Andrew Roberts & Josh Mathieson are Dealing with Death in Children's Theatre

The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad is a brave and engaging work about how children and families process and communicate grief. Children’s Correspondent Tom Moyser met writer/actor Andrew Roberts and his co-star Josh Mathieson to discover how children’s theatre can be used to start conversations that some school curriculums are shying away from.

She is not 'lost'. She is dead.

I meet Andrew Roberts just as the last families leave the theatre. The mood is different to a normal children’s show. “The atmosphere afterwards is really quite serene and sedate,” reflects his fellow actor Josh Mathieson as he finishes the get-out.

The final scene of The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad will be a difficult one for some children. Although “it’s usually the parents who get quite emotional at the end,” explains Roberts. This is partly because the scene provides a release. Until then, Frank has been told that his family have “lost” his mum. So he heads out to find her, meeting colourful characters and solving puzzles as he goes. He learns at the end, of course, that she is not 'lost'. She is dead.

“Everyone talks euphemistically to Frank all the way through the show. Until he gets the talking to from dad, there’s no clarity.”

Just before the last scene, the actors ask the young people in the audience to snuggle up close to their grown-ups. “They’re there ready, safe. We would love to do it in schools but it would have to be an after-school thing because the parent needs to be there. We feel like that moment at the end when they snuggle up together needs to be a moment. You can’t have the child in there on their own.”

Roberts’ only worry during the show’s development was “that a family would come in to see the show and weren’t prepared for it. It’s the kind of show where a family should know they are coming into see a show about bereavement and it’s going to tackle those issues.”

“I think every family coming has understood. That does somewhat deplete the audience numbers sometimes. A lot of families aren’t willing to. But that’s OK. It’s been really positive here, the families have been very on board with what we’re trying to do. We’ve had a lot of people bringing kids along who have recently lost parents. We had one who had lost someone literally a week before. We were quite surprised because we thought that would be too soon. But the parent was like ‘I’m not in a position to take her through this, so I thought I’d bring her to this show to help start that conversation.’”

“So we hope it starts conversations for families and helps makes that whole process easier.”

The idea for The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad first came when Roberts and his co-writers (Robert Daniels and James Baker) learnt that teaching on grief and bereavement had been taken out of the curriculum in their local area in South East England. “We thought that was a big part of what it is to grow up so we immediately thought we wanted to respond to that.”

“It also comes from the fact that, as we were doing our research, a big percentage of families would teach their children about loss and how to grieve using metaphors and things that weren’t straight to the point. We were told that was the worst way to teach a child that’s in development, in adolescence, how to deal with grief. It turns out that they thought the mum was just lost, that she would come back one day, that they could find her. That just sparked this idea of going ‘maybe these metaphors aren’t the best way to explain that situation.’ So we wanted to do a show that, gently and softly, took Frank through the stages of grief.”

The reaction so far, according to Roberts, has been “really, really, really positive in Edinburgh. Better than we could ever have hoped for. We’re kind of just humbled by it all”

Mathieson, who rejoins us as we finish the interview brings up another show on this topic, Grandad and Me by children’s theatre company The Letter J. “The criticism of their show was that the loss, the bereavement, was quite euphemistic. The words ‘mum is dead’ don’t come out. We’re the other end of the spectrum in terms of how direct it is.”

Yet, he recalls how Jude Williams from the The Letter J counselled him when he questioned “whether I feel OK about making a piece where sometimes children cry. She said something that I think was really important, which was that children are totally entitled to experience a breadth of human emotion. And if it’s just all gleeful, joyful happiness, it doesn’t prepare them in any way for the world in which we live. Kids are wise to the fact that mum and dad fight or that nan’s ill. Not having a mechanism to deal with that doesn’t equip them properly for the actual world.”

The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad runs at Pleasance Kids @ EICC this Fringe. Follow the company on Twitter @Bootworks and find their full Edinburgh listing:

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