Black Cat Theatre has created a unique experience of exposing very young children to the arts, emphasizing imaginary play and teaching them skills such as empathy, sensitivity, and the awareness of small things. Their target audience can be as young as one year old - not a typical theatre!
Black Cat Theatre
The lights dim and 15 children are focusing intently on a stage where a scene is set for a simple painters' skit. Music, joking, and mirth resound as two actors engage their audience with childlike antics. Suddenly, ladders become ships, paint rollers oars, painters sailors, and music swells as they ride out a storm at sea. At the action’s height, the children are invited on stage to interact with the actors and props. Here at Amsterdam’s innovative Black Cat Theatre, the youngest audiences are transported into magical experiences through sound, sight, dance, and storytelling merging into play, as actors build an extraordinary world out of ordinary objects.
“Remember the innocence of play? As parents, we lose the childlike way of looking at things. We become more reserved, and the pure emotions that become muted in adults are clear in our kids” - Wilfred van Dongen
Through Children's Eyes
Young children between the ages of one to six respond enthusiastically to Black Cat Theatre’s unique combination of theatre and play. “Remember the innocence of play? As parents, we lose the childlike way of looking at things. We become more reserved, and the pure emotions that become muted in adults are clear in our kids,” said Wilfred van Dongen. He and his partner, Aga Czekierda, opened Black Cat Theatre in February of 2018. Before opening Black Cat Theatre, Aga spent the last eight years running a similar theatre in Poland. Between Amsterdam and Poland, 300,000 people have participated in their performances! In Amsterdam, she and Wilfred have created a child-focused space that recognizes the need children have to move and play. Children come here to interact, not to sit still and watch, and movement begins the minute they enter the play area in front. “This idea is not common in Holland. It’s new to create an environment and venue totally focused on children. Everything is possible here and kids can be where they need to be for their comfort. There is a lot of emotion in children playing and having fun, it’s amazing energy,” said Aga.
Children come here to interact, not to sit still and watch, and movement begins the minute they enter the play area in front.
Today’s show, Ahoi, (for ages 1-6)which evokes nautical adventure, is one of four whimsical performances. The Butterfly (for ages 1-5) will transport audiences to the magical world of butterflies, and let them create butterflies following the show. The Rainbow (for ages 1-4) is an opportunity to experience beauty through image, gesture, and rhythm, while The Four Seasons (for ages 1-5) harnesses the rhythm of nature with all its colors, and then lets kids play in the ‘snow’ and leaves.
The overall experience emphasizes imaginary play; it’s about feeling, not understanding, and young audiences take in the experience seamlessly. “I see one-year-olds absolutely prepared to receive and be part of cultural activities. It’s a really good stimulant for the brain. Kids to the age of five are like sponges, they absorb everything, and we’re demonstrating skills that are not taught at school, such as empathy, sensitivity, and awareness of small things,” said Aga.
The performances are designed to capture the attention of children and keep them engaged for as long as they want. “There is a certain flow, an excitement, as imagination and challenge slowly build up. The actors pay attention to the crowd, and work accordingly, so the show is divided into segments. The kids can usually sit still and watch for the first half-hour, and then as they need to move around, so it becomes interactive and we invite them onstage to play with the material.” said Aga.
Familiar Objects Become Magical
Imbuing mundane objects such as the ladders, buckets, and paintbrushes used in Ahoi with magic is a refreshing idea in our screen-bound world. It can also have surprisingly long-lasting results as the children move from watching the story to creating it: “People come back to me long after a performance and tell me that after the show their child said nothing, but a month later he began to tell every detail from the show,” syas Aga. She and Wilfred have also heard that children have returned home to play with simple things around the house in new ways, as they saw actors at the theatre doing.
"The kids can usually sit still and watch for the first half-hour, and then as they need to move around, so it becomes interactive and we invite them onstage to play with the material.” - Aga Czekierda
Black Cat Theatre is open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is a bright play area as you enter and a cafe offering snacks and coffee. The theatre, which is designed to be comfortable and holds about 60 people, can be rented. The Black Cat Theatre also hosts birthday parties, which include a performance and birthday cake. Further information can be found on their website and Facebook page.
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