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Waiting for Godot for five year olds

This is the written version of the presentation I gave on my master research project: How to make a Waiting for Godot for children. Please note: The text was written to be heard, not be read. But I would like to share it with you anyway.

I love Beckett. The extreme complex simplicity of his work, the darkness with humour, the existentialism and especially the absurdity.

The young audience is the most interesting audience to me. Children are so receptive to theatre. They respond emotionally and in the moment. They either love you, or hate you and they won’t be politely quiet. It’s not easy at all. As Stanislavski said the performance should be: “As for adults, but better”.

Youth theatre should never be dumbed down or patronizing. Children are able to understand, enjoy and learn from everything. I was wondering: if this is true, then how to make a Beckett inspired play for children? I decided to focus this research project on Beckett’s most famous play.

How to make a Waiting for Godot for children? I focused on 5 to 7 year olds.

The literature research consisted of two subjects: First the young audience and second the performance history of Godot: what have other directors, including Beckett himself, done with this play. This literature informed the development of a module for the practical exploration in this research project.

There isn’t anything written about Beckett for young ones. What a gap.  The only thing I found was a brilliant scene from sesame street from the 70s. Introduced with ‘This is a play so modern, nobody understands.’ The scene ends with the tree being so annoyed, it walks away.

The practice as research was about:

When the play gets brought to live by actors, what is already there in the text a director can use when making a children’s adaptation?

How do children feel about waiting and a play about waiting? What do they think should happen in the play?

 Workshopping the play with actors

I wanted to look at the play as a director, working in a studio with actors. My wonderful master actor classmates Matty and Charlie have helped me as Estragon and Vladimir with workshopping the play. This is different from trying to make an adaptation as a writer. I wanted to see it brought to life; and find the moments suitable for a children’s play together with the actors.

I chose a scene from the beginning of the play to focus on.

Beckett called this part A2 in his Regiebuch,  a book with notes he made while directing Waiting for Godot himself at the Schiller Theatre in 1975. He returned to his play, 25 years after writing it and used the opportunity to come back to the what he called ‘mistakes’ he made when writing it.

 The performance history of Waiting for Godot by Bradby states: “The history of the many productions of Waiting for Godot falls into two clear periods; those before and those after the revelation of Beckett’s own 1975 production”(2005, p.139).

 Beckett in the Theatre from 1988, by McMillan and Fehsenfeld, focuses on this production completely. It was a very interesting source, because I discovered what Beckett himself had to say about his play.

 MacMillan and Fehsenfeld say about the part we wanted to work on: “In A-2 the waiting assumes a more active form: both Estragon and Vladimir move about the stage to inspect the scene; they eat, piss, walk and actually consider suicide instead of just talking about is” (1988, p. 89).

 Doesn’t sound like a very suitable part for 5 year olds right? Well Charlie, Matty and I actually discovered many moments which could be used.

 A critical side note: I haven’t been able to test these moments with actual 5 year olds, so it’s based on my own knowledge of youth theatre and my research on it.  

The workshop

First we looked at the script, we worked on it as if it was for adults. I tried to clean all the movement and make the choices very clear and simple.

Then we tried to find moments which we could focus on, change a little bit, or exaggerate. The opposite of what I would do for adults happened: we made it bigger, funnier, extremer and less subtle.

 For example, the moment when Vladimir is feeling lonely, so he wakes up the loudly snoring Estragon. Charlie screamed and screamed at Matty before he finally woke up.

Second we tried Beckett’s own notes, and if they would work for young children.  

Discovering ‘Becketts own hand’ was amazing to me. The  book Beckett in the theatre gave so much more information on the theatricalization as opposite to just the text of the play. So much of it was about the movement, between the lines. When working with Matty and Charlie, we tried to apply Becketts drawings of A2 in what we were making for kids.

 We discovered that the clarity of Beckett’s directing actually works very well for a young audience. It has a preciseness which makes it easier to understand. Everything has meaning. We combined this whith the exaggeration we found before.

Third we focused on the characters.

The World premiere of Waiting for Godot inspired me to try this. Waiting for Godot was first performed in French at the Theatre Babylone, Paris, in January 1953. It was directed by Roger Blin. It took Blin longer than three years to find a venue and finance for this first and lowbudget production, which gives an interesting perspective on how Becketts work was received in the beginning.

 Nowadays we know what we are going in to when watching Waiting for Godot, but it must have been an unnerving experience for those first audiences. The experience children have with the play could be more similar to this.

When directing Blin focused on the physical drives and ailments of each character.  There was a big contrast between the physicality of the not moving, hungry and sleepy Estragon and the high energy of Vladimir.

 We tried this and it is something which can be useful when performing it for children, as it is a simple and clear opposite, giving information about the characters. It was immediately funny, especially when Charlie got annoyed at Matty who was also talking very slowly.

Fourth – censorship

Fourth, there is the question of what to take out of the play, because it’s for children?

The first production of Waiting for Godot performed in English was directed by Peter Hall in 1953.

Waiting for Godot by Bradby states “British theatre at this time had to answer to the lord chamberlains office and all play scripts had to be submitted for his approval. Beckett was asked to adjust some lewd references but he refused to remove the references to erections or the falling down of Estragon’s trousers” (Bradby, 2005, p. 59).

Looking at the scene: Yes I would take the erection references out when directing it for five year olds.

And also the talking about suicide. Instead of hanging themselves from the tree we tried talking about climbing it. For me it became a beautiful moment. We only had to change a few sentences in the text.

Climbing trees is a thing young children understand. It is something they have thought about doing, it’s exciting. But they know the danger of it. I feel like there is a little bit of existentialism there actually.

Workshopping the play with 5 year olds

How do young children feel about waiting. Is it something they do? Something they know, and have an opinion about? What is their first respond to the concept of waiting for Godot and what do they think should happen in a version of the play, especially meant for them?

Over Christmas I went back to the school in Amsterdam where I used to teach drama and did a workshop with 15 5 and 6 year olds. My method was inspired on Peter Wynne-Wilsons Peter Pan Approach, making plays through playing with children,  and is partly based on a Drawing with children about -theatre technique developed by Matthew Reason.

Workshop

I wanted to combine these two methods and designed a workshop. I honestly told the kids I needed their help. Based on Reason’s theory: I told them that they as the children are the experts. I brought my partner Olmo, and together we said we were making a play called ‘Waiting by the tree.’ We said we had started making it, but that we didn’t know what should happen next. We performed our first scene, in which we did nothing but standing and waiting by a tree. We wore bowler heads.

Every group immediately responded. They got so annoyed that they could hardly stay seated. At the same time they were laughing at us. The situation of this being theatre was immediately absurd to them.

We stopped the scene and asked their opinions.

Some quotes:

“would you like it if you were watching someone just standing there?”

“You are not doing anything so it’s boring!”

 “You should do something like write your name on the tree!”

 After this first scene I asked them questions about waiting. Had they ever waited for something? How did they feel about that?

 “I once waited for two years. But I can’t remember why.”

“I have to wait until I am an adult so I can use my ipad whenever I want.”

“I waited for my plant to grow. I gave it water and then went to stay over at my cousins house. When I came home it still hadn’t grown.”

 “Sometimes I have to wait on the toilet for my poop.”

They had all experienced waiting before, it felt like a theme they all knew and felt something about.

After this we started talking about the play a little bit, to prepare them for the real exercise. We talked about what could happen between the two characters, what is something you can do while you are waiting, or what or who could come in to the story and what could happen than. I asked them to draw a tree and two men standing next to it. Then I asked them to draw what they thought should happen in our play.

The analyses:

The children drew a lot of stuff. They made up a lot of things from outside, that could come in to the story. Like dinosaurs, villians and police, space shuttles, a pinguin with a space helmet and a giant wurm that came to eat us. It confirmed Wynne-wilson Peter Pan approach theory: children at play, tend to mix the mythical, the surreal and the everyday easily together. Abbigail started with making a drawing of me being pregnant, probably something she had just learned about. It had nothing to do with the rest of her drawing.

It was the day before new years eve which gave a very funny result: Two third of the kids drew fireworks. A lot of them also made Christmas stuff, including the Grinch, who set fire to our tree, also made by Abbeygail.

In almost every drawing we, me and Olmo, as the main characters, we were just standing there, watching all the interesting stuff happening around us. Only a very few children made something happen to us, or made us do something in their version of the play.

These were two brilliant ideas, which I could actually see myself using;

Lewis, 6 old, drew, without ever having heard of it, Happy days. He made Olmo sink in to the ground, while I was watching him.

 This one is by Juna. Juna said she drew us planting a seed, and then waiting for the tree to grow. Which just takes a very long time… I thought it was a very poetic interpretation of the story. And a very accessible one for little ones.

 Me and Olmo had told them that we were performing, but had I told them that in the story we were two men. I didn’t tell them, but I think some of the children guessed it anyway, that we are a couple. This influenced their version of the Play.

For example this one, by Guusje. She drew me, waiting for my boyfriend to arrive at the tree. I realised how personal the story is to them. It was not about these random abstract two guys, to her it really was about me and Olmo.

 Also very interesting was that even though I only asked them to think about the story, some of the children were really aware that it was a play we were talking about. Juna asked me for example if it was okay if she brought in an extra actor. This confirmed to me Reasons theory that children think about the practical and devoked at the same time. Not even when just seeing it, but apparently also when imagining it.

 There weren’t a lot of things drawn which I would actually use. But this workshop was a uge confirmation to me that there should be a Waiting for Godot for kids. It will be so interesting to them. Especially because they really really want something to happen. That’s exactly why I think nothing should.  

I have to make some critical notes to my research:

I might have pushed the children in a direction. A lot of my examples were also drawn.

They copied and influenced each other a lot.

What is the layer of the play I discussed with them? I focused on the waiting and the absurdity. This probably means I missed some existentialism and the importance of the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir.

I decided not to tell them about Godot. If I would do the workshop again I would try to talk to them about who they think Godot is or could be.

In a next step, a play or a product, I would bring him back in.

The next step: A childrens book. With a Godot, but who doesn’t come.

My research and workshops inspired me to think about a next step: I think it would be so cool to make a children’s picture book of Waiting for Godot.

I think the book itself could be really cool, but it could also help me as a director. What choices do I make in telling the story? What visual choices do I make drawing it?

When I started sketching and writing the picture book a little bit I discovered for example I think the tree should be really high in my childrens version. It should be a birch tree, so its looks like its covered with eyes.

Some of the drawings I made you have seen during this presentation.

Inspired on my workshop with the 5year olds I think at the end of the book there should be a page saying:

So many things could have happened in this story. But no things did.

Thinking about an under title was also very inspiring. I was thinking about:

Waiting for Godot – A story in which basically nothing happens.

Or

Waiting for Godot – A very boring story.