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Toronto’s WeeFestival a thrill for city’s littlest theatregoers

A scene from ‘The Sandbox,’ a play for children by Quebec’s Tenon Mortaise company that’s in Toronto as part of WeeFestival.

  • A scene from ‘The Sandbox,’ a play for children by Quebec's Tenon Mortaise company that's in Toronto as part of WeeFestival.
  • Henry, 3, reflects on his favourite part of ‘The Sandbox.’

Standing at a generous five-foot-nothing, I am seldom the tallest person in a theatre audience.

Toronto’s WeeFestival, featuring a curated roster of performances designed for the very young, has shattered that stat. At the Friday-morning performance of “The Sandbox,” I towered over a gaggle of tots, who had their eyes glued to the theatre magic unfolding before their very eyes.

“The Sandbox,” a puppet show by the Quebec-based Tenon Mortaise theatre company, is a total delight no matter your age. Blending together puppetry, clowns and a truly spectacular amount of sand, the show is a breezy 35 minutes — just long enough to offer a wide range of visual treats for the audience, but short enough that on Friday there were no signs of fussiness from the crowd. For many, this was a first play; for some, even a first time in a theatre.

After the show, I had the chance to interview some of Toronto’s tiniest up-and-coming theatre critics, most of whom donned colourful cardboard crowns supplied by the festival.

“I liked the camel,” whispered three-year-old Henry to his mum. Henry, dressed to impress in a giraffe costume, was referencing the life-sized desert ungulate that peeked through the backdrop of the show as shadow puppets recreated the Sahara.

Eight-year-old Sophia enjoyed the tiny fox figurine buried deep in the onstage sandbox. Georgia, five, loved when the performers onstage played with the sand. I couldn’t blame her — it really was a lot of sand.

WeeFestival artistic and executive director Lynda Hill knows the work she’s doing is incredibly important.

“Children need cultural experience from birth. And these pieces are esthetically rich. They range from intimate, relational pieces to larger, more experiential performances,” she says.

Hill created WeeFestival in 2014 to fill what she perceived to be a gap in cultural programming for children. She says there are frighteningly few opportunities for children not yet in school to participate in their cultural landscape.

“These experiences are important for children before they enter the school system. It is every child’s right to participate in arts and culture. It’s part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she said.

“We are one of the richest countries in the world, one of the richest provinces in the country. We just don’t invest in arts and culture.”

For Hill, it’s not just important to engage these children: it’s a chance for her to bring parents on board with cultural programming, too.

“When we bring parents and their children into an experience with beautiful art, something is sparked. The parent witnesses how the child responds, and they see their kid’s immense capacity to relate to and enjoy conflict and sophisticated forms of art.”

“I just hope that when these children enter the public education system, that the parents are knocking on their principal’s door and demanding more arts and culture for their school.”

Hill isn’t just interested in TYA (theatre for young audiences): She says her heart lies with interdisciplinary work — performance which combines elements of theatre, dance, visual art and music. She’s also fond of intercultural theatre — really, any theatre which can evoke change and dialogue across a gamut of audiences.

It’s meaningful work for Hill, who, as a mother, has held her own experiences with her (now-grown) children close while running the WeeFestival. Her daughter is a filmmaker, and her son a ballet dancer.

“I made it a point to make sure my children had a solid foundation in arts and culture … as my kids grew, I saw the need to invest more in younger grades. I started attending TYA festivals in Europe where it wasn’t so focused on clowns and face painting but artistically centred and grounded new work. No big sponsorships, just art-centred festivals.”

While waiting in the lobby of “The Sandbox,” I got to chatting with an usher — a WeeFestival board member, actually, Jutta Brendemühl who is also the program curator at the Goethe Institut in Toronto. I asked why she volunteers for the festival.

She paused for a moment.

“We’re doing this for the children as they are,” she said. “Not for them as audiences later. But as audiences now.”

WeeFestival runs in various locations across Toronto through June 12. You can find out more about the festival at www.weefestival.ca.

Aisling Murphy is a reporter for the Star’s radio room based in Toronto. Reach her via email: aislingmurphy@thestar.ca

 

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