Last May, over 1,300 artists from nearly 100 countries gathered in Cape Town with a common purpose: to promote and grow the field of Theatre for Young Audiences. In partnership with the National Arts Council of South Africa, this year marked the 19th ASSITEJ (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) World Congress and International Theatre Festival, and the very first on the African continent. The title of this year’s congress was “Cradle of Creativity,” and it celebrated theatre, dance, and music for young audiences in Africa and around the world.
“It was a humbling honor to represent the United States at the ASSITEJ World Congress and perform Seedfolks in front of global leaders in theatre for young audiences,” said CTC artistic director Peter C. Brosius. “As the nation’s leading producer of theatre for young audiences, it is important for us to be able to continue to expand the canon, explore new aesthetics and bring absent narratives to the stage.”
The CTC-commissioned play, developed and premiered at CTC in 2014, is based on a Newbery Medal-winning book by Paul Fleischman. Seedfolks tells the story of an immigrant neighborhood in Cleveland that is transformed by a community garden. The brilliant actress Sonja Parks embodies 13 distinct voices of Gibb Street in this enthralling solo production.
Seedfolks received great acclaim from international delegates and local student and family audiences. South African theatre educator Emma Delius, the creative director of Ngizwe theatre group from Noordgesig, Soweto, articulated how profoundly moved she was by it.
“In South Africa, we have a very difficult relationship with spaces,” Delius said. “Space is so contested in South Africa that there’s this inability to want to find communal spaces, and it’s quite tragic…I think that the idea of people finding common space was so beautiful—finding physical space as well as emotional.”
Through the U.S. consulate, Parks also led numerous community workshops to connect her to the young people of Cape Town. Students from Magnet Theatre, a South African company that focuses on physical theatre, attended her performance and workshop series. She encouraged them to use the power of live performance to embolden them as authors of their own narratives, and to demonstrate how theatre can be a tool to understand the challenges they face and transform the world around them.
Seedfolks played alongside wildly varied programming, ranging from feminist postmodern dance to multimedia work for 10-month-olds, from autobiographical solo performance to reimagined classics. Over the course of the 11-day festival, CTC delegates were able to see 40 of the 63 productions and share dialogues with artists making work in just as many communities.
As we become a more global society and share the challenges of the international refugee crisis, the creation of international partnerships is more critical than ever. As Brosius pointed out, “The Twin Cities metro area is home to numerous refugee and immigrant populations for whom we have intentionally commissioned and created work, like Kia Corthron’s Snapshot Silhouette, which reflected Minnesota’s large Somali population. It is our hope that by attending and sharing our work that we will find partners that will increase the impact of projects like this.”
The ASSITEJ Festival forged many such connections for future tours of U.S. work and opened conversations toward collaboration on new projects. Indeed, many of the artists at the festival met collaborators at previous gatherings and had invited colleagues to present in their home countries. One can’t help but wonder which companies and artists will be collaborating next year, or which country will host Seedfolks next.
For now the show has returned to Minnesota, and through a generous grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board will be touring to rural communities through the spring. In May of 2018 the show will move to the New Victory Theatre in New York City.
Benjamin Hanna is an artistic associate at Children’s Theatre Company. The presentation of Seedfolks at the ASSITEJ Festival was supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional support was provided by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa and Delta Airlines.
To see photos and video of the ASSITEJ World Congress, visit Children’s Theatre Company’s online journal Off Book.