National Theatre Wales’ latest project builds on their success with TEAM community outreach programmes, and apart from the two creative heads behind it, Kidstown will be a certified adult-free zone. Hari Berrow heard more from the interloping grownup pair, Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari.
Kidstown, created in by NTW collaboration with inclusive performance art duo Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, is an immersive theatrical experience where children play, and adults get to experience their inner worlds. “We build a walled space in a green field and inside is everything you could imagine they’d want to play with. It’s a treasure island of stuff. All recycled,” Barrett tells me.
Mari adds: “In each of the areas we’ve got people with glue guns and scissors and things to help children if they want to make something, and then there’s a huge area where we’ve got lots of old theatre costumes and wigs and make-up and mirrors so they can get dressed up if they want to.
“Inside, there’s Nigel and I. We’re the press, there to give Kidstown news. They can come and tell us what’s going on and we make announcements. ‘In Kidstown today, a tiger escaped from the zoo…’ Then we interview the children about what happened and what they saw and how they feel about it. The kids are basically creating their own story with each other, and we report it.”
Outside, there are shaded benches and play areas so that parents with younger children can sit and listen to the rolling Kidstown news. Members of the community are welcome to come and listen to the news, and parents can be safe in the knowledge that no one can see in, and no children can get out (unless they ask, of course).
Barrett and Mari engaged extensively with local organisations and the community when developing the show, making sure all concerns were taken seriously and a need was being filled. Contrary to what Lord Of The Flies might have you believe, Barrett says that children, when left to their own devices, have an amazing ability to self-regulate.
“We did lots of research about Finnish open schools and what free play is,” he says. “Research about kids kicking up against the rules and causing trouble. When they get transferred to schools that are much more open and free and they don’t have rules to challenge, they just relax and find their own way through it. Because they’re not fighting anybody, they can go, ‘OK, I’m being trusted, and I can allow myself to be free and relax in this space’.”
The pair have found that, particularly for neurodivergent children, the ability to create without having a prescribed outcome has been greatly beneficial: in Barrett’s words, “It’s a place for children to come, and after a whole year of being judged and tested, there’s no one looking over their shoulder. They can learn for themselves.”
The team found that children fully immersed themselves in the experience from the moment they entered. “It was really amazing. As they went through the gate, the kids would say ‘where have you come from?’ We’d say, ‘we’re from Wales,’ and they’d say ‘Oh, I’m from Wales!’ – the kids would actually think they were in a different country,” Mari laughs.
“We found that there were little stories evolving that started joining together. Someone would make a bus and the bus would stop at all of the different things the others were making; kids would get on, move around and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Oh, this is a castle!’ And then they’d get back on.”
Part of a bigger process, with a show for adults coming next year, Kidstown celebrates the power of play and children’s ability to see what we cannot.
Kidstown, Oriel Davies, Newtown, Wed 26-Sat 29 July; Eisteddfod 2023, Boduan, Sat 5-Sat 12 Aug; Beaufort Colts FC, Ebbw Vale, Fri 18-Mon 21 Aug
Admission: free. Info: here
words HARI BERROW