Children have their pick of high-tech playthings like Xbox 360s and Nintendo 3DSs, but We Built This City shows that sometimes the best toy is just a cardboard box.
Created by Melbourne’s Polyglot Theatre, the interactive performance piece toured to the capital last week for five days as part of the Taipei Children’s Arts Festival (台北兒童藝術節). During each event, 200 children and their accompanying adults had free run of Taipei Municipal Dongmen Elementary School’s (台北市東門國民小學) gymnasium, which had been stocked with 3,000 boxes ranging in size from small cubes ideal for building blocks to extra large cases as tall as an average kindergartner.
Polyglot cast members, identifiable by their apple red hard hats and navy blue overalls, occasionally lent a helping hand, but otherwise let the children take control. On Wednesday afternoon, the kids, most of whom were between four to 12, exercised their cardboard engineering skills to upbeat tunes spun by DJ jez.f (real name Jerry Fang, 方宜正), a member of experimental electronica group KbN (凱比鳥).
Photo Courtesy of the Taipei Children’s Art Festival
Many children built arches too small to fit an adult, gleefully burrowing into narrow tunnels and laughing when they discovered their parents couldn’t follow them inside. Other kids enclosed themselves in “nests” of stacked boxes taller than they were. After wandering around the gym for several minutes, I finally managed to find an entryway I could squeeze under, only to be stopped by a boy about seven years old.
“Pardon me. This is my house,” he said in a polite but firm voice. “But you can take a quick look.” Once inside, he put me to work, handing me boxes and instructing me to pile them on top of a “wall” with the authority of an experienced construction foreman.
The tickets for We Built This City’s nine Taipei performances, which ended yesterday afternoon, sold out within 40 minutes, a first for the show said creator Sue Giles.
Photo Courtesy of the Taipei Children’s Art Festival
Giles, the artistic director of Polyglot Theatre, was inspired to make the piece in 2001 after observing her two young children’s fascination with cardboard boxes, which often proved much more alluring than the toys packaged within. Her kids turned the boxes into hiding places, spaceships, cut them apart and used them as art supplies.
“Toys are very prescriptive now and there is a lot of detail. Part of our philosophy is that you give children really simple material and suddenly they can create anything they want,” said Giles in a telephone interview from Melbourne last week.
In preparation for their Taipei tour, We Built This City’s first to a non-English speaking country, cast members, who are trained in puppetry, mime, movement and improvisation, learned a few phrases in Mandarin, like “very good” (很好) and “keep going” (加油). Aside from giving the children challenges, like a competition to see which group could build the tallest tower, or clowning around to put shyer kids at ease, We Built This City’s cast keep a mostly hands-off approach.
“The freedom to play is very important, as long as what we do allows them to be imaginative and creative,” said performer Mischa Long on Wednesday afternoon.
We Built This City, which heads to Okinawa this week, has already toured to cities all over Australia, the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Singapore and the US.
“One of the things we love about this project is that wherever it goes, the building is really different,” said Giles.
In Washington DC, teams of children stacked boxes into tall structures that echoed the US capital’s monuments before taking souvenir snapshots in front of their creations. Melbourne kids built roomy houses with big backyards; Singaporean children engineered soaring skyscrapers; and in England and Scotland, the young builders focused on elaborate castles.
In Taiwan, Long said many children and their adults made little houses filled with furniture, including tables and chairs where they gathered for tea parties.
On the last day of each of We Built This City’s tours, all children and adults are invited to trample every box flat in a riotous farewell celebration.
The boxes, which have served the children as mazes, palaces and cozy homes, are then collected for recycling.
“It’s a reminder for adult audiences who used to play in backyards of how fun that was. I think a lot of kids now don’t get that. A lot of them have amazing entertainment systems but they don’t know how to climb a tree,” said Giles. “We really take pleasure in bringing the simple stuff to parents and teachers, to remind them how easy it is and that entertainment doesn’t mean a lot of money.”
On the Net: Polyglot Theatre www.polyglottheatre.com and Taipei Children’s Art Festival www.taipeicaf.org
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