Saturday Night Live and theatre shows for children might seem to be at the opposite ends of the performance spectrum - can you picture what Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi might have come up with in front of youngsters? - yet they spring from the same performance philosophies and ideas developed in Illinois in the 1920s.
The teachings and techniques of like Winifred Mary Ward and Viola Spolin would have a profound effect on both American comic actors and children’s theatre, and among those inspired by such ideas was Lali Morris who is today the programme director of Galway’s Baboró International Arts Festival for Children.
All the way from Evanston
Lali is originally from Los Angeles and growing up in Tinseltown it is no surprise that her earliest recollections are coloured by film references. “I can understand where Steven Spielberg is coming from in ET,” she tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “I lived in suburbia and it’s just like in that film, long, long roads to ride your bike on.”
It is also not surprising that in the capital of US film, theatre barely got a look in at this stage in her life, indeed she admits to never having “seen a play until I was in college”.
College proved to be a turning point for Lali, setting her on the course to involvement with drama and theatre for children, although it came about in a rather accidental way.
“I went to teacher training college in Illinois where I specialised in theatre and drama for young people and children and that was accidental as there was nothing else on offer,” she laughs.
Yet through this Lali found her calling and it was appropriate she should discover a passion for creating and being involved in arts events for young given that Evanston is the “home of children’s theatre” in the USA, with the founding of The Children’s Theatre of Evanston by Winifred Mary Ward in the 1920s.
“What I am doing now in Baboró comes from the work I did in college,” she says. “There we brought in children to the college theatre and at the time I could programme what was coming up, both from professional and college productions. It’s also where I learned to direct both children and adults’ theatre.”
Another major inspiration to Lali and her classmates was Chicago’s The Second City, a long-running comedy enterprise, and Viola Spolin, whose innovative ideas on theatre training and improvisation have been massively influential.
“At Evanston we had professors and teachers who were trained in the Second City improv style and techniques,” Lali says. “Viola Spolin’s theatre games were used to teach children theatre skills and her son, Paul Sills, took those games and founded Second City which became the basis of Saturday Night Live. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner had all been in Second City, and when I watched the shows I could recognise what they were doing as the techniques they use are very familiar to me.”
This inspirational atmosphere led Lali to become involved in special drama programmes for schools. “I would travel to schools with a visual artist and a musician and we would introduce the children to the arts.”
Lali’s association with Galway goes back many years, her husband is Galway artist Ted Turton, and she has worked with the Galway Arts Festival on a number of occasions, such as holding workshops for teenagers at the 1995 festival and directing a series of short plays with children in 1996. In the late 1990s she was invited to be part of a committee to develop a children’s arts festival. These discussions eventually led to the creation of the Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in 1997, and in 2001 Lali became its programme director.
The 2011 Baboró festival is the biggest and most ambitious to date. It feature more public performances than before, some new strands, and will also feature shows outside Galway city.
“The festival has progressed step by step, gradually gaining momentum,” says Lali. “It has been carefully planned. I am proud of the fact that we have been cautious and responsible. Baboró would not be able to exist in any other city in Ireland as there is an amazing support system from the public, schools, artists, and the press.
“People have voted with their feet. For example we noticed over the last two years a huge swell of interest from parents who were demanding that we put on more shows for the children. They said they would come on school nights and Sundays.”
One of the main events at this year’s festival will be the opening event Priceless! on Sunday October 16 from 2pm to 5pm on Quay Street.
“Children and families will see a long dining table in the middle of Quay Street,” says Lali. “Everything will be covered in white paper and markers will be handed out to everyone and they will be asked to write on the paper what is most priceless to them and everyone can go around and read what others have written.
“There will be a party atmosphere, music from the Mr Whippi Soundsystem, dancing, food, and soft drinks, and street games from hop scotch to a giant Jenga.”
A noticeable and welcome element of Baboró 2011 is events specifically for young people (10 to 17 ), such as the breakdance and b-boy dance show White Caps (ages 10 to 14+ ) and readings and school visits by young adult fiction author Melvin Burgess, who will also provide a Writers Presentation for teenagers at Jigsaw in Fairgreen House.
Does Lali feel there is a real lack of arts events aimed at teenagers that arts organisations and venues in both Galway and Ireland need to address?
“I feel they are the forgotten audience,” says Lali. “One of the reasons that can happen is that they can be difficult to get into the shows, but they are interested. In Baboró, a lot of kids have grown up with us, coming to the festival, and suddenly when they get to the early teens, to drop them and forget about them as they are a bit older feels irresponsible.
“I see in other countries that there are a lot of plays and performance put on for teens and they keep their audiences so we should be able to do that as well. We will be slowly building that audience and bringing in shows of interest to that age group.”
Baboró will also be saluting the work of youngsters, parents, and teachers who have made a real effort to give the arts and creativity a prominent place in their everyday lives. The first recipient of the new Above and Beyond Award will be Kilcoona National School in Headford.
“The school has sought to bring the arts to the children,” says Lali. “The parents’ council has built a library and organised music classes and now the school has a string quartet. There is also a visual arts programme. The teachers and the headmaster have also embraced this and it is a credit to all their enthusiasm. They have the attitude of ‘We want to give this to the children. We’ve no money, but we’re going to do it anyway.’”
Babies, toddlers, and the under sixes are also catered for at this year’s Baboró, with Lali citing On-Off (Nuns Island Theatre, October 17 to 19 ) and Rawums (: ) (Black Box, October 20, 22, 23 ) as being the highlights here. “They are for toddlers and they are very intelligent, very witty shows,” she says. “Adults will appreciate them too. It shows that something does not have to be ‘childish’ to be for a child.”
Sometimes in Galway city there can be a tendency to see the city as the ‘be all and end all’ of things and forget that Galway is also a county and the second biggest in Ireland. As a result Baboró is expanding outside the city and will host two shows in the Mall Theatre in Tuam - Red Riding hood (October 19, 20 ) and Ich Sehe Was... (October 21, 22 ).
“It’s very important that we also do shows outside the city,” says Lali. “People have been asking us to come out and the Mall is a perfect venue for these shows, and shows need a good venue for people to be able to experience and enjoy them properly.”
With Baboró just a month away, is there one show in particular that Lali is most looking forward to? Her answer is immediate - Globe, a dance and music show, featuring dance styles and musical form from different nations, created by Robbie Harris and Dave McFarlane. It runs at Seapoint Ballroom on October 22 and 23.
“I think it’s really going to go places,” she says. “There will be delegates from Canada, Britain, etc, other children’s festival who will be here to see what we are doing, and I think this is going to catch their attention. It’s going to be a big hit with families and I think this show will open up new areas.”