Denmark is often referred to as the spiritual home of children’s theatre. In a country of 5 million people, there are 150 theatre companies making work for children and young audiences. Denmark also hosts the largest touring children’s theatre festival in the world where more than 100 theatre companies present more than 600 shows in a one week. Admission to each show is free and subsidised by the town or city council. Also in Denmark, every time a school brings in a theatre company to perform, they get 50% of the cost refunded by the state at the end of each academic year. Annually in Denmark there are about 500 premieres in children’s theatre.
Hailed as the Queen of children’s theatre, Bodil Alling is Artistic Director of Gruppe 38, a company over 40 years old and based in Arhus, Denmark. On the side of their touring van is emblazoned ‘Probably the best audience in the world.’ It is typical of Bodil and Gruppe 38 to reflect the spotlight back onto their audience. Bodil is one of that rare breed who truly enjoys playing for her audience. She can look them in the eye… and wait for them to look back. Her stories are not afraid of going down darker avenues (responsibly), are never didactic and her way of delivery is not patronising – a good start in theatre for young audiences.
“It is vital to have the space to really watch and see and understand the audience. They watch me and I watch them: Who is there? Where are we now?”
Bodil is conscious of a growing tendency in the world of theatre for young audiences to offer theatre almost as a supplement to the educational curriculum. She says that linking children’s theatre in with education happened in the 80’s and there seems to be a shift towards this again. Bodil is not an advocate.
“I will not teach anything. Am I a teacher or a story teller? I don’t know any truth in this world. I have more experiences but I am not more clever than the audience. You are free to leave the theatre being as stupid as you were when you entered. I never teach anything. I just want to make a common feeling of something that is wonderful.”
Gruppe 38 set out to make work for everyone and have the skills and sensibility to do just that. Are there places she won’t go? Subjects that she would deem inappropriate for children? Bodil says that sometimes in her work she goes down some very dark roads but as it is children’s theatre… “you just have to have strong arms to catch your audience. I would never do a story where there is no hope. I would not have an end of a story saying ‘there is no way out of here’. Maybe I wouldn’t care so much about that if it were for adults.”