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Arts Festival Review: Children's Cheering Carpet

Arts Festival Review: Children's Cheering Carpet

Review by Lyndon Hood

Children's Cheering Carpet Series
Compagnia TPO
8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16 March
50 Minutes
$25/$22.50/$15 for details and free interactive installation times

There are three stories in the Children's Cheering Carpet series. This review is of 'The Japanese Garden' on 8 March.

In Children's Cheering Carpet series, Italian company Compagnia TPO uses the same interactive technology as the dance piece Glow – the light, and the scenery, in the performance is provided by a video projector above the stage, which is linked to a sensor that can see where people are within the white rectangle of the performance space and alters the projections (and the audio soundtrack) accordingly.

Unlike Glow, however, we take our shoes off as we enter the room, because we might (if we are one of the children, who are seated in the front row, almost certainly) get to join in.

The way this works makes The Japanese Garden a hugely successful use use of the new technology; one that redefines the idea of interactive theatre.

The Japanese Garden is based around a story of the origin of the japanese garden: boy goes on a journey to the sea and returns, he cannot tell his story using words so he builds it with sticks, leaves, flowers and stones. First a narrator tells us this story, sitting in a light at the corner of the stage. Then a dancer enters the space and the projector brings it to life, with brightly-coloured, active scenes from the story that respond as she walks, runs, jumps or stamps throught them.

This is quite a nice show in itself – the frame of the story makes sense of these disperate scenes and it's interesting to watch them dancer interacting with the vibrant multimedia landscapes.

But it's also a demonstration of how the system works – useful because the next thing that happens is that, in ones, twos or larger groups, children are quietly given any necessary instructions and then sent out to play in one of these digitally created scenes.

The question The Japanese Garden has successfully answered (that Glow, to my mind, didn't) is 'What are we using this technology for?'. A big part of the answer is the creation of a kind of audio-visual trap for tricking people from the audience (young and old, but mostly young) into becoming performers.

These scenes, once you've solved the puzzle of how to work them, become games that encourage you to act in some particular way. To hunt around the white space until you find the spot that unlocks the next scene. To chase floating flowers that run from your shadow or jump from stone to stone along a path the appears before you and vanishes behind you. To stand on a giant floating leaf along with about ten others and all chase it as it meanders about the space. To make music on a bridge whose planks are a keyboard connected to a quite novel selection of sounds. To roll like the sea.

The principle here is similar to an underlying idea of Theatresports: if you can get people to actually play a game on stage, they might forget they're behaving a bit oddly in front of a lot of people. And it seems to work especially well with kids. It's rather like going to the Body Movies installation outside Te Papa in the evenings and watching the people playing with their giant shadows – with the rather significant difference that you're sitting in an officially-defined audience and you've paid to gawk.

It's a series of straightforward – if startlingly large-scale – computer games, with a story wrapped around them, and and audience wrapped around that. It's endearing to watch – not just the children but also the occasional mum or dad who were asked to come up and have a go. It was also the most natural behaviour I can remember seeing on a stage.

The event finished with a return to narration and the story of the garden closed, and forms that had been traced by the hands of the narrator at the beginning to show the different landscapes of the journey were laid on the stage with real stones, leaves, sticks and flowers. It was a close to the story and a bringing-together of the threads of a work that all of us had created.

The kids seemed to like it just fine. I was blown away. If Compagnia TPO haven't done something genuinely new here, I certainly haven't seen anything like it. As far as audience participation goes it sure blows clapping-if-you-believe-in-fairies out of the water.


Children's Cheering Carpet on the Arts Festival website (includes video)
Scoop full coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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