Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Questionable Theater: Swift!

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When I walked into the theater and saw that it was at least 80% small children, my heart sank.

This was going to be rough, I was sure. This show was artsy, or at least it looked that way. It was in an invented language that the children (and really, anyone except the show’s creator) would not understand. These kids were going to be whining and fidgeting the whole time.

I was wrong. They were riveted.

The show they watched was French theatre company Skappa!’s Swift!, a forty-five minute visual and auditory meditation on “absurd proportions,” strange journeys, and the blurred lines between the fantastical and the real. It was pure magic, and not just for the kids. Several times I found myself almost moved to tears, so caught up was I in the sheer theatricality of it.

It took me back to my own early childhood experiences with theater. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school district where creative, original theater was regularly performed in our schools or at the local theater, Zachary Scott, which also hosted all-day workshops for children. These plays were not the saccharine, watered-down morality shows that so often fall under the heading of “children’s theater.” Like Swift!, these were challenging, thought-provoking plays put on by serious artists who could just as easily have been presenting their work to an audience of adults.

This thought struck me again as I watched Swift! These performers were not presenting a “children’s play,” even if the show had been marketed at audiences of all ages and (amazingly in an expensive city like Tokyo) children under twelve got in free. There was nothing in the set, the music, or the style of performance that immediately screamed “children’s theater.”

Watching Swift! was like watching two plays: the action unfolding in front of me and the running commentary around me. The children weren’t whining or asking to go to the bathroom–they were engaging with the work in that utterly unselfconscious way that children do. They asked questions of their parents about the action. They commented on what was happening, often with amazement. Initially, several of them said that they “couldn’t understand” the invented language that the lead actor was speaking. But after a few minutes it was clear that they could. We all could.

We are so quick to talk down to children, to present them with inferior entertainments that leave nothing uncertain or ambiguous. Swift!, which sadly ran for only three days in Tokyo, is a powerful argument against that line of thinking. I wish more children in Tokyo could have seen it, if only to have that rarest of chances to be swept up in something bigger than themselves, and to be inspired to ask questions that their parents can’t answer.


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This entry was posted on December 17, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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