Kids Are Always on Stage

At the Wiener Kindertheater, children from five to eighteen learn to feel, act, and live the ensemble spirit on a real stage

Top Stories | Dardis McNamee | September 2012

Two protagonists from Der Verschwender, the production opening in September (Photo: Lukas Beck)

A quarry, Hainfeld, Lower Austria, early ‘90s. Among groups of hikers, a woman is out walking with her two young nephews. Suddenly they stop; there is deathly silence. Inspriation strikes! And in seconds, the scene becomes a battleground, animals charging every which way, their every move being followed by "King Francis" and his royal entourage, who are spectators of the fight between the animals. Suddenly Damsel Kunigunde tosses down her glove among the wild beasts.

Sylvia Rotter was on a hike with her three- and five-year-old nephews one day in the 1990s, when they began acting out the story of Friedrich Schiller’s The Glove in a stone quarry.

"My nephews were so enthusiastic about it that I thought, I can do this also with other children!" recalls Rotter. And in that moment the Wiener Kindertheater was born. Every year since the opening in 1994, Rotter has turned more than 100 youngsters aged five to eighteen into kings, queens, fairies and other creatures at her stage. In Austria, the arts are rarely part of traditional in-school programs as in some other countries, but are things families must seek out for themselves during out-of-school hours. But while Vienna has long had an extensive system of Musikschulen, and a Musikgymnasium, along with the famed Vienna Boys Choir, as well as a children’s ballet school connected to the State Opera, nothing comparable was available for theatre. Rotter was committed to filling this gap.

She also understood that there is more to theatre than just learning performance skills, particularly for young people.

"The idea was to guide children’s development," Rotter said, "to train their minds and also their hearts through the theatre, so that they become thinking and feeling people." She finds a lot of children today very disconnected from their feelings; perhaps it’s technology, or the pace of their lives. The whole process of putting on a play – memorizing lines, creating characters, and learning to trust one another – can help change this.

"The theatre helps them to understand what they are feeling, and to allow themselves to feel it, and in this way to reconnect," Rotter says, "that I can be better, that you can be better, that we can all be better people."

One of the biggest challenges is finding the right material; there is a lot of great theatre that won’t work for five- to eighteen-year-olds. Most important, it has to be a comedy.

"Little children especially don’t like tragedies," Rotter says. "So we need comedies with large casts, where the humour appeals to children." French comedies don’t work, it turns out, because children don’t want anything having to do with broken marriages. And tragedies frighten them. Some of Shakespeare is possible. But the choice of material is always difficult. So they review it together.

This year they made a selection from four plays, and the children chose Der Verschwender (The Spendthrift), by the great Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Raimund.

"They loved the idea!" Rotter said. "Most of all the Fairy Keristan who falls in love with a hermit." People are who they are, and often don’t fit the mould. Kids know that.

In the selection process, children pick their own roles, with many duplications, so there are cast changes in every performance. This way the children have to be ready to perform with whomever happens to be playing the part – an extraordinary preparation for professional theatre, not to mention real life. In the last production of Krach in Chiozza by Carlo Goldini, there were 14 Valentines and 15 performances. So for the rest of the cast, every night was different. This year, for Der Verschwender, they have six Flottwells, ranging from ages 10 to 17 and "all are good".

Rotter finds the process fascinating. "It is very seldom that a child’s choice doesn’t work. They know what they need, and what they can do," she says. "They always feel it."

As for adults, theatre is intense for children, and often important friendships come out of it. The different age groups like being together, and can form meaningful bonds with children they would never have gotten to know in the age-stratified world of normal school life.

What’s hardest is when it’s all over. "One or the other of them will be in tears," Rotter says, a measure of how important a role the Kindertheater plays in their lives.

But children are different from adults, more flexible, less set in their ways. When they are going through a difficult phase, they are always up for surprises, Rotter says.

"The problem is, they only make an effort during performances, and not in rehearsals."

Der Verschwender

6 16 Sept. 16:00, 18:00, and/or 19:00

Studio Moliere

9., Liechtensteinstraße 27

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