Every time theatre actor Hussain Dalal (21) does a show of The Adventures of Tintin, he loses his voice.
Children scream through the show, call out to their favourite character on stage, laugh the loudest and, when it’s a scene they really love, stand on their seats and clap.
To be heard over the din, Hussain has to shout. “Once it’s over, they all rush backstage to meet the characters. It’s the best form of appreciation,” says Dalal, who plays Tintin.
These days, he is busy preparing for another show of the play, to be held at the end of the month.
Until a couple of years ago, the children’s theatre season was restricted to vacation time. A few productions set up a handful plays around child-friendly themes and, at the end of the summer, they all packed up for the year.
This time around, though, Prithvi Theatre’s Summertime festival for children alone saw 19 different plays staged. Some are still on during the weekend, and most are still seeing an 80-per cent turnout.
As nine-year-old Mehr Basantani put it: “A holiday means time to watch a play.” Basantani has seen about seven plays this year.
“I also joined a few workshops to learn about them,” she says. “My favourite play is The Mystery Of The Pantomime Cat. Some of the clues are hidden in the aisles and we help them find the clues.”
Basantani says she prefers plays to TV and movies because “you get to laugh and run around the aisles and ask silly questions, not just sit and watch”.
She’s not alone. As parents — and kids — turn away from the ‘more passive’ TV and movie entertainment options, theatre production companies are getting requests for special shows from schools, housing societies and parents organising birthday parties.
This August will also see the opening of Mumbai’s first children’s drama club, an interactive space that will help kids hone their skills.
Also on the cards is the country’s first children’s theatre magazine, to be produced by ASSITEJ, an organisation that brings together children’s theatre groups and individuals interested in staging plays for kids.
“The magazine [the working title is No Child’s Play] will serve as a journal for parents, teachers and directors who want to set up children’s plays. There will also be an interactive section for children,” says secretary general Imran Khan.
The launch date has been tentatively set at November.
Meanwhile, over the past few months, theatre director Meera Khurana has staged special shows of The Mystery Of The Pantomime Cat for schools like Arya Vidya Mandir and Dhirubhai Ambani International.
The play, based on Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series, is extremely popular, she says.
“It is the parents who are taking the initiative of driving their children to theatres and introducing them to different plays,” Kurana adds.
Schools and day care centres are also pitching in. “We often take our children to a variety of shows,” says Amrita Singh, co-founder of The Little Company day care centre. “We also take the teachers. It helps them think outside the box, gauge children’s reactions to various subjects and borrow tips that they can use in class.”
Plays are making it to more birthday parties too.
Last year, Nikita Patel (33) booked the NCPA theatre to celebrate her six-year-old son Jash’s birthday. The children loved Shehenshah of Azeemo, a Hindi adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz complete with Babbar the Mamooli Sher, Phus Phus Patrawala and a couple of witches to replace the original characters of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man.
“Kids have had enough of TV and animated movies,” she says. “Also, with very few public parks to play in, parents have to find innovative ways to keep their children entertained. My children have learnt vocabulary and speech through these plays. I constantly pester production houses to increase the number of shows."
Sanjna Kapoor, who runs the Prithvi Theatre, however, believes much more needs to be done.
“Abroad, there are plays for toddlers and separate plays for pre-teens and teens,” she says. “In Mumbai we treat children as one age group.”
Space is another constraint.
A plot near Charni Road station reserved for a children’s theatre in the 1950s is still vacant, and now serves as a parking lot.
“We need more spaces in the city for theatre,” says Kapoor, “because the more children are pushed into this disconnected digital age, the more they will crave something that gives them a chance to connect personally. There is magic about sitting in the darkness and watching a story come alive.”
(The Adventures of Tintin by Akvarious Productions is being staged at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, on July 25 and at NCPA, Nariman Point, on July 31)