Imagination, bullying, puppets, latchkey kids – put these together and you have Russell’s World, a play about a young boy whose imagination brings everyday objects and toys to life.
Russell just moved to a new city with his mom and he’s having some problems fitting in at school. Every day after school, he lets himself into his house and stays in his room until his mom gets home from work. Letting his imagination run free, Russell finds friends everywhere he turns and learns how to face his fear and deal with his real world problems.
Russell’s World will be staged at The Banff Centre’s Margaret Greenham Theatre, March 12-13 at 4 p.m. The play is recommended for children aged six and over.
Originally produced by the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, playwright Herbie Barnes wrote Russell’s World almost eight years ago, wanting to explore the life of a latchkey kid.
Millions of children throughout North America spend hours at home alone because their parents can’t afford or access after-school care. Most of these kids spend that time doing their homework, playing video games or watching television. Barnes was interested in how there’s been a loss of imagination in kids these days.
“Everything (in video games) is so graphic and alive. You’re right there in that environment,” he said. “We had to create those environments with our imagination.”
To make Russell’s imaginings come alive, Barnes, who also stars as Russell, and a team of backstage puppeteers had to use their imaginations to make everyday objects into the stuff of dreams. “Even though it’s pretty straight forward puppeting, we’re always discovering new ways of doing it,” said Barnes.
It’s the puppetry that gets kids talking about the play in the Q&A sessions after performances. “The kids are amazed when we demonstrate how we do things,” said Barnes.
And talking about puppets gets kids talking about the themes of the play, offering their thoughts on imagination, being alone at home or bullying at school. “They’re always willing to offer solutions to how that shouldn’t happen, so they’re quite aware of that theme as well,” said Marjie Chud, one of the puppeteers and a teacher.
“The puppetry sparks, allows the questions about the stories to come out,” said Barnes.
This conversation is part of what the Manitoba Theatre for Young People does so well, said Barnes. “MTYP is brilliant at creating, not just a show, but a dialogue.”
As part of that dialogue, MTYP provides a study guide for teachers whose classes are seeing Russell’s World. The play has been performed across Canada and is currently scheduled for performances at the Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and at the Vancouver Children’s Festival.
Barnes and Chud recently returned from a performance at the Fisher River Cree Nation where they performed in the school gym. It’s a privilege to go into a place where theatre isn’t taught, said Barnes, adding students kept leaving to go to the bathroom so they could sneak a look at what was going on backstage. “I love children’s theatre for that,” said Barnes.
MTYP’s approach to exposing theatre to youth fits in well with The Banff Centre’s Performance for Families Series, which will have a Pre-Performance craft room and Post-Performance discussions with the artists.
“To expand on it and to allow kids to actively participate in learning beyond what they’ve seen is a pleasure,” said Chud. “It’s a treat.”