An interview with director Isabella Chiam: how theatre can resonate with children and encourage unstructured play
Kids took the lead while parents sat in the backseat at PLAYtime! Together, an interactive theatre performance for children aged 3 to 6 that ran at the Esplanade Theatre Studio until 21 Aug. The performance was also accessible to children with diverse needs and sensory issues.
The play follows two siblings, Gor Gor and Mei Mei, as they use their imagination to help each other cope during the pandemic. With their mother busy teleworking, the siblings have to adjust to their ‘new normal’ and learn how to play on their own within the confines of their home.
Directed by Isabella Chiam, PLAYtime! Together explores the topic of sibling relationships and how children can engage in “unstructured imaginative play” – a set of activities that kids dream up on their own without adult intervention. Chiam aims to leave audiences participating in her play with “wonderful childhood memories, a sense of wonder and a spark of creativity”.
The A list spoke to Chiam about the inspiration behind PLAYtime! Together, her creative journey, and how she made theatre accessible to children.
What inspired you to create a play about two siblings and their ‘new normal’?
The idea for the play actually began one or two years ago during the height of the pandemic, when everyone was still dealing with lockdowns. Everything had grinded to a halt and people were stuck in their homes, trying to continue their lives in spite of the disruption. I was hearing stories of siblings fighting more, parents having to take care of their kids while dealing with work, kids finding new ways to play. So it prompted me to think about what it would have been like for siblings to play and interact with each other in such unusual circumstances.
I was also interested in how unstructured play has evolved for children over this period of time, and how technology has become such a big factor in the way children grow up, play, and relate to the world. So, ‘Together’ was the culmination of two questions I had: one about unstructured play and imagination, and one about sibling relationships in modern times. In the course of the research and development of the piece, we identified that the themes of family and sibling relationships resonated the most with test audiences, and that helped to shape and anchor the play. That’s how we ended up with a show about two siblings being stuck at home.
Why do you feel that ‘unstructured play’ is important for children?
It’s important for so many reasons, all relating to the social, emotional, and psychological development and well-being of the child.
Having the time to do nothing allows the child to be free to explore, to express, to create within the limits of their imagination. They can create their own games, pick up problem-solving abilities, process information, and learn important social skills in the course of playing freely. And most importantly, it is led by the child and allows them to take control of their own learning through play.
All this is well documented in countless articles and research papers, and sadly it is something that we seem to do less of, because of the way our lives have evolved.
What is your favourite scene or activity from PLAYtime! Together? And, why?
The moving door sequence, when the two siblings go around exploring and playing. That took a while to figure out, but it’s just such a joyful sequence and one that makes me smile every time. Actually, watching the two siblings on stage just makes me smile, period.
Do you have any advice for parents on how to approach this interactive play?
I would say to just enjoy this time with them, and play with them too as they play with us during the show. And afterwards, go have ice cream and talk about what you saw and liked and remembered. The show is just a fun way to start conversations in the family about important things. Audiences will expect some humour, lots of imagination, and interaction (and also a little dash of K-pop).
You worked with an early childhood consultant, Elaine Ng, to bring this production to life. What was that experience like?
It was great to have Elaine on the team. She gave me some insights into the age group that we are creating the show for, and provided some suggestions on how to make the play more relatable to them. She was my outside eye, and helped me shape the script so that the important themes are strengthened and excess is cut away.
Did you discover anything unusual or surprising about the way children learn?
Children are very, very smart and very keen observers. But it is surprising to me that they are getting increasingly more knowledgeable about the world at younger ages. For example, children in kindergarten are now very much into K-pop, and enjoy the likes of Blackpink and BTS. They are sponges and the rate at which they absorb things is much faster than we expect, and even more so now, with easy access to the internet and technology. That was really surprising to me.
What was the most challenging part about this production?
All the moving parts! Petrina, my set designer and Yong Huay, my lighting designer, together with my puppet maker Huibin, were very much involved in the creation of all the magic you see on stage. They had to work together closely as their departments overlapped in many aspects and it took time, patience, and lots of communication to build a world that was very cohesive. It was tricky, especially when we were putting the show together, but it was worth all the work when we hear the audience gasp at the different worlds created by my wonderful team onstage.
Stay updated on the PLAYtime! series at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Photos: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay)
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