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

Now touring: The Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie

Who says New Year’s Resolutions are made to be broken? The brilliant Les Enfants Terribles have given me the perfect excuse to resurrect two of mine; (1) to uncover even more immersive theatre for families this year and (2) to throw a light on what is going on outside London.

Following their incredible production of Adventures in Wonderland at The Vaults in Waterloo last August, this mad-cap theatre company return for the fourth year running to tour one of their family favourites.

Having originated at Edinburgh Fringe, this hour-long travelling circus will be everywhere from Lichfield to Leeds, Southport to Sheffield, promising a caravan of curiosities, puppetry and poetry. Lured-in by elaborate costumes and spectacular songs, you’ll soon be meeting a mysterious bumblewasp and licking a trisillian toad. Yes you will.

With a stream of amazing reviews behind it, this tongue-in-cheek performance provides a rare chance for kids to be adults, and adults to be kids. A winning combination.

The Marvellous Imaginary Menagerie is on tour around the UK until 10th April 2016.
Check website for tour dates and venues. Admission prices vary.
Suitable for children age 4+.

Adventures In Wonderland will leave you grinning from ear to ear

It’s been 150 years since the creation of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, so with Kidsweek tickets abound, I decided to make Adventures in Wonderland my big-ticket theatre jaunt over this year’s summer break.

The promise by children’s theatre group Les Petits, was an interactive family adventure for kids aged 5-10. An opportunity to get Off West End and be part of the production, wandering through a life-size Wonderland that has been created in the atmospheric arts space, The Vaults, located beneath Waterloo station.

Much has been written about Alice’s Adventures Underground, the grown up, more macabre version of the story, created by experiential theatre group Les Enfants Terribles. Yet it was almost impossible to find a dedicated review of the this daytime production by their children’s division, also dedicated to inspiring audiences through imaginative productions and incredible storytelling.

The kids were hooked from the offset. We were led into a dark and dusty replica of Lewis Carroll’s library to hear desperate pleas from poor old Alice, stuck behind the mirrors, and lost in Wonderland. It was our job to find her and get her out. We were ready!

Transported down the rabbit hole, we found ourselves in the famous chequered hallway of doors, with the White Rabbit inviting my companion to drink a shrinking potion in order to lead our group through one of the two doors. Split into two opposing teams, it was now a race against time to find Alice. Along with the reds we followed our card guard from room to room, through dimly lit corridors . In every room we met an important character from the story, each providing clues or posing new questions for Alice’s whereabouts. The pace was fast. From the prose of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee to the riddles of the grinning Cheshire Cat. From the nonsensical ramblings of Humpty Dumpty to a real-life Mad Hatters Tea Party complete with a Mister-Maker-inspired Mad Hatter and real tarts!

The dads of the group were definitely more intimidated by the seething Queen of Hearts than some of the kids. Her tarts stolen, unable to find her garden and stuck in a room full of doors, she wasn’t a happy Queen. Looking around, I could see why. Within minutes of the door closing it became very apparent why were asked to stay close to our little ones at all times. Aside from this specific room which was framed by confusing doors, the sheer scale of the set, and genius maze of corridors would have made a horrifying experience for anybody of any age being left behind by their group.

Adventures in Wonderland has all the spirit and madness of the original book, which at times can make it intimidating and intense as well as exciting, especially for visitors on the younger end of the spectrum. This certainly explains why the organisers are completely unwavering in their instruction not to bring along babes in arms and limit the accompaniment of younger siblings to specific days and times.

What was most impressive about this production, however, is the sheer strength of delivery. Aside from the lavish and scalable set; the seamless direction, punchy dialogue and impressive costumes were first-rate throughout, so much so that I actually forgot that I was even at a children’s production. There was, in my opinion a bit of a missed opportunity with regards to the ending. It’s a shame that the organisers didn’t capitalise on the cosy seated area of the venue to reenact the courtroom scene with us as the judging jury, but I had to remind myself that this was their retelling of the classic, and in their story our mission was to find Alice, not to get to the end of the book.

If you want to avoid any other disappointment don’t (like me) leave all of your belongings (including your money) in the cloakroom. This will render you penniless to buy one of the delicious cakes and tarts on offer at the end and, however impressive the theatre, make you an incredibly unpopular mummy for the rest of the day.

Adventures in Wonderland for us delivered everything that immersive theatre should be. Free from the restrictions of a seated production and at liberty to ham it up with the characters of each room, adults were as excited as children at seeing the story unfold through their eyes. Conversely, for just an hour, our kids were lucky enough to be treated to theatre in its most grown up form. Challenged to give themselves up to the mercy of the story and be whisked along with the production wherever it took them. They understood the urgency of the task, they played along and were ecstatic to finally be rewarded with finding and meeting their hero.

I usually find that you can tell a lot about how much kids have got from their theatrical experience, by what they tell others of their own accord. When I got home I had a message from my companion to the show, who had overheard her daughter recounting our afternoon to her dad. She absolutely hit the nail on the head in communicating her levels of excitement. “Daddy, we didn’t just see Alice in Wonderland, we were actually in Wonderland”. I couldn’t have agreed more. For an hour at least, it felt like we absolutely were.

Adventures in Wonderland is at The Vaults, Launcelot Street Waterloo London, SE1 7AD until 30th August.

Admission: Adults £18.50, Children £12.50 (or Children £Free with Kidsweek tickets, subject to availability). 1 adult ticket to accompany no more than 2 children.

See venue website for show times and other terms and conditions around tickets.