ARTICLE – Trailblazer, The Weekly Review, 2013
Written by Francesca Carter
With its sloping terrain, hard surfaces and lack of shade, Federation Square is not exactly kid-friendly. But Sue Giles, the artistic director of Polyglot Theatre, is about to change all that with a new interactive show, Trailblazer.
“We’re opening up Federation Square with a series of different ways of seeing and getting around the space, which will all be led by kids,” says Giles. “One of the things we really love to explore in public space is the idea of children being allowed to have control. Part of this is about trying to make a real adventure so that kids can just go for it, rather than being told not to touch, not to go, not to do.”
Staged over two days, Trailblazer attempts to disrupt the straight adult line by leading participants – sometimes blindfolded – through a series of whimsical spaces. The spaces will be linked by a series of stepping stones, encouraging people to play the age-old game of getting around a space without touching the ground.
The work consists of three projects: See Bubble Sea will turn the glass atrium into an interactive aquarium filled with fish and bubble wrap; Bellbird will transform the pathway near Deakin Edge into a long corridor of sounds and smells; and Kids Occupy is a large-scale installation, designed by children, on the cobblestones of Fed Square.
“The reason we called it Kids Occupy is because, in a way, children being in public space is like a subversive action,” says Giles.
For 35 years, Polyglot Theatre has created interactive shows that kickstart young imaginations by giving kids ownership of the performance. Encouraging the act of play, Polyglot productions have seen cardboard boxes transformed into skyscrapers, balls of elastic grown into intricate, messy webs, and gigantic balloons turned into magical, fantasy worlds.
A Polyglot show reminds us that play is at the heart of theatre, and that show can’t go on without the participation of its audience – no matter how young.
“It’s all about play and what kids can bring to the experience,” says Giles. “We are influenced mostly by the sheer energy of the children, and the original thought that comes out of our artistic processes when we work with them.”
Polyglot Puppet Theatre was formed in 1978, by former graphic designer and art teacher Naomi Tippett. After working closely with children from housing-commission estates on summer programs and art initiatives, Tippett received a government grant to start Polyglot. Committed to sharing stories that promote understanding and respect for other cultures among Melbourne primary school children, Polyglot opened with a multilingual work called The Good Friend by Dorothy Rickards.
Over 20 years, Polyglot has carved an enviable reputation for creating colourful stories with larger-than-life puppet characters for children and involving children. In 2000, when Giles took over the role as artistic director, the South Yarra-based group dramatically broadened its scope and began including more dynamic, more collaborative, multi-art form projects.
“Puppets are still one of our many art forms but today we’re much more hybrid,” says Giles. “It has taken a while but it was a really interesting culture to negotiate because the company is very dear to a lot of people, and so when you have a history like that in your hands you can’t disregard that.”
Examples of this work include last year’s enormously successful How High The Sky. Aimed at audience members under the age of one, the piece used helium balloons, a live soundscape and a cast of performers to create an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour and light.
“With that work, all our expectations of what would happen were completely blown out of the water,” says Giles. “This idea of child agency was brought back to the very beginning, and that felt incredibly satisfying as a theatre-maker.”
One of Polyglot’s core missions as a contemporary arts company is to make theatre accessible for everyone. Over the past few years it has worked with children from the Carlton Housing Estate, the Currajong School for kids with special needs, and children from the Victorian College for the Deaf to create theatre productions.
For Trailblazer, the team worked closely with young children from the Insight Education Centre for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Berwick. Over three intensive days, Giles and other Polyglot staff collaborated with the children in a series of theatrical activities. The result is the creation of 20 little blue tents, which will be erected as part of Kids occupy.
“The tents are about allowing people to experience how these kids see the world,” says Giles. “For example, in one of our tents we are going to have little tiny windows made from bubble wrap so that you have a vision-impaired view of the world around you.
“It’s fascinating as a theatre-maker because you get to see an audience experience from a really different point of view. So for us to be able to create an atmosphere of confusion, or a tent where you can’t see anything quite clearly, is a really interesting challenge,” she says. “These children are very open emotionally and they are able to go deeply into their fantasy and deeply into their imagination because they’re often alone. So their internal world is incredibly strong.”
Giles says the intention of Trailblazer is to shift and challenge the normal perspective. With boxes blindfolds, bells and fish, the result is already shaping up to be an intriguing engaging experience.
“The blind children here have really showed us a different language of getting around the world,” says Giles. “And the way they relate to sound and the way sound related to their world is an incredibly eye-opening experience.”
Trailblazer is part of the Melbourne Festival. It will be held at Federation Square on October 19-20, from 10am-4pm. Recommended for ages 0-12.