Can the RHS engage children with relevant environmental issues through immersive, promenade theatre?
Tom Drayton | University of East London
Paper written as part of ASSITEJ’s On The Edge Festival 2016
The sky is a dark grey. Having rained the entire morning the ground is sodden and the crowd wear wellies and clutch umbrellas with trepidation. Some children carry strange-looking gadgets; holding them in the air as they scope out the area. A figure can be seen in the distance at the lake. As we trudge down the hill we can start to see it better – he is dressed in a grey overcoat and hat, and as we get closer we can start to hear a faint wailing. He is crying, his tears falling into the lake itself. A few children hesitate to go forward. A ghost? He turns to us, slowly, and starts to tell us his story.
This was part of my company, Pregnant Fish Theatre’s, first commissioned piece for the Royal Horticultural Society in 2012. We had been asked to create an immersive performance that reinvigorated the local folklore of the surrounding county of Devon for 21st century children. This led to a supportive, creative relationship with RHS Rosemoor that has included a series of immersive, ambulatory, outdoor performances over the last four years. With this paper, I intend to briefly examine these performances, the practical methodology used to create such pieces, and whether the RHS feel that such pieces are successful in their attempts to engage children with relevant thematics.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was formed in 1804 and currently looks after 4 large garden sites throughout the UK. Their website states that their ‘core objective is to be the world’s leading gardening charity by inspiring passion and excellence in the science, art and practice of horticulture’ (RHS; 2016). This includes their four guiding principles to ‘inspire, involve, inform and improve.’ (RHS; 2016). In the last few years the RHS has been increasingly developing their scope of child and family friendly events and opportunities. Incidentally, I grew up relatively near to RHS Rosemoor and vividly remember dreadfully dull Sundays spent walking around the almost harshly neat and tidy gardens – aching for somewhere to play, or for some form of entertainment. Rosemoor now, however, has whole areas of the gardens built for children, including play areas and education centres, and all four RHS gardens offer Family discounts and hold events created specifically for children. However, as Diana Guilding, Events Manager of RHS Rosemoor, explained to me, the RHS does not have an ‘overarching mission statement’ regarding children’s events, rather ‘it is left up to the individual Event Managers and their Heads of Site to choose and book what events, including theatre, they think best suits their needs and fits in with cross-garden themes.’ It is these cross-garden themes that concern my research. How can commissioned pieces of theatre address these themes and engage children with them? Diana Guilding states that ‘for Rosemoor, original content is important as it is often difficult to book ‘off the shelf’ shows’ that address these select themes which range from horticulture, to space exploration, to folklore. And that’s where we came in.
I want to briefly address the local folklore of Devon, because that’s why Pregnant Fish and the RHS originally came together. Collected in old volumes, mostly written in the 70’s and 80’s and reprinted purely to fill up those spinning, wire racks in the gift shops of tourist attractions, the folklore is an incredibly rich tapestry of narratives. From stories about weeping ghosts, hairy hands and deadly beasts – to tales of the Grecian army fleeing from Troy and landing in Totnes before going on to populate the whole of the British Isles. However, in this form these are completely inaccessible for the majority of children in Devon – collected exclusively in these tourist centric books. When asked by RHS Rosemoor to create a Halloween piece for families based on the local folk stories, our main challenge was adapting them in an accessible way. The stories themselves needed no updating – the tales of ghosts and piskies and giants spoke for themselves, but the method of engagement was something we needed to think specifically about.
When it came to devising the first of our projects, we were adamant that the garden should be used to its full extent. It made no sense to bring stories of local ghosts and ghouls to children and not utilise the local environment they were derived from. We devised a system with the RHS which would entail a promenade piece of theatre, where the audience were led from place to place within the gardens – each scene based within a separate space, and building upon the differing environments there. This allowed for a broader scope in terms of what we could do within each scene – actors can be hidden in bushes, up trees; we can meet new characters along the way or lose characters as we move on. We created piskie puppets that were controlled from behind hedges and bushes that the children met between scenes, whispering musical clues about where to go next; we turned a wooden hut into a witches cottage – filling it with pumpkins and daring the children to go in and meet the witch; we hung clothes from trees for a particularly strange local story about a man who’s clothes got stolen by a ghost. The garden became the set – each particular part of the garden adapted to perfectly suit the material, and the material in turn becoming built around these sections of the environment. As Diana Guilding explains; ‘the garden is such a beautiful place, with many different garden ‘rooms’ and atmospheric areas that lend themselves particularly well to ambulatory performances.’ I would class these shows as both site-specific and site-responsive, both being made for, and in response to, the surroundings.
It’s all very well and good to intend to take an audience from scene to scene around the garden, however this needs to have a clear intention in order for the production not to stall, and to differentiate itself from what I would term ‘part-promenade’ theatre such as some ‘Shakespeare in the park’ that requires the audience to simply turn or move to see the next scene. To combat this, the children (of the audience) have to become protagonists in the tale. Let me distil this a little; in order for the promenade aspect of the piece not to seem like a gimmick to the children, there needs to be a believable and definite reason for the characters and audience to move from place to place. This generates the need for a definable journey, and the traditional journey of beginning, middle and end of the show’s narrative becomes a geographical one. We begin the journey here, and have to end the journey somewhere else. ‘Have to’ is the operable phrase – the need to move has to be crucial to the narrative itself. Frodo has to destroy the ring, Rae has to find Luke Skywalker, Harry has to collect the Horcruxes – and likewise we have to initiate a Quest with the audience. They have to go on an important journey, and it is important that it is them – otherwise there is no need for them to walk around the gardens, they might as well sit down and relax on the grass.
This has manifested in differing respects within our shows. A repeated character within our RHS productions is Professor Gooblidook; a bumbling professor character that shows both a childish wonder and a belief that he is more intelligent than he actually is. When this character leads a performance the children excitedly become his counterparts; we have advertised throughout the gardens for Ghost-Hunters-in-training, Scientists, and most recently, wannabe-Astronauts. Gooblidook presents himself as a figure of authority, he is, after all, there to lead the respective quest (to hunt the ghosts, to find the cure to the sick plants, etc). However his childish attributes and comedic style also make him very relatable with the children too – and the addition of costumes (such as scientist goggles) and props (including ghost-hunting gadgets) shared around the children, help to include them within the narrative, and promote the idea of them being the protagonists within the piece alongside Gooblidook.
This concept of the ‘quest’ being the main driving force of these promenade pieces of theatre leads me to discuss another piece that I was engaged with in 2014. ‘Entertainingly Different’, led by Rob Pudner, are a company based in Devon that we have been lucky to collaborate with in the past, and in 2014 I helped devise and perform a production that toured all four RHS gardens during the summer. Titled simply, ‘The Quest’, the piece formulated itself around a fantasy journey, utilising the gardens to their full extent as natural woodland and grass areas in a fantasy realm. The quest itself was to save the gardens from an evil force that wanted to cut down and destroy the plants and trees – the main message of the piece that the RHS wanted to promote being that of ecology and preservation. Other concepts for the ‘quest’ within performances have included having to find a plant-based cure for a very special sick plant within the gardens (which, in fact, was a hand puppet carried around the gardens by Gooblidook and the child ‘scientists’), and capturing the local ghosts that had been scaring the visitors over Halloween. Whether the RHS aim for the children to engage with and learn about folklore, horticulture or environmental sustainability, the formula of a physical quest involves both a conundrum that has to be solved, and a final resolution at the end – this engages the children in the thematic directly, and it is the practical, interactive elements of the pieces that really aid this.
It is not enough to immerse an audience of children within the world and perform at them. With the children becoming the protagonists within the piece there comes a need for a further interactivity to the performance style – a protagonist cannot complete their quest without doing anything, without completing challenges and overcoming obstacles. In order to include this crucial aspect of a quest, many different forms of interactive games and challenges have been devised within these performances. This has ranged from riddles that the children must decipher, to multiplayer games, to interactive science experiments. I would like to describe two particularly successful examples. The first was an interactive game that we devised for Entertainingly Different’s ‘The Quest’ in 2014. The group of adventurers (the audience) were unaware of where they needed to go next, and had been told that they must find a clue. They came across a circle of sticks in the grass and, upon further inspection, found that each stick was adorned with either a small picture or name of a plant. A piece of twine was attached to the first stick, the aim of the exercise being to trail this twine so it matched all the pictures of plants to their respective name around the circle – creating a spiderweb in the process. This was particularly effective in that it immediately got the children working together in a team, utilising their previous horticultural knowledge, and independently asking each other and the adults in the group for aid when their own knowledge wasn’t enough. The audience’s celebrations that came at the end of these games was a particular joy to experience. Other examples come from Pregnant Fish’s 2014 piece at Rosemoor that was commissioned by the RHS to engage children with science and it’s relationship with horticulture. Throughout the garden we had set up various interactive experiments that formed the basis of certain scenes within the production. These were based on simple, child friendly experiments, from two chemicals changing colour when mixed together, to the mess of bicarbonate of soda and vinegar exploding out of a funnel that will be familiar to anyone who ever had to make a model volcano for their science homework. Children, in their scientist goggles provided by Gooblidook at the beginning of the quest, were able to handle test tubes, pour mixtures, and aid the scientists like real assistants. The fact that the children had an actual, malleable connection to these scientific ‘tricks’ enhanced the agency they had within the quest itself. When science experiments failed to create a medicine for the sick plant it wasn’t just a part of a narrative, but the children themselves had failed, and were all the more driven to go on and find the actual cure with more scientific experiments.
Another method I have found particularly successful in keeping a young audience engaged throughout the journey is one of the most simple – a sing-a-long. I am very adamant that the most important tool I bring to a children’s performance is my ukulele. It can be carried easily or strung around your back, it’s very easy to play, and can be used to accompany simple group songs, or provide musical atmosphere for certain moments. A ukulele is undoubtably a source of fun, and for our journey based performances we have written a variety of ‘travelling’ songs that get repeated during the walk between environments, with easy to learn melodies and choruses that get the whole group singing along as we travel. These can be used to both repeat and introduce main plot points, or facts that the children have learnt throughout the piece, and contribute to a feeling of group socialisation whilst on a journey together.
In this brief paper I have discussed some of the methods we have employed when creating specially commissioned, interactive, promenade theatre for the RHS. An analysis of the level of success of the children’s engagement, for the most part, has, in the past, come from my practical experience in both performing and producing such shows. However, in order to garner more information on this special relationship with the RHS, I spoke in detail with Diana Guilding, who, as I mentioned before, is Events Manager for RHS Rosemoor. She stated that ‘having original, specially commissioned shows helps us stand out from the crowd, as we are in an area liberally supplied with visitor attractions all vying for the family market where competition for the tourist pound is fierce.’ She also went on to discuss her experience in commissioning special promenade performances that engage with their cross-garden themes, stating that ‘they have proved very successful here at Rosemoor and have added an extra dimension to our offering for families. It is particularly gratifying to include references to nature, horticulture and looking after our planet which are particularly relevant to the RHS and its ethos.’
There is something very special about the opportunity to create and perform theatre in such a beautiful environment as the RHS gardens. The addition of it being for children, to engage them with such relevant environmental and current issues, only heightens the experience. When the narrative journey can also be a geographical one, within a real, malleable environment, and when the audience of children can become equal protagonists to the performers, I feel that we are experiencing a true form of immersion within a performance, and true engagement with the RHS’ ethos to ‘inspire, involve, inform and improve.’
At the time of writing, Pregnant Fish are currently in the R&D period of developing a new piece for RHS Rosemoor that will run in early August. This time we are attempting to engage children with the concept of horticulture in space, and benefit from the excellent work Tim Peake has been conducting with schools all over the country investigating whether taking rocket seeds out of our atmosphere will tamper their growth in any way. Professor Gooblidook is back with a perilous quest that may have dire consequences for the gardens unless his volunteers can help, and I for one can’t wait to get back to the wilderness.
Guilding, D (2016) Interview with Diana Guilding, Events Manager, RHS Rosemoor.
RHS (2016) Vision, mission and values. [Online] available from: https://www.rhs.org.uk/about-the-rhs/what-we-do/vision-mission-and-values (Accessed Wednesday 31st August 2016)