Theatre Critic and Journalist

Wasted on the young: Purni Morell

Wasted on the young: Purni Morell

Published in the Stage, 10.04.2013

Under Purni Morell, the Unicorn is fast becoming a must-see-everything venue. There isn’t a new writing theatre in the country wouldn’t envy the artists coming through it’s doors. Under Morell, there have been new plays by David Grieg, John Donnelly and EV Crowe. Chuck in Chris Goode, Tim Crouch and Shunt founder member Hannah Ringham and, in the new season, a new Complicite show and two by Belgian radicals Ontroerend Goed and it’s tempting to declare it wasted on the young.

Time was, of course, that theatre for young people was a completely separate entity. Beyond a handful of devoted specialist organisations, such as Oily Cart and the Little Angel Theatre – both of which Morell has programmed this year – it was largely the terrain of education and outreach departments. There were pantos and family-friendly shows too, but they remained compartmentalised. Even the Unicorn, which moved into its current premises in Southwark in 2005 under Morell’s predecessor Tony Graham, had its distinctive stock of regular artists. Hardly any of them were known to adult audiences.

Morell won’t have any of that. She’s out to shatter the notion that kids’ theatre is inevitably second-tier, an artistic Siberia populated by those who couldn’t cut it with the big boys. “In Britain, it’s always been a bit of a struggle to get people who want to be theatre makers to consider theatre for children as theatre for a specific audience,” she says, “It isn’t a rehearsal room for making theatre for grown-ups and it needn’t have anything to do with education.”

After five years as Head of the National Theatre Studio, Morell is well placed to shift that attitude. With around 800 artists of wide-ranging disciplines and nationalities developing new work at the Studio every year, her address book is fuller than most. Before then she worked with several prominent companies overseas: Flemish Opera, Berkeley Rep, Muziektheater Transparant amongst them.

However, it was her first stint at the National in the 1990s that turned her on to childrens’ theatre. Morell worked in its literary department and was charged in part with linking in the education team. Because she spoke Flemish (Morell is Belgian, but grew up in the UK), both would send her off to theatre festivals on the continent. “It struck me at that time that theatre for children was regarded very, very differently on the continent. In Belgium, for example, people have a very different attitude to childhood, which involves taking them seriously, but not treating them like adults. That’s always been very difficult in Britain. We confuse taking someone seriously with treating them as if they were an adult.”

Since she took over the Unicorn last year, her programming has taken that principle to its logical conclusion, namely, that different age groups require different serious treatment. “There’s been a tendency in Britain to do shows for everyone,” she explains, “Those are absolutely great and we do them here ourselves, but I’m also particularly interested in shows that are designed for specific ages. Some shows appeal to all sorts of people and some really don’t. They appeal if you’re four to six, but not if you’re ten.”

That’s led to a vast expansion in the amount of work in the Unicorn’s programme. “The Almeida can do, say, 8 plays a year and anybody can come to any of those, but if you’re a theatre for young audiences, that’s not so. If you want to be the kind of place where a seven year-old can come regularly, you have to produce four or five suitable shows a year.” Do the same for toddlers, twelve year-olds and teenagers and you’re looking at a sizeable operation. There are 13 productions in the next five months.

What’s more, she’s intent on keeping variety across a particular age range. Primary schoolers might get new writing like Christopher William Hill’s Mister Holgado one month, puppetry from Matthew Robins the next with Complicite’s physical theatre for dessert. “Children are untroubled by form and genre. They take things as they are. If we all agree that my bottle can have a conversation with this pillow, then it can, can’t it? That’s true when you’re a child and it’s true when you’re in theatre.”

The scope of the work cannot but recall the nearby National. It’s obviously been a prominent part of Morell’s life and clearly informs her thinking for the Unicorn, which is, as she puts it, “set up to be the number one go-to destination for people under 21 who want to go to the theatre. That’s very exciting.

“Having a physical building gives you a centre to coalesce around. Having a National Theatre means that you afford that artform a certain status within the cultural life of a nation. A purpose-built children’s theatre does the same for theatre for young people.”

For that reason, Morell’s expanded the upper age that it caters for, seeking to fill the “gap between being taken to the theatre by your parents and going on your own.” The aim is to propose the Unicorn as a hang-out, something to go into town with mates for: “It’s about saying, ‘Ok, well, while you’re in town, what do you want to see?’ That’s unlikely to be the same thing your parents take you to, but nor is it going to be quite the same as adult theatre.”

The social role has also seen Morell introduce shows for adult audiences about the childhood experience – a strand that raised questions about the building’s purpose. “The primary thing affecting children’s lives is the adults in them, so if you don’t invite adults in, the space for children to exercise their imaginations stops there. I don’t want the art we make to sit there as a lovely treat. I want it to be about how we actually live.

“That’s what theatre’s for. It’s what art’s for. It’s not supposed to tell you big things. It’s meant to make you look slightly differently.”

Photograph: Jane Airey

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