DANISH+ has a proud history of exporting theatre for young people to the entire world. PAY speaks to artistic leader Bodil Alling about what it takes to make universally-loved work
When it comes to children, the Danish have it down. From the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, to iconic animated film Benny’s Bathtub, to TV show John Dillermand (you can look that last one up yourself), the country has been blessed with people who know how to make great kids entertainment.
So perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that one of the world’s best children’s theatre showcase takes place in Aarhus, Denmark. The port city of some 330,000 people hosts DANISH+ every two years, with the showcase returning in 2022 for the first time since the Covid pandemic.
“I think we have just gotten used to high standards for children here in Denmark,” explains showcase artistic leader Bodil Alling, when asked why Denmark produces so much great culture for kids. “Why should a production have less quality just because it’s made for kids? We should speak to them at eye level, because while we might have more life experience than them, we’re just the same.”
This spirit – of high quality and direct engagement – has made DANISH+ a huge success over the last 14 years. After each edition, multiple shows presented on its stages have been booked for international trips for kids’ theatres and festivals…although it’s not just children who enjoy the performances.
“Our attitude is that these productions are not just for children: they are also for adults,” notes Alling. “It’s theatre for everyone, and that includes children.”
This year’s programme includes 12 productions, plus three shows that will be presented as pitches. They cover everything from Ai-Ai-Ai, a show about our obsession with screens and what that means; to acrobatic stunt show Walk Man; to tender historical tale Tango that speaks of a grandfather’s journey to South America.
Each of the shows has been adapted into English for international audiences. But how do Alling and her team actually judge what will work beyond the borders of Denmark?
“The first thing we look for is quality,” she answers. “After 40 years in this business I can look at something and see whether everyone involved is doing a good job. It’s like when you pick up a book and you can just tell right away if it’s well written.
“The next thing is the story,” she continues. “It has to be a story or the idea that draws you in. For me, that’s the most important thing – the production should make me lose myself in the moment and forget my surroundings.
“Finally, we consider which shows will work internationally. Sometimes I see wonderful performances but they are just too Danish; they relate to culture, morals or ethics that can’t move outside of the country. This is a big issue in general in work for youngsters, because each country has its own rules about what you can and can’t present to kids.”
As you might imagine, this leads to a lot of healthy debate among the DANISH+ delegates when they meet up after a performance.
“It’s really great to listen and take part in these conversations, they can get quite loud!” laughs Alling, as she recalls past discussions. “You get people from China, Russia, Australia and the US with totally different opinions about the same show. Sometimes one person will really hate something, while another will be crying about how beautiful it was. This kind of debate is really useful for us, and it helps us understand what kinds of productions will work internationally.”
As for themes, although DANISH+ does not pick shows with an agenda in mind, Alling says that you usually see certain ideas pop up that relate to the current world events.
“A lot of the performances this year deal with longing, travelling, community, love and passion,” she reflects. “I think this is a subconscious thing that came out of lockdown: people couldn’t travel – even short distances – and so they have this desire to connect. And I think lockdown was particularly difficult for children, so I’m glad we’re addressing this in our shows.”
Alling’s own company Teatret Gruppe 38 will present two pieces during the showcase, and both fit into these themes of longing for travelling and for community. The first is I Like It Best When You Are Here, which deals with love and the desire to be close, while the second Suppose You Had a Portable Gramophone – a tribute to the famous writer Karen Blixen –grapples with desire to experience, and importance of, art.
“I wanted to ask the question, ‘what happens when art is taken away?’ because that’s what happened during lockdown,” explains Alling, when talking about Suppose You Had a Portable Gramophone. “You feel this sense of art not being there. What does that mean for us, and how does it change our life and our perspective?”
Although the showcase has run since 2008, this is the first time it will take place in Teatret Gruppe 38’s new home (they also use other venues across Aarhus). Designed by celebrated Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, it’s the first time the company has been in a purpose-built space during its 40-year history.
“I’m so much looking forward to showing everybody the new space,” she adds. “I can’t wait for the showcase to begin.”