Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Patch Theatre Company’s creative director, Dave Brown. He’s a friendly, affable man and we had a great chat about Patch’s upcoming show, Me and My Shadow, and about the importance of play and whimsy both in children’s’ learning and in performance practice. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Carli Lewis: First of all, can I just say congratulations on Patch’s 40 year Anniversary!

Dave Brown: Thank you very much, it’s, yeah, it’s very special… I think in many ways it’s a great privilege to be able to earn a living doing something you love and something that you feel has importance and significance.

Can you tell me a little bit about Me and My Shadow? [In the past] We’ve made a few shows that are visual theatre pieces, with very little language in them at all, and we’ve found that that sort of work engages children in the 4-8 year old age range in a really intense way and we think it’s because for children at that age, their language skills and literacy skills, the spoken word, the written word and the read word, they’re all still emerging… And part of the process of them becoming literate is that they learn to read symbols from the visual world around them, so they seem to be very astute visual readers… So they engage in a really powerful way with quite beautiful abstract visual narrative, and this is one of those works.

So it’s a work that is really a story about a child… and I’m sure we all, I’m sure, as a child you played with a torch and a shadow on a bedroom wall, or observed your shadow when you were out in the sunshine. Children often find shadows fascinating and they often give life to their shadows… It becomes an imaginary part of them, or an imaginary friend. So in this visual story, her belief in her imagination becomes real, and so her shadow becomes a real person, a tangible being, in her life. So in a really visual and magical way, it becomes a story about friendship.

That sounds so beautiful; I’m looking forward to seeing it! You know I think adults really love visual theatre as well, and they love magic and illusion. What happens with visual theatre is that because it’s so rich in its’ visual style, there are a whole range of layers and meaning that you can place on it, so adults will sort of interpret it in a different way to the way that children will.

Fantastic!…In other interviews, I noticed as I was doing my research, I noticed that you talk a lot about the need for whimsy and childlike qualities to be respected as being crucial to um… to our lives. That to me is really exciting. It got me thinking about Dr Kay Redfield Jamieson, do you know of her work? No, tell me! Well, she says similar things about exuberance, about how we respect people quite often for being measured and austere, but that exuberance plays an important role in learning and discovery.

Oh fantastic! …So her notion is… That we respect really measured and…  Rational thinking? Yeah, but [on the other hand] exuberance is a driving force in curiosity and investigation, it’s very much undervalued – especially in her field [psychiatry], and stuff like it, in scientific discovery. Yeah, that’s such a great observation, because exuberance is such a childlike quality, and it’s an expression in children, of how everything is so fresh and new, that they are so engaged in wonder, and as adults we become very jaded to the wonder of the world, and just how spectacular and amazing it is. Children feel that so readily, and I think the best artists and the best people do to, and I know Einstein, and people like him were SO exuberant, because they were just so excited about the world… and that allows them to see the new, and to appreciate it and forge new observations… I think that’s a wonderful idea!

So you’ve talked a little bit about theatre being educational, so what does education in theatre, mean to you? What do you think we should be teaching our children? I don’t think it should be teaching (pauses) ahh – no, go for it – what I fear with that sort of question is that it’s got a rational side to it, it suggests that it should be… – actually that’s the exact reason why I asked it – yeah! Yeah…  because there’s a difficulty, in trying to make things have an educational element, it needs to happen almost as if by, I dunno, accident – yeah, it’s like what we were talking about earlier, about emergent literacy, you can teach words, you can teach the letter b, and a, and the letter t, and you can teach how that makes bat… and how to write that, [but] you can also enrich children with a whole range of performative languages that will equally help them and provide them with experiences of wonder and imagination that are ALSO teaching them how to read. Because when they’re seeing a shadow move something physical, and we know that’s not possible, they are reading that and that is contributing at least as much, and probably more to their emergent literacy than …actually teaching them the word, B-A-T. You have to have both. But that’s what you were saying earlier, about what Dr Kay Redfield Jameson was saying, that it’s about balance; you absolutely need the rational and the literal and the rigour of learning but you need an equal amount of the whimsy and the play and the creative outward explorative learning. And from my way of thinking, I don’t think children get enough of the divergent exploratory whimsical way of learning. I don’t think we pay enough attention to it. Yes! I agree.  I thought you would! *laughs*.

So you have explored ways of expressing those non-literal things in theatre; how did that come about? How do you know when you’re doing it right? Well that’s the great thing; the way we make visual theatre is entirely different from the way we would make a play from a script. So we start from a germinal idea, and the idea we started with was how can we make light into a character, in a work? And so we started off… I remember the first day, I put a whole lot of paper bags on the floor… in rows… large ones down to small ones, inverted and expanded, so it looked quite beautiful and we invited the performer theatre maker Astrid Pill to play in that environment. And we filmed [it], she played for over an hour, and it was quite amazing, the discoveries that she made. And so that’s sort of typical of… the way we make the show. The show was made over a 2 year period, with 4 weeks of creative development over that period with open ended improvisations and provocations, exploring the possibilities… we ended up with… paper, water, light and as a result of that, shadow. And most of the fantastic discoveries that we made were happy accidents that came out of playing and improvising and responding to tasks.

So what we do is just video all our play and we discover the meaning that's coming out of that play the same way as children do. Children don’t set out to have an end point when they start playing; the meaning comes out of the play. And you know I think good writers, a good novelist will do the same thing, they won’t plant their novel out they’ll just being writing and they will discover where it’s going to go when it’s finished and t hat’s very much our process… one of playing and discovering and then trying to make sense of those discoveries as it went along. One of the things I’ve learnt from other people who’ve made theatre in this way, is that you have  to try to stay out of control for as long as possible, stay in the play world for as long as possible. Because as soon as you take control, you start narrowing down the possibilities, and you star t getting clichés – it becomes predictable –yeah it becomes stuff that you already know, and you really don’t want that, you want stuff that you haven’t discovered yet.

Well, my last question was going to be: tell me what you love the most about theatre, but you’ve definitely covered that already! Yeah, what do you think the answer would be? Play and exploring of course. Yeah. I’m just reading a book about Robert Lepage and finding you know, how similar people in visual theatre think, so that these ideas are very much a part of a lot of people’s practice, and I suppose in a way they’re a part of every person’s practice, you know, whether you’re a journalist or whatever, you know, I think we tinker, and discover other things by tinkering, and we just have to give ourselves time to do it. Great Answer! Thank you!

Thanks so much for your time Dave! Thank you so much for your great questions, and that lovely reference, I’ll go and hunt it up! Thank you, I look forward to seeing your show!