Australian Fables at the Heart of Theatre in Education
Our urge to tell stories is innate, and takes many different forms. Gossip. Literature. Films. Television. Theatre. Our insatiable need for stories is driven by a need to understand and connect with others. It’s also a way to understand the world around us. As psychotherapist Anthony de Mello states: 'The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story'.
The power of fables
Storytelling has been used since ancient times to educate, entertain and connect. People once sat around the fire, sharing stories with strong moral and educational values. These stories, known as fables, were told and retold over generations.
Think Little Red Riding Hood, a tale of foreboding, about steering clear of strangers, and taking care in the deep dark woods. In 2016, the Little Red Riding Hood fable has a whole new meaning. The forest is cyber space. Modern day fables warning children about the perils of the cyber jungle are as necessary now as they were for our ancestors.
A fable is defined as a succinct fictional story, usually designed to impart a moral teaching. Fables are one of the longest-lasting literary and cultural tools, and are used in almost every culture.
A fable is easy to remember, and employs certain memes, which help us remember the story, so we can retell it in the future. For instance, the traditional Little Red Riding Hood tale can easily be remembered by recalling the red hood, the wolf, the grandma and the big teeth.
Theatre is an especially powerful form of storytelling. It engages the audience on all sensory levels, sucking them into the characters' world. For children, this experience has a lasting impact. Children will carry stories belonging to characters they deeply care about long after the production has finished. And the message behind the fable will come along too.
Defining an Australian fable
Professor Ien Ang asserts that: 'The arts are how we tell stories about ourselves, and inform our sense of who we are as a nation.'
While stories like Little Red Riding Hood continue to entertain us, and are easily retold, they don’t have the same impact on our cultural psyche that local stories do. To have true impact, Australian fables in 2016 need to be relevant to the intended audience.
So what defines the modern Australian fable, and how will these stories affect our young audiences?
Prior to the 1960s, Australian fables were told and retold through a prism of British colonial Australia. Stories from Indigenous culture were more or less obsolete in schools. Stories representing other diverse cultures were also missing.
After the 1960s, storytelling slowly became more culturally diverse. A wider range of voices was represented. Indigenous Australian Dreaming stories started to appear in children’s literature. Multiculturalism inched onto the education and cultural agenda. The impact of books like Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta (1992) demonstrated the hunger for culturally diverse voices.
Representing cultural diversity in children’s educational theatre is not a matter of "ethnic showcasing". Rather stories need to be told from genuine Australian perspectives, and address genuine and real life issues.
Fables for young Australians, which address genuine real life issues
To effectively engage and connect with a young Australian audience, educational theatre needs to use fables which carry messages for a contemporary audience. Young people need to know the dangers of cyber-space. Like Riding Hood needed to know not to talk to strangers in the forest, young people today need to know not to interact with strangers online. Kids need to know how to turn off geo-tagging, and why this is important. They need to know not to share personal details online.
So, should we cram this information down young people's throats? No. Because it's pointless. What will affect young audiences, though, are stories. Legitimate, relatable, memorable stories, about characters people care about.
Fables are memorable
When was the last time you memorised a list of dot points about important information? My guess is, not recently.
What you are more likely to remember is a story. A story that gripped you emotionally. A story about someone you care about.
Educational theatre uses fables to tell stories to our young audiences so they remember the messages being shared. And if the story is good enough, they will tell and retell the story. With every retelling, like Red Riding Hood, the story becomes more memorable, and more powerful.
Red Riding Hood uses memes like the red hood, the wolf and the grandma. Theatre about contemporary issues affecting young people will also use memorable icons. A computer. A mobile phone.
Educational theatre uses rhymes and songs, which can also be easily recalled. We all remember the line, 'But Grandma, what big teeth you have!' Educational theatre uses similar devices. We need audiences to remember important information about bullying, cyber-space, friendship and mental health. So we use memes, songs and rhymes so the information is easily remembered.
We are conscious too of using language, stories, characters and humour that kids will relate too. If our stories and the language we use are unrelatable, the story will bypass our audience, and lose its power.
So the question is: What do young Australian audiences relate to? What stories do we need to be telling? Bullying? Cyber bullying? Drug issues? Anxiety? Depression?
These are the issues we need to be tackling in the fables we tell through educational theatre, using storytelling devices that have been used for centuries. Because these are the stories our young audiences relate to, carry with them, and will retell.
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