Art Talk with Children's Theater Artist Andy Manley
August 18, 2014
"As adults, we tend to go to the theater. As children, we are just as likely to encounter it. It's a small distinction but one which I like."-- Andy Manley
Ask any theater person, and they'll tell you that kids make the toughest audiences. Like their compatriots who write kid's literature, they understand that--despite what we'd like to think--kids are whip-smart. They don't want to be talked down to, and they don't want to be bored, which can be a tall order especially when dealing with the littlest ones. For Scotsman Andy Manley, it's just all part of the job. Trained as an actor, since 2006 Manley has worked with a number of collaborators to devise shows--that is create shows that don't start with a written script--for young audiences. His shows, which regularly tour at home and abroad, run the gamut from Potato Needs a Bath, a musical for two- to four-year-olds, to Mikey and Addie, a show about changes in family life for the 12 to 14 year-old-set. Most recently, Manley performed at the famed Edinburg Fringe Festival, with a multi-room theater installation piece that retells the story "The Three Little Pigs." We spoke with him by e-mail about how he creates his shows, what it's like to make theater for children, and what parents should know before taking their kids to a show.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with or awareness of the arts?
ANDY MANLEY: I don't come from a particularly artsy family—in fact none of my family are involved in the arts. I have a vague recollection of a play coming to my primary school. I don't remember anything about it other than it was quite an exciting occasion, both for the pupils and for the staff.
NEA: How did you become a professional theater artist?
MANLEY: When I left drama school I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I knew I was in the right field but not sure exactly what I should be. I thought I wanted to go and study dance. I almost did—twice! Sometimes I wonder how would my career have been if I had. I think I have always had an interest in visual storytelling and when I got the chance to make a show for children it was a real opportunity to explore that. I worked as an actor for a number of years, and though I enjoyed it and learned a lot, I always felt it would be interesting to explore my own ideas. I started to make my own work in 2006 and have just carried on.
NEA: What was the aha! moment that led you to start making work for children? What was the need?
MANLEY: I like the way you talk about a need. In the early nineties in Scotland there was a clear opportunity for a company to start making quality work for children. There had always been Christmas shows and some quality theater in education but less in the way of children's theater. Tony Reekie, who now runs the Imaginate Children's Festival in Edinburgh saw that opportunity. A group of us who were interested in more visual/physical theater, and had recently graduated from drama school, decided to start a company making children's theater. We founded Visible Fictions, which is still going today, and our first show was Bill's New Frock, an adaptation of an Anne Fine novel. The show was very successful and toured the U.S. on three successive tours. I suppose that is when I understood the enormous creative possibilities of making work for children.
NEA: Tell us about your devising process. How does a piece spark? How do you develop it?
MANLEY: It makes me laugh when people talk about my devising process, as I don't feel I have one. I suppose I must have, on some level, but I don't know what it is.
A show usually starts from a point of fascination that I have. It could be anything—an image, a song, a rule of living, etc.—and then I sit with it for a while and write down lots of thoughts that come to me. Then the most important part happens—people help me make it. That for me is the key to my work, the collaborators who i work with. And that is right through from the producer to the person who designs the flyer. I have been lucky to work with some very gifted people who can realise that initial idea.
NEA: Tell us about one of your recent projects or what you're working on now.
MANLEY: At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I have HUFF on, a show that I created with Shona Reppe. Shona and I have worked together on quite a few different projects. HUFF is quite a different type of show in that it is an installation of 12 rooms that loosely tell the story of "The Three Little Pigs." It has been really interesting to work on. From the initial thought of creating an installation, to trying to decide what parts of the narrative you are going to explore, and ultimately how you will show that. It's been challenging, but the response has been great and it has been fascinating working with a new form.
NEA: Where do you think people go wrong in trying to create theater for children?
MANLEY: I don't think we should try and teach in theater. It makes for very boring, simplistic work. Also I am not sure I have something to tell another human, certainly not how to live their life. I prefer to ask questions in my work and leave it more open. I think children like that. They respond to that honesty and responsibility.
NEA: What advice do you have for parents/caregivers about preparing kids for theater, especially really young ones?
MANLEY: Get there early. I know it is difficult in a busy world to get to places on time especially when you have small children, but often a child is rushed into a darkened space and they don't understand. As adults we see the lights in a theater, but for many tiny children they see a black room which can be quite daunting. Where else do you find a black room? it's easy to forget that. Also some small children have an idea that if an environment changes this is their life from now on. It sounds strange but it is a known fact and the idea that they are now living forever in a dark room with odd performing adults can be too much for some children.
NEA: Who are some others making theater for children that we should know about?
MANLEY: There are lots of great theater makers in Scotland, but if i am looking [outside of] Scotland for inspiration I would be inclined to look to Belgium or Denmark as they have a great number of amazing artists. Kopergietery in Ghent have produced or co-produced some of the most exciting work in recent years and Denmark has such a history of creating great work companies like Gruppe 38, Teater Refleksion, and Carte Blanche all create amazing work.
NEA: What has surprised you the most about making theater for children?
MANLEY: I think I am always surprised by the variety of the work. I love that. The fact that you can constantly change the age group and the form of the piece means that it can keep surprising you. In creating shows for children I feel I have more places to interact with my audience. As adults, we tend to go to the theater. As children, we are just as likely to encounter it. It's a small distinction but one which I like.
NEA: Where do you see the opportunity gaps in theater for children?
MANLEY: It depends where you are in the world. I think there is always a gap with regards to quality wherever you are. In Scotland at the moment we have had success in making small-scale work but we have produced less larger scale work outside of the usual Christmas slots. I hope this is something that will change and certainly for my own practice this is something that I am looking at.
NEA: Fill in the blank: Theater matters because…
MANLEY: ...it helps us to understand the world in which we live. It reminds us we are not alone.