Us/Them, a family dance show about terrorism, has been one of the surprise hits of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Children’s Correspondent Tom Moyser met its writer and director Carly Wijs, with performers Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, to get the inside story of its development; and to discuss the ways that theatre can engage children with challenging and controversial subjects.
The terrorists that were responsible for the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks were living 200 meters from my house
The reactions to Us/Them, which uses the Beslan school siege in 2004 to explore children’s reaction to terrorism, have diverged between adults and children. Whilst parents have been crying, Parmentier explains that the young people “asked, is it difficult to learn this much text? And, are you two in love with each other? They accepted all the terrorist information. They all got it in OK. But one big question was left: are you two in love? That was the main theme for them in the piece. That’s what their world at that time is about.”
Another difference, Wijs observes, is certain language in the play, “like when they say ‘breasts’. For grown-ups the word breasts is not particularly funny. But for children, they go ‘Raw, she says breasts, huh huh huh’. It’s very nice when fifty per cent of the audience really starts laughing. The parents remember ‘Oh yeah, this used to be really funny’. You’re communicating between the stage and the audience, but inside the audience, they’re communicating as well.”
In fact, it was the difference between child and adult reactions to terrorism that first inspired the piece. Wijs pitched the idea to the Bronks theatre around the time of the shopping-mall attacks in Nairobi in 2014. “My son at the time was eight. He was watching the children’s news and they were talking about this terrorist attack. He was sitting on the couch and he sort of ran over to me and said, ‘Oh mum, the terrorists have come to a shopping mall in Africa and there’s a little boy who was underneath, he was hiding under the meat, and then they took him out from under the meat and they gave him some chocolate and he could go away and – can I go on the iPad?’” Conversely, Wijs says the information hit her “like a bomb”, for her son it was “‘Boom, boom, boom, objective information’. The implications of what it meant were completely not part of his world, incomprehensible for an eight-year-old child.”
“And that made me think, that could be a way of talking about terrorism with children.”
Wijs has seen the same difference in the reception of Us/Them. “There’s actually two different performances that you see, because the older people see the story with all the implications, so with all the trauma that surrounds it. The younger audience just sees objectively: this, this, this this, ah OK, you have to drink pee. There’s actually quite an active dialogue between the parents. It’s quite special.”
Whilst developing the play, Wijs “w anted to talk about the subject [of terrorism]” and not, fundamentally, the Beslan incident itself. “It’s absolutely not interesting for children that age to explain this terrorist attack. It’s a very sad chapter in history, but that’s for high school.”
She did, however, do a lot of research around the topic, from books and documentaries, to find her material. Things began to connect as she watched the BBC documentary Children of Beslan on YouTube. “There you see the exact same matter-of-fact, objective tone. The children of Beslan themselves walk through the building and explain to everyone. They’re still children, they’re like ten, some of them are six, some of them are fourteen. Some of them you see the trauma inside. Some of them are still completely distant to what happened to them. Some of them, you hear the voice of a grown-up coming out of a child. And some of them you hear the trauma’s already hit in.”
Wijs recalls one story from a book she was reading by a Dutch survivor of a concentration camp, about a mother who went without her bread ration for a week so that she can mould it into a piece of cake for her son’s birthday. “And when she gave it to him, he went ‘Oh my God’, and he took a bite, and it’s stale bread! ‘How dare you, you promised me a piece of cake!’ Of course when we hear that story, we think, ‘The mother – she didn’t eat for a week!’ But a child stays a child no matter the situation. It’s only later, in retrospect, that it becomes this big thing.”
The siege of Beslan provided similar windows for Wijs into the ways that children process traumatic situations. For example: the way that Parmentier’s character undresses to her shorts whilst Von Houtvan’s never yields his yellow long-sleeve turtleneck. “This is something that I read in a book, that the boys didn’t want to undress. The boys didn’t want to go to the toilet. You see it in the pictures, fully dressed boys and the girls just in their knickers.”
Initially, Us/Them - “The Beslan attack family performance,” as Wijs describes it - was a hard sell to theatres. After eleven performances were sold, however, programmers began to come and “see that it was something different. I mean, I have son, I’m not out to traumatise children!” There was a second tour, a translation from the original Flemish into French, and now English, “and then we’re here, ten o’clock in the morning, Edinburgh. We’re sold out.”
Wijs believes part of the reason the audience is so dominated by adults, with so few children, is that British culture and parenting is “probably a bit more protective towards children” than in Belgium. Parmentier believes that this is reflected too in the children’s theatre she has seen in Edinburgh. It has tended to be “very different to ours, very careful towards children. We noticed the approach was very sensitive, trying to explain everything. They wanted to be sure that all the children got all the exact information.”
Another difference that Wijs finds in the UK is that it is harder to attract school groups. “You have to book them six weeks in advance; they have to read the text. That’s different in Belgium. You just call them up and say: ‘Do you feel like coming over to the Bronks and watching a show?’ And they’ll go like: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll come over’. Because they trust you.”
Even in Belgium, though, there were “people who were also in the theatre themselves that were really very cautious. There were a few who were really like, ‘Ooh, shall we do this?’ And they especially had problems with the bit about paedophiles.”
“I was pretty sure if you put up this list, and you were like, ‘All the children have to work in brothels, all the men are addicted to drugs, all the women have moustaches and they have to work like horses, and the landscape’s all fields and there’s no trees’ – if I say that to a six-year-old, the six-year-old will probably go, ‘Oh, really, oh ok’. But a nine-year-old will go, ‘Really? I don’t think so.’ So we were really interviewing children in the first run about this.” Wijs morphs into recounting typical interview responses: “Why is the paedophile in this piece? Because they’re the enemy. Do you think it’s true? No. They don’t know what a paedophile is. It’s about the enemy. When it’s the enemy, you say bad stuff about your enemy. So they got it.”
“What’s the most interesting is you teach your children to think for themselves. It’s an attempt to get them to think for themselves. Everything’s a story.”
More than the reception between cultures, Wijs feels that the reception of Us/Them has changed since its debut in 2014. “As I was writing this piece, my neighbours - I mean literally, the terrorists that were responsible for the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks were living 200 meters from my house - while I was writing this, they were preparing to kill, to commit mass murder.
“After a year, we were doing a second tour, things changed also in Belgium. We had one performance right after the Paris attacks. The theatre was completely sold out but only twenty people came. Why? Because they were just terrified. Everyone was just terrified in Brussels. In Belgium. Then all of a sudden, this performance became something completely different.
“We realised we probably would have made a different performance. It would have been less innocent if we’d made this performance after the Paris and Belgium, the Brussels attacks. It would have been less innocent because we’ve, in a way, lost our innocence. In that way, a Belgian audience has changed because something has changed in Belgium.”
Us/Them was Wij’s first experience of writing for children. “What I like about it is you can do anything you like because good taste, really,” isn’t something children want. “They’re not reading it the way we’re reading it. It gives you a lot more freedom, if you realise it.”
In a similar spirit, next week, the company starts work on something new. “We’re going to cover the subject of sex. For me, I just had a son and the subject grows with him. We’re entering this new stage now and maybe it’s interesting to talk about that. We feel completely free now because we realise that British people don’t really like talking about sex, especially with their children. I don’t think the next piece is going to tour in Britain. We’ll see where it goes.
“That’s basically what we did for Us/Them. It was completely free. We had this freedom of ‘they’re not going to like it anyway but we’re going to do it and prove them wrong.’”
Us/Them runs at Summerhall this Fringe. Find their full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/us-them/714970