July 26, 2008

Theater makes children strong

'Theater makes children strong'

The Jakarta Post, Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tam Notosusanto, Contributor, Jakarta

You can't question Norbert Radermacher's dedication to children. He had taught theater at a school in a small German town called Lingen for years and still did not feel he had done enough. The former football player, who studied philosophy, arts and drama, felt there was much more to do beyond working within the curriculum and in the classroom.

So he founded Theater Pedagogical Center (TPZ) in 1980 with the support from the Emslandische Landschaft e.V., the governments of the Lower Saxony, Emsland and Bentheim districts, and the municipality of Lingen. Located in Lingen, a town of about 60,000 residents situated in the Northwest of Germany, near the Netherlands border, TPZ is now Germany's biggest academy for theater, play, dance and circus education. Besides offering drama courses for children and young people, it also has workshops, seminars, and training for teachers, social workers and individuals to promote theater as a means of cultural education.

In 1990, Radermacher introduced the World Festival of Children's Theater, where children's theater groups from all over the world perform in front of an international audience. The festival also holds symposiums attended by theater pedagogues from 24 member countries who discuss the latest trends in children's theater work. Established in cooperation with the International Amateur Theater Association (IATA/AITA), the festival has been held alternately in Turkey, Denmark, Japan and Cuba as well as in its home base, Lingen, Germany.

This September he made his first ever trip to Indonesia to give workshops to children's theater groups in Jakarta and Bandung. Here are excerpts from an interview with Radermacher and from his discussion with leaders of children's theater groups in Jakarta.

What was the idea behind the Theater Pedagogical Center?

Twenty-six years ago there were a lot of music schools and art schools in Germany. But there was no theater school. I realized teachers and social workers are looking for such an institution. They work using social methods but those methods don't work for very long because young people need much more. You have to take care of them, you need to push them. How do we do that?

Theater is good to push them. There's no better place for saying what you're thinking, what is on your mind, than onstage. Onstage you are an artist, you can say "we want a better society," or "we don't want war" or "we want freedom." The stage for me is not like painting. With painting, you can do it by yourself, then hang the picture on the wall. Theater needs an audience. So it's wonderful for young people. You can feel it. Children can be powerful when they are onstage, they are strong. The adults in the audience are always amazed, they will say "Oh my God, I didn't know they were strong." If children are strong, they can play an effective role in society.

What have been the challenges of establishing and maintaining it for the past 26 years?

When you start an institution like this, you need well-trained, educated, artistic people. We needed both artists and pedagogues. But not all artists can work with children, and not all pedagogues can teach art. So we did a lot of training and workshops for teachers and artists so that they acquired the balance.

We want to involve as many social workers and teachers, but the problem is, a lot of them have no experience in art. So I brought them to meet artists, for them to hold some forums of dialog to learn from each other.

After 26 years, TPZ now is an academy for theater, dance and circus. We also have theater programs for handicapped children and programs for senior citizens. But our main work is with children. The focus of our drama education is not primarily on the eventual performance or show, but rather, the process leading up to it: training of expression, working within a group and the joy in playing.

Now we have 25 full-time staff, others work on projects for two or three years before they go back to their schools or social work to implement what they learned from TPZ.

How did the World Festival of Children's Theater come about?

Every year, the children of TPZ's theater, dance and circus classes meet for a theater festival named "Children play and dance for children." There they have the opportunity to perform their work and learn from each other. Groups from all over Lingen participated. It became a regular event every January.

The event became the inspiration for a world-level festival. Especially when after I visited the World Theater Festival for adults of the International Amateur Theater Association in Monaco in 1985, I realized there was no children's theater festival in the world. There were already lots of professional theater festivals or puppet theater festivals, but no world children's theater festival.

And so we had the first World Festival of Children's Theater in 1990 in Lingen. It brought children theater groups from all over the world together. Before 1990, we had worked separately, in our respective countries, holding national-level festivals. We did not know one another. But since we did this festival, we've gotten to know one another. We all come to one place on a world level and have been able to compare work between Japan and South America, between Europe and Asia. The network was born and it quickly expanded before I even began to think about it. I've been invited to many countries. I went to India, and I met a person from Pakistan. Next, I got invited to Pakistan. It's like a snowball effect.

If you do a local festival for children, nobody will interview you, no TV will come because it's not that interesting. But an international festival, that's interesting. That will draw a lot of attention.

I do it for the children, because children don't have (an avenue to) lobby. You have to give children the (opportunity to) lobby (for their interests), the possibility to think about something. So we have to build the network. Secondly, we have to give children space in this world.

Theater Tan Air from Indonesia has won first prize two consecutive times at the 2004 and 2006 festivals. What was your impression upon visiting them here?

I'm surprised to hear Tanah Air doesn't have space, any room. (Teater Tanah Air regularly rehearses in the lobby of Graha Bhakti Budaya at Ismail Marzuki Arts Center --Ed.) It's a wonderful group. The children should have room. Jakarta is a big city, I don't understand why the government can't give Tanah Air space for rehearsals. I know a lot of theater groups in South America, in Africa, much poorer countries. They have theater houses. I want to talk about this, I want to make articles. We have to give children space to come together, to communicate with each other, to be creative. Don't just give them computers.

But many theater groups in Indonesia are used to rehearsing in lobbies, in their backyards, on the sidewalk. It's their cultural tradition, they can rehearse anywhere.

Well, it's maybe my European way of thinking. Children should have their own space. Children's theater groups should have their own theater houses. I really want to take the children of Tanah Air to stage a demonstration in front of the city government's building, demanding a room. This just reflects the government's indifference: that Indonesia has a rich culture, as shown by Tanah Air's performance, and that they need space to grow. We need to respect them, talk to them at the same level, not talk down to them. Because we want to make them strong, we want them to play an important role in the future of the country. ***