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Children's theatre is antidote to high-tech age

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, March 3 (Reuters) Children across Britain are turning off their mobile phones, televisions and computers and tuning in to the low-tech joy of theatre, getting their fix of live drama in places designed especially for them.

Dismissed by some as a middle-class luxury, fans say theatre is as vital as food and fresh air in creating healthy, happy children.

And a string of new venues designed with young theatre buffs in mind suggest they are winning the argument.

Britain has long been well served with productions for children, but has only recently acquired purpose-built, architecturally ambitious children's theatres.

The Unicorn, on London's South Bank, has won rave reviews from critics and children since it was opened in December by veteran actor and director Richard Attenborough.

Everything is at child-height, from the stair rails to the basins in the washrooms. There is a light bright foyer, with a giant unicorn, two theatre spaces, and an education studio.

A class of 30 eight-year-olds from a local school worked with the theatre's designers for three years during its construction, although a suggestion from one child that the floors should be made of chocolate was not taken up.

''Theatre has never been more necessary than now. We live in an uncertain, difficult, complex world. It's hard to find a way through. They (the children) see us as a friend,'' Unicorn's artistic director Tony Graham told Reuters.

Others say theatre plugs the gaps left by modern society.

''It's not like watching TV; it's not even like watching a film in a cinema. Everyone in that big space is alive and everyone is focused on one central activity,'' wrote Philip Pullman, one of Britain's leading children's authors.

HOUSES ON CHICKEN LEGS That was certainly true of the unruly bunch of children aged between four and eight who last month attended a performance of ''With a Doll in Her Pocket'', a play based on the the classic Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga.

Chattering and jostling, they crowded excitedly into the simple, matt-black studio theatre, but soon a hush fell as an actor drew them into a world where magic is real and houses sometimes move on chicken legs.

''The experience of being in the audience when a play or an opera is being performed is not simply passive,'' wrote Pullman in an essay produced for the Unicorn. ''Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air.'' Graham said theatre could help overcome illiteracy through narrative and through stimulating the imagination -- offering something different from many children's regular activities.

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