As Krazy Kat Theatre Company set out on a nationwide tour of their latest work, Oliver in The Overworld, award winning Artistic Director Kinny Gardner met with us backstage at the Arena Theatre to talk through the history of the company and this exciting new production.
Inclusive children’s theatre is a great way to open up the world of theatre to young people of all abilities and backgrounds, and Krazy Kat have been producing, devising and performing small scale touring productions for 35 years, celebrating their birthday on April 1st “because we’re clowns” Kinny suggests. Taking unusual and accessible shows for young people to venues around the world.
Describing the approach of Krazy Kat, Kinny reflected on the foundations of the company: “We’d always been interested in vernacular theatre; popular styles like commedia dell’arte, pantomime, street theatre, so when we first started we did work in those styles”. On the integration of sign language: “I’d done work within the deaf community, at the time there was a lot of second language happening in Scotland in the late 70’s early 80’s so there were people arriving to shows who didn’t have English as their first language; so us being so visual and interactive was very exciting. That grew and grew and when we started to use the sign language that added that extra accessibility to the work, actually reflecting the lived experience of the children, whether they’re using sign as the first language, as a support or just receiving something visually”
This is paired with an empathetic understanding of what children need from theatre “It’s not my place to decide what’s going in, you just create the best work that you can; you throw it up in the air and the young people will receive what they can. Your job is to give them the best possible experience so that their expectation is so high the next time that they come to the theatre they should be expecting the best thing possible because that’s what they’re getting from you.”
It’s clear that Kinny has huge respect for the audience and a real drive to present challenging and exciting work that young people and adults alike can really engage with “The bulk of what I see for young people is very ordinary, it’s very mundane and you know that nobody’s ever going to fall over, but how wonderful if somebody did fall over, something surprised us!” On the interaction between the company and the audience Kinny continues: “One of the concerns whenever we create a new show is finding those moments when the audience are telling you things because what’s the point of doing a show if you don’t appreciate the audience? What I find most exciting when I go and see young people’s stuff is that it has to have a softness, you have to feel that it could maybe mold a little bit more to the audience.”
Regarding the mainstream reception of Krazy Kat’s work Kinny reflects: “The bulk of my work is largely ignored by the mainstream children’s theatre establishment here in the UK. Of course we do receive extraordinary support from places like the Arena Theatre and that’s very important, again Attenborough Arts book us every year, twice a year, as soon as I say the show’s available Wolverhampton and Leicester are booked and that’s a wonderful hook for us.” And on the reception of the company’s work from audience members “we get a lot of adults coming up to us saying ‘I thought I was just coming to a children’s show’ and of course it is a children’s show otherwise we wouldn’t be so successful.”
When it comes to putting this experience into practice: “What’s happened over the years is we’ve attracted extraordinary performers, directors, an amazing designer; people who’ve seen our work and thought ‘ah it would be really nice to be part of that’. Poor old Chris my designer, he’ll listen to me talk and talk, and quack and quack, cry and weep and worry and turn it upside down and look at it from sideways; then he produces these amazing designs. To have that support now is what you’re seeing in Oliver in the Overworld. The German expression is gesamtkunstwerk, total theatre, where the music and the lights and the sound and the dancing and the puppetry are equally important. This is very demanding on the performers, as they have to be able to do sign language, work puppets, sing, dance, act; usually you’d have 5 separate people doing that.”
Oliver in The Overworld is the first ever musical created from scratch with sign language. It’s a funny, surreal, picaresque tale of a little deaf boy who travels to The Overworld, The Land of Machinery, seeking the parts to mend the memory of his best friend Oliver, the Grandfather Clock.
There’s an interesting history to the source material, as Kinny explains: “A million years ago in 1970 there was a television programme called Little Big Time with a band called Freddie and The Dreamers. They used to tell a story like a serial; so every week you’d have 5 minutes of the story, and in every part of the story they had a song. It’s got 10 phenomenally beautiful songs written by Mike Hazelwood and Albert Hammond. That was the basis for the script for this particular production.”
On deciding to stage this work, Kinny goes on: “I’ve always wanted to do it since I was a child, when I bought the record with my pocket money. I did a bit of research and I tracked down Mr Hammond, he lives in Los Angeles and he’s still singing. I emailed him and his agent and there were lots of emails flying around. The phone rang and it was Albert Hammond calling from Los Angeles saying ‘yeah, just do it, I love all your ideas just get on with it, have a great time’. I did say to him, and I believe we’ve done this with the production, that I would be respectful of the feeling that I remember as a child seeing the story; there’s an innocence to the story which is quite charming.”
Bringing the conversation back round to how this story plays with the audience “There is a simplicity to the story as well as an edginess, I do a lot of work where I’m very demanding of the children; they have to work as well to project their imagination onto things, they have to come into the story otherwise it’s not a two way street and theatre has to be a two way street. That play, that commedia dell’arte, that sense of circus, that sense of wonder, and back to danger; maybe someone will fall over, wouldn’t it be lovely if somebody did actually skid along, that would be great; I like it when things go wrong.”
Oliver in The Underworld will be at Attenborough Arts Centre on Sunday 23 April, 1pm – 2pm and 4pm – 5pm