The Gruffalo & A Little Dramaturgical Thinking

Watching children’s theatre and thinking about ‘all the world’s a stage’.

The Melbourne Arts Centre staging of The Room On The Broom in 2017 was by UK company, Tall Stories Theatre, production of Julia Donaldson’s & Axel Scheffler’s award-winning picture book. It was produced in Australia and New Zealand by CDP Kids.

Bringing my granddaughter to view the production gave me a personal occasion to think about the meaning of the theatrical metaphor of ‘all the world’s a stage’. As a five-year-old brought up on small screens, I noticed that the size of the auditorium was a problem for her.  Put simply, the distance between her and the stage together with the continual nature of the live performance which she couldn’t stop, start and rewind seemed a challenging experience.  It’s not that she didn’t like the presentation, but rather that the auditorium’s size and her position in it seem to diminish her because I suspect she didn’t see herself part of the bigger audience.

Another children’s theatre experience

In 2013, I viewed the London production of The Gruffalo at the Lyric Theatre in the West End with two other children.

At that time, I was writing for One Stop Arts at the height of the London theatre blogging era. My review was one of nearly 100 that I wrote for London fringe theatre blogging websites between 2011 and 2013.

On this occasion, I convinced my editor that ‘co-creating’ a review of children’s theatre with a child might be an interesting idea. Eight-year-old family friend, Henry Trevelyan volunteered for the job.

Usually, just the two of us set out on an assignment but when little brother Elliot heard that we were seeing the Gruffalo, he couldn’t miss out, so mum Rachel made sure he came along as the assistant reviewer.

When I thought about the difference between my experience in the Melbourne Arts Centre with that of the more intimate Victorian-styled Lyric theatre, I remember thinking how Henry seemed to delight in the use of space and costume changes because he was close enough to the stage to see the ‘magic’ happen.

This is a summary of what I wrote at the time

A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark wood …

The play of The Gruffalo is looked on with anticipation by my co-reviewers, eight-year-old Henry and his six-year-old brother, Elliot, as we walk down Shaftesbury Avenue.

As we take our seats we view an impressive golden rusty coloured forest. I watch the children feast on the spectacle – as do I.

As the lights dim and gasps fill the theatre,  the performance begins with two men, dressed very plainly in grey working clothes, carrying a small sleeping creature onto the stage. This is how the audience is introduced to the production’s cast of three – Susanna Jennings (Mouse), Tom Crook (The Gruffalo) and the Predators, played by Timothy Richey.

Through the eyes of the child

As the performance moves on, Henry is particularly impressed with Timothy Richey’s transformation from the second storyteller to fox, owl and snake. He whispers to me how he thinks the costuming is perfect. I too find the scripting and choreographing of the three predator roles clever:  the fox as a farmer-squire, the owl a bomber-commander and the snake a hip-swinging Latin dancer.

Most impressively, I notice how this is part of an overall artistic direction in the play for separating staging conventions from simpler storytelling ones. The opening, warm-up the audience with the banter of pantomime and the slickness of a magician’s act just to show how the mouse loves to eat nuts. This is not “the book” but a way of sharing the theme of the book with a live audience.

Henry is completely engaged with little mouse’s challenge of facing up to her risks involve in finding her favourite food.

The real magic, however, happens as the dynamic storytellers continue to build and share Julia Donaldson’s text with the audience. Their grey workman-like outfits make perfect sense as they create the world of the story in which the forest and its creatures exist. The transformation of the main storyteller into the Gruffalo is all part of the constant transformations taking place.

Six-year-old Elliot checks out the authenticity of the monster on stage by unrolling the poster-cum-programme and scrutinising the bouncing mass of fur, with purple spikes, on stage against Axel Scheffler’s illustration. Luckily, the stage presentation of the character passes the test.

How to view stage pictures

It seems so obvious now to say that the theatrical metaphor all depends on a spectator engaging with the context of the subjunctive ‘what if’ in a theatrical space.

In Theatre& Mind,(2012) Bruce McConachie explains how cognitive science can now explain that our delight in viewing stage performances is fundamental to our human nature.

It is, in fact, a crucial part of our evolutionary history that has enabled our human capacity for conceptual blending or integration that “facilitates many aspects of human cognition, from the ability to use grammar and language to our understanding of analogies and cause-effect processes”. It is conceptual blending which also facilitates our capacity to ‘role-play’. Had Coleridge understood the cognitive dynamics of conceptually blending, he probably would have revised his thinking on the leap of faith required for  ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.(p.19)

Ethical thinking: a lesson from Shakespeare

In its theocentric world, it is the ethical essence of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy that sets up the metaphor of the ‘world as a stage’.

Watching performances in the reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank reminds me how the metatheatrical nature of his plays happens on what theatre historian Richard Southern describes as “a stage in an audience”.  

To be in the theatre is to experience how ‘the world of the stage’ makes its metaphorical language and visual symbolism real. I am remembering how Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28 evokes the deeply paradoxical view of a flawed man with the noble potential to be a king. 

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing

Experiencing paradox

As the image of Ray Fearon portraying the Scottish King in the Globe’s 2016 production reminds me, there is no question that Macbeth makes a compelling case for why life signifies ‘nothing’.  Ironically, his despair also confirms his spiritual damnation.  Like Faust in Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy, Macbeth’s eloquence enacts his inability, according to Christian ethics, to avail himself of God’s mercy and grace. 

However, in playing the role of Macbeth, the actor relies on being empathetic,  which, according to cognitive science, is not an emotion but a many-layered ability dependent on the ‘mirror cells’ in the brain’s neocortex.  Remarkably,  these give rise to the human cognitive capacity to respond to actions “in the same way whether you perform the action yourself or see someone else do it”.

As a spectator watching the enactment of a despairing man, I am able through ‘sensorimotor coupling’ to read the mind of the performer in a matter of milliseconds. I place myself in ‘the shoes of the actor’ through an ‘imaginary transposition’. (McConachie, p.32)

I experience the paradox of knowing Macbeth’s spiritual damnation, while simultaneously identifying with his feelings of despair.

Communicating in a digital world

“We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.” Erving Goffman

Macbeth and The Gruffalo in the theatre still seem some distance away conceptually from what it takes to understand what it means to communicate in a digital world.

Yet, Andrew Wood and Matthew Smith describe in Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, & Culture (2005, 2014) how the “blurring of technology with our everyday lives” fuels a tension between the immediate and the mediated nature of communications that gives rise to online communication as ‘performance art’. Referring to sociologist Erving Goffman’s (1959) use of dramaturgical thinking as a process by which humans enacted everyday life, they note how “Goffman’s fascination with the theatrical metaphor”  has become a key way to explain how people construct identities online.

From their compelling arguments, then, how do I reconcile the ‘blurring of technology with our everyday lives’ with my own classical knowledge of the performing arts?

From what distance and ethical consideration should I navigate the interplay that is taking place in theatre history, sociology and cognitive science?