PRINCETON, N.J.: It comes as no surprise that immersive and experiential trends in theatre are impacting the art form in all areas and at all levels. “This shift is evident throughout the field, in the popularity of shows like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and dog and pony dc’s Beertown, and in the ways in which audience engagement programming has become an essential part of many theatre seasons,” says Erica Nagel, McCarter Theatre Center’s audience engagement manager.
Theatre for youth proves to be a natural fit with this trend. For the second year, the McCarter is testing the marriage between the two forms with its show Sunjata Kamelenya, written and directed by Christopher Parks, with dramaturgy by Nagel.
“I learned that when contemporary West African kids and adults hear the story of Sunjata told aloud by djeli (storytellers), they get up and dance and sing and participate in the creation of the theatrical experience,” says Parks, who has sought to replicate that for American kids by using experiential-theatre techniques. Based on an ancient story from what is now modern-day Mali, Sunjata Kamelenya pulls the audience of kids directly into the action. Adult actors tell the story of Sunjata, a young boy, and ask students how they might respond to situations that Sunjata faces. These situations encompass everything from being bullied to familial love to curious matters of sorcery.
“The play is crafted with very intentional scaffolding,” says Nagel. “By the time audience members are asked to participate, they know the characters, scenario and theatrical ‘rules’ of the show well enough that they inevitably have great ideas of how the character would act in that moment.”
Parks says the artistic team strives to go no more than half a page in the script without an audience member participating in a meaningful way, adding that the goal of the show is to encourage a collaborative environment in which “the actors and audience organically create something live and truly unique.”
The day I caught Sunjata Kamelenya, a group of fourth and seventh graders from Memorial Middle School of Point Pleasant and Dr. Herbert N. Richardson Elementary of Perth Amboy entered the theatre in a rowdy and spirited fashion. The teachers seemed relieved when the actors immediately engaged the children, talking to them in character and placing them in seats arranged on the round. The kids were enthralled by the story, the actors and the characters they were playing. It didn’t take much cajoling when masks and other fun props were offered for the kids to wield.
“I love that experiential theatre can embody empathy,” says Nagel. ”The play shows simultaneously that specific cultural history should be treasured and that shared humanity should be celebrated.”
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