There’s nothing more heart-warming than children and the elderly smiling. Making smiles is what Australia’s Polyglot Theatre achieved when it rolled out ‘Kids Are The Boss’ (Kodomo Tachi Ga Shikiru) in Minami Sanriku, part of the Tohoku Region hit hardest by Japan’s 2011 tsunami.
The project saw Australian artists from Polyglot Theatre and Japanese artists from music company NPO Acchi Cocchi work side-by-side in an intercultural and interactive workshop, enjoyed by young and old alike. The resulting work, a giant Kamishibai that told a popular local story through drawings and puppetry, lifted community spirits and demonstrated how the road to recovery after a major disaster is so much more than rebuilding roads and infrastructure.
‘Our expertise in working with children in this way provides a positive and contemporary approach to the creative process,’ said Polyglot Artistic Director Sue Giles, who has worked extensively in Asian cultures in collaborative practice. ‘The project was fun, relevant to the community, and offered positive experiences for inter-generational activity.’
This was not Polyglot Theatre’s first visit to the devastated area of Minami Sanriku. It was its third, with all trips supported through grant funding from the Australia–Japan Foundation ($30,000 in 2015).
Polyglot has an established international artistic development plan which identifies Japan as a key market for cultural exchange. The creative company, so well-known for presenting exciting and engaging projects that tap into the hearts and imaginations of children, first travelled to Japan immediately after the tsunami hit in 2011. It also delighted audiences in 2013 with its special ‘We Built This Town’ installation.
With ‘Kids Are The Boss’, Polyglot landed at Iriya Elementary School and worked with the elderly residents of temporary housing to create a shared story. They then went on to three nursery schools to share the show. So how did the project unfold?
Polyglot worked with elderly residents to develop the drawings around a Japanese folktale, using comic book techniques and the Japanese form of paper theatre—Kamishibai. Then the story was taken to school children who added to it and developed new ways for it to end. Participants celebrated their experiences across generations, shared laughter and a common tale, reflecting the resilience of community.
The resulting giant Kamishibai was a perfect culture fit given that graphic novels are highly popular in Japan for their ability to tell detailed stories without the need for written or spoken language. Children were delighted to work with each other, the elderly and professional artists in exploring their contemporary hopes, aspirations and fears.
As recognised leaders in its field, Polyglot is experienced in working with children affected by trauma.
‘With this project we brought children’s play back into focus, reconnecting displaced residents in the community with children to explore family relationships and how they play out for children and older people,’ says Giles. ‘It’s enriching for Polyglot, with our artistic practice, to share in rebuilding community spirit through an active, creative experience.’
‘Kids Are The Boss’ also saw Japanese children engage with some of Australia and Japan’s leading theatre and cartoon artists. The joy and excitement of building an installation they could share with their families was infectious and celebrated their resilience and amazing spirit.
The finished work toured to kindergartens in the town and culminated in a celebration at an official barbeque at Koala House.
The Polyglot team were long time core members Stefanie Robinson and Dan Goronszy who were joined by lauded comic book artist Bernard Caleo. The music—high-quality classical—was presented in concert style for residents and to accompany drawing and the Kamishibai story. NPO Acchi Cocchi met Polyglot Executive Producer Tamara Harrison at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market in 2014 and then met Sue Giles during the Okinawa Children’s festival in 2014. The combination of music and their deep knowledge of the issues of the area made for a quality collaboration.
Beyond making children, parents and the elderly smile, the project demonstrated Australia’s ongoing support for and friendship with the people of Japan as they continue to grapple with the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that hit Japan in 2011. It contributed to community rebuilding efforts in the Tohoku region, highlighted Australian excellence and expertise through arts and culture, strengthened long-term cross cultural relationships and fostered people-to-people links.