The arts: ‘a tool to understand the world around us and ourselves’

The Manoel Theatre’s TOI TOI programme combines fun with contemporary themes to entice children of all ages
Tommy Cook, Michelle Ellul, Yasmine Portelli, Maya Ann Portelli, Shevaun Rooney, Rachel Vella, Mirabella Marica during rehearsals for the Easter show. Photo: Sebio Aquilina

An Easter family-friendly concert covering the history of pop music is taking place at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta on Sunday.

Bursting with hits from the 1950s to the present day, the show will include timeless favourites and medleys merging popular music genres, from retro ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ all the way to Harry Styles.

The event forms part of the theatre’s TOI TOI Learning and Participation programme, which covers a wide range of activities targeting babies, toddlers, primary and secondary schools.

The Easter Family Show, held in collaboration with the Malta School of Music Contemporary Department, is targeted at children aged over five years and based on last year’s feedback, it promises to be yet another hit.

“Last season, we collaborated with The Big Band Brothers and their training groups on the theme of the history of the Big Band. The show featured Mariele Zammit as lead singer and presenter, and was written to include opportunities for audience participation, peaking at We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which was specially adapted in the Big Band style by Daniel Cauchi. Children screamed with excitement like in a Beatles concert from the opening phrase!,” programme manager Kate Fenech Field says.

Later this month, on April 29 and 30, TOI TOI is producing another show for children over five years of age with Moveo Dance Company. Titled EMOJI: My Emotions, the performance will use a combination of projected digital animation and dance to promote social and emotional learning among primary schoolchildren.

Young musicians Kurt Calleja, Neil Zahra, Emilia Zrinzo and Jake Paul Mallia during rehearsals for the Easter concert. Photo: Sebio Aquilina

Exploring contemporary issues

TOI TOI’s educational programme indeed explores various contemporary themes, that include social development, bullying, prejudice and ethics.

“The main aim is to use the arts as a tool to understand the world around us and ourselves, how to show empathy or compassion, how to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. Dance and non-verbal theatre, including mime and physical theatre, employs a very clear narrative tool for children to comprehend and engage with,” Fenech Field notes.

“For example, we would not stage a realistic fight to young children, but we could produce a dance sequence which illustrates a fight and the consequences of how that makes the characters feel”.

As regards secondary school-aged children, the programme covers work which can enhance their learning within, but not restricted to, the syllabi.

“Generally speaking, children in this age group are the least engaged with the theatre. They have multiple external commitments over the weekend and after school, which means their free time is limited,” Fenech Field continues.

This season, TOI TOI produced a jukebox musical by Petra Sant called Meet Cute, which was specifically written for 11+ as a beginners guide to musical theatre.

“Children screamed with excitement like in a Beatles concert”

Recently, they also staged an adapted version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which “kept the children on the edge of their seats”, as Fenech Field says.

The play was commissioned with three criteria: it needed to be less than 90 minutes (no interval), it had to ‘speak’ to the child who does not understand or relate to Shakespearean plays and it had to have a small cast.

Stephen Oliver directed, abridged and designed a contemporary version which was faithful to the story.

“Stage plays are not written to be read in class alone, they are meant to be experienced live in a theatre. The children are immersed in the drama and forget that it is a set text written 500 years ago,” the progamme manager says.

Productions for teens and young adults

Fenech Field remarks that their youth training programme is known for “more meaty” issues.

For example, last season they produced ĊIKLU, which the participants helped write and compose and which focused on breaking the cycle of abuse, be it sexual, emotional, psychological or physical.

“The piece was born out of the #metoo movement and is a real asset to the power of vocal and physical expression,” Fenech Field points out.

They commissioned beatbox composer S.K. Shlomo to collaborate with the group and he workshopped and composed the piece which closed the show, Break the Cycle.

This month, actors Charlotte Grech, Clare Ghigo and Douglas Comley are leading TOI TOI’s training groups to produce a show for kids aged 11+ on April 22 titled Sin Circus, based on the Seven Deadly Sins.

“We are certain that this will be of great interest to our teen and young adult audience, who are the main target audience for this production.”

Continuously evolving

The Toi Toi programme is continuously evolving. Fenech Field says that since 2011, the arts scene and work for young audiences in particular, has boomed.

“We have to find and nurture our place within that scene and we feel the most effective way to do that is with careful programme curation and collaboration. We are very excited to have the opportunity to work with artists from national and international companies, as well as freelancers and have recently posted an open call for proposals for the 2023-2024 TOI TOI Season in order to produce the very best for our youngest and future audience,” she says.

“As we move into our 12th season, we move into the world of audience development, having gained the audience from a young age, we have to make sure that we keep them coming back to us and produce work which represents their experience of life which they can relate to,” she continues, adding that a major audience development long-term project will be unveiled next season.

“We are very excited to see how this will appeal to our wider young adult community. But no spoilers here!”

Fenech Field urges parents to bring their children, even the very young ones, to the theatre.

“If you love watching your children reacting to the excitement of blowing out candles or opening presents, then you should bring them into a theatre and see their reaction to live music, drama and dance. Spark their creativity and passion for the arts at a young age and it will last a lifetime,” she concludes.

For more information about the TOI TOI programme, visit www.facebook.com/teatrumanoeltoitoi. For tickets for the Easter concert and upcoming productions, log on to www.teatrumanoel.com.mt.

Also read this article about TOI TOI’s Baby Series and for more Child articles, click here.

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