Theater 33.2 (2003) 3-25
[Access article in PDF]
Political Children's Theater in the Age of Globalization
[The Beautiful Unicorn]
[The Mean Old Mother]
[The Panther that Bought Some Jordans]
Thirty years ago I went to Germany to write about Peter Stein's Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer and other experimental theater groups sprouting in the aftermath of the 1960s student movement. While I was in Berlin, a friend told me that its most significant political theater was not really the Schaubühne, but Grips, founded by the writer Volker Ludwig. Its members, who used to perform in a left-wing cabaret for adults, had recently turned their attention to developing unusual plays for children that incorporated rock music and Brechtian dramaturgical methods. Their work overwhelmed me. And unlike the spectacular Schaubühne and many other so-called political theaters of that time, Grips continues to challenge and provoke children and adults to change their lives, if not society as a whole.
The name Grips means something like "common sense" and implies using one's intelligence politically to understand the world; accordingly, Volker Ludwig, Grips's director and major writer, seeks to link theater to emancipatory education. He has often remarked that Grips's plays are designed to show our condition as changeable and to reveal possibilities for social transformation and critical thinking: "Primarily this means that we want to encourage children to ask questions, to understand that criticism is their undeniable right, to enjoy creative thinking, and to gain pleasure from seeing alternatives." 1 How does the Grips ensemble, which has constantly responded to changing political conditions, bring this about? Almost all of their plays are Brechtian Lehrstücke (learning plays) performed in a cabaret style. The adult actors do not try to mimic children or to act naturalistically. On the contrary, social conditions and events are explained and demonstrated from a child's point of view. The plays do not present solutions but show possible alternatives to conditions that are oppressive or self-defeating. The plays are not ends in themselves; they do not preach the right answers, nor should they be performed this way. [End Page 3]
Each scene tends to be a social experiment, a testing of social conditions to see if perhaps some other form of organization might allow for more freedom of movement and development. Characters represent antagonistic principles, and as they are unmasked, the social relations underlying the principles become more visible, as in Mannomann! (1973), an early play about male chauvinism, in which a factory worker realizes that his violent behavior is connected to his own exploitation; Bella, Boss und Bulli (1995), a drama about bullying, in which children grasp how their conflicts are tied to family issues; and Melodys Ring (2000), a musical that connects the behavior of the homeless to business corruption and unemployment. Cabaret performance has been the dominant influence on the actors and the playwrights, because it is illusion-smashing, frank, quick, and jovial, yet serious. Grips's productions and techniques can be repetitive, but more than any children's theater I know, Grips has resisted the forces of compromise and continues to demonstrate how theater can address ordinary children's [End Page 4] daily struggles with the authorities and institutions that govern their, and our, lives.
But this essay is not about Grips, which even in Berlin is special and unique. 2 Rather, it is an attempt to grasp why we need an alternative, not just to lily-white, run-of-the-mill, middle-class children's theater but also to a youth entertainment industry whose spectacles make even the productions of middle-class children's theater seem radical at times. First I want to hark back to Walter Benjamin's essays on children's literature and culture. 3 Then I want to say a few words about the state of children's culture in the United States and how it is organized—that is, homogenized—for them. Finally I want to discuss different kinds of "unspectacular" children's theater that thrive in the nooks...