When I was seven years old my mum took me to see The Phantom of the Opera at the theatre. It was a surprise present for when I returned from a school trip and after booking the tickets my mum worried all week about whether I was too young – would I follow the story? Would I get bored and fidgety and disturb the other theatregoers? It’s a feeling that most parents can relate to. As it turned out I was transfixed. These were the days before health and safety officers restricted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical and at the appropriate moment an almighty chandelier dropped from the ceiling, landing just inches above the audience’s heads. From that moment I was hooked on anything and everything to do with theatre.
That was my ‘Theatre First’ – the first time I experienced the thrill of live theatre. Miranda Thain, the Creative Producer of Theatre Hullabaloo, had a similarly spectacular one. A child actor and daughter of a playwright, Miranda was surrounded by the theatre from a young age. ‘My mum took me to the pantomime when I was very little and I just hid under the seat,’ she laughs. ‘But I do remember that I was very lucky and I went to see Theatre Complicite when I was about six or seven. The only thing I can remember was that I saw a man who seemed to walk horizontally up a wall. It blew my mind because I thought the theatre really is a place where magic can happen.’
Miranda now dedicates her time to unlocking the magic of theatre for other young children. After studying in York (where she became president of the drama society), she worked in various children’s theatre and educational theatre companies nationwide before joining Theatre Hullabaloo in 2009.
Originally known as Cleveland Independent Theatre Company, Theatre Hullabaloo was formed in 1979 in Darlington, and is now one of the most exciting and influential children’s theatre companies in the UK. As well as creating and producing touring productions for children, they run England’s leading children’s theatre festival, TakeOff, and they will open the first dedicated children and young people’s theatre north of London in the North East this year.
‘When I joined the company it was very much about small scale touring to schools, mainly in the North East, and I led a re-brand to Theatre Hullabaloo,’ Miranda explains. ‘We got an uplift in our Arts Council funding and started to be more ambitious about the places we toured to – we saw our work as an important export for the region and quickly developed a national touring profile.’ In past years they’ve taken their shows to venues across the country and beyond, performing to more than 300,000 children and young people – at least 20,000 of whom had their ‘Theatre First’ with Theatre Hullabaloo.
‘Do you know where the name comes from?,’ Miranda asks me. ‘Hullabaloo has such a lovely meaning. It means noisy, fuss, fun and protest. It comes from North East and Scottish etymology and is linked to lullabies, so specifically things for children. The protest element is the thing that encapsulates our vision, because we fight really hard for the rights of children.’
Remarkably the Theatre Hullabaloo team is made up of just six people, but they work with industry experts to ensure that the work they produce is perfectly constructed to both appeal to and challenge young people. They also involve local children in every stage of their decision making.
‘When we come up with the very seed of an idea we talk to children about it,’ Miranda explains. ‘Sometimes that is children in nurseries or sometimes children’s centres or schools. They are important members of our creative team. We take their ideas and develop them with artists and then we take it back to show it to them. It’s the same if we’re developing a new show, creative play installation or even our new website.’
Their last major production, Luna, is a case in point. The sell-out Christmas show for 2–4 year olds, performed at Northern Stage last year, was inspired by Miranda’s three-year-old godson. ‘Moon was his first word and he was absolutely fascinated with where she went during the day,’ she tells me, ‘and because he was fascinated about it, I was fascinated about it too. I spent a lot of time with children in nurseries talking about the moon, what she would look like and how she would play and it grew from there.’ What emerged was a show that is essentially about the fear of the dark, which most children can relate to, but like all Theatre Hullabaloo productions it was more complicated that that.
‘A little boy is scared of the dark so he develops a friendship with the moon,’ Miranda explains. ‘He talks to her and one day she comes down to play with him in his bedroom. It’s a metaphor for how you relate to someone who comes from a different culture.’ Theatre Hullabaloo specifically try to use their productions to help children make sense of the world around them, tackling difficult subjects like young carers, ageing and death.
Luna was particularly special for Miranda, not just because of its affinity to her godson, but also because having produced over 40 shows for children, it was the first that she was able to take her two-year-old son to see. What did he think? ‘He was a little perturbed,’ she laughs, ‘because Twinkle Twinkle Little Pig was Billy in the story’s favourite song and my son is at the age where he doesn’t like things to not be as he knows them. He said, “no mummy no, it’s not little pig, it’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.’
The team also recruited groups of eight-year-old ‘consultant architects’ to help design their new theatre, The Hullabaloo, which opens its doors in November. A national centre for creativity, the theatre is going to be a space where children and families can learn and play without experiencing the anxiety surrounding a theatre trip which affected my mum all those years ago – in a nutshell, a space where children can be children without parents worrying that they’re being a nuisance to others.
Development Director Laura Case gave me a sneak peek and, as you might of guessed, it’s so much more than a theatre. ‘Theatre is very important, it’s what we do, but the space isn’t just about that, it’s about creativity in all forms,’ she explains. ‘You will come through a beautiful glass entrance into a family-friendly café and foyer space with colour-changing lights, and if you’re a parent or grown up with a grandchild, niece or nephew there’s always something for you to do.
‘At the heart of the design is an oval space that will be clad in beautiful oak: the creative play space. In that space we’ll host baby theatre and participatory classes, but we’ll also have creative play installations by artists that will happen maybe twice or three times a year to fit in with our theme. There will also be an external creative play space with lots of natural materials, tree-trunk seats, canopies and interactives like music walls. We believe in creating a blank canvas so that children can use their imaginations to create play, but we’ll have the tools there to enable that to happen.’
The auditorium will be pretty snazzy too. It can be adapted to suit an entire range of shows and has been designed with minimal steps and so that the sight lines are ideal for children. It’s kitted out with colourful fabric bench seats and even features a state-of-the-art tension wire grid (a useful piece of tech that allows Theatre Hullabaloo to work with students from local universities). It sounds like every child’s (and parent’s) dream. We can’t wait to see it.