ has also been a proud moment. Children have always been part of the journey but from the minute that we became a ‘festival’, children have had an increased input, even getting involved in the design of its identity. We had school groups of children 7 to 10 years old from Lambeth visiting weekly in the first year and it was their input that helped create a fresher more relevant appearance (the brightly coloured robot and alien images now synonymous with the festival). This kind of collaboration has since evolved into one-day takeovers. 

We’d like to make superstars out of more authors…
that would be a very good message to send our children

What’s your vision for the future?
We see no reason why the festival can’t continue to get bigger and better every year. Space is an obvious constraint and challenges exist around how we can meet our full capacity yet avoid the feeling of overcrowding for visitors. 

We also want to welcome even more of the local community to the Royal Festival Hall and see them enjoying the festival as well as spending a greater amount of time in the space and around the site.

From an artistic perspective we’d love to see more international work and perhaps even commission some more of our own work. This year David Walliams was obviously hugely popular but we’d also like to make superstars of even more authors, newer or perhaps lesser-known authors. We feel that would be a very good message to send our children.

Imagine Children’s Festival runs for 2 weeks in February and includes a programme of children’s music, theatre, literature and free events. 

Check back for updates on the programme for 2017 (Usually released around November).