‘The Cat Who Ran’ is a production that our reporter Norifumi Hida participated. It performed in Unicorn theatre in London from February 12th to March 8th.

Credits are
Story by Naoko Kudo, adapted by Toyoko Nishida, translated by Yuriko Kobayashi
Cast: Gehane Strehler, John Cockerill, David Smith, Samantha Adams
Director: Tony Graham

“Assimilation and Verfremdungseffekt in Storytelling”

By Norifumi Hida

The Unicorn Theatre in London produced the show called The Cat Who Ran between 12th February and 8th March. It was an adaptation from the Japanese story written by Naoko Kudo, a contemporary Japanese port and writer of children’s stories. This project started when Tony Graham, the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre and the director of this production, saw the other show, based on the same story, produced by the ART in ASIBINA, N.P.O. in Japan. The show impressed him and made him produce the British version of the show in London. Therefore, he used the text adapted for her show by Toyoko Nishida, the artistic director of the ART in ASIBINA. As I joined this production, I would like to write a report on what it was like and my impression of the show here.

For the making of the British version of The Cat Who Ran, Graham applied the methods of storytelling to his direction: actors in storytelling try to communicate with audiences mainly by speaking and acting and the decoration of the stage, such as a costume, makeup, stage set, property and sounds, usually are minimum. In addition to this, children imagine the world of the story not because of actors’ realist acting but because of their suggestive acting. To follow these rules Graham set four small platforms and made stage sets simpler in the production, which enabled children to use their imagination freely; the actors worn everyday clothes as costumes; and they improvised sound effects with familiar objects and instruments – they did not make realistic sounds but they made sounds similar to them.

A characteristic of this show is the adaptation of storytelling to a play. Graham expected children to see the show actively with their imagination. As I observed every show, I noticed the fact that children gradually changed their attitudes to it. Moreover, I found that there were two kinds of attitude. Just after the Unicorn Theatre opened the show, many children could not concentrate on their attention to watching the show. Instead, they chatted with their friends or moved around seats. However, when I asked them whether they understood the story after the show, they answered to me by explaining the details of what happened in it: they fully understood the story. I wonder why such contradiction occurred.

There were many characters such as a cat, fish, insect, mountain, pound, wind, and the like in the play. While the actors spoke their lines to describe their characters as storytellers, they detached themselves from the characters: they ‘play’ their characters, not they ‘are’ their characters. It seems that this made children imagine the world of the story. However, because the actors did not emotionally assimilate themselves to their characters, they interrupted children from being emotionally engaged with the story. I think that such a phenomenon, which is similar to what can be seen in Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect), interrupted children from paying their attention to seeing the show. Moreover, although children imagine the world of the story in their minds, there is still a distance between the world children imagine and their position. It seems this made children understand the story intellectually rather than to be engaged with the story emotionally.

However, I saw some changes when the shows came to the third week. Many children well concentrated on seeing the show. Although the actors presented the same play, why was the attitude of children to the show so different?

The actors became accustomed to how to move on the stage those days. The director became to come the show sometimes. Hence, the actors became independent from the director and tried to develop the show by themselves. In the first two weeks, the actors created distances from their characters as mentioned before. Their speaking was explanative and their acting was suggestive. They often turned their eyes to children to develop their relationships. However, after they started to develop the performance by themselves – after the third week, their speaking became emotional and their acting became realistic (but it seems that, because the only acting became realistic and the other elements on the stage were still ambiguous, children still imagined the world of the story in their minds).  I guess that these changes enabled children to be engaged with the story emotionally. They also provided better imagination and concentration for them. In addition, the disappearance of the distance between the actors and their roles made the actors decrease the number of times they turned their eyes to children. This resulted in establishing the fourth fall that had not existed originally before. In fact, some children in the third week stated that they had watched the show as if they had watched a movie.

Such an experience tells me that, in addition to the power of imagination, it is maybe possible for storytelling to have other beneficial effects on children: when there is a distance between actors and their roles, children may enhance their intelligence on the one hand; but, when there is no distance between them, children may develop their emotion on the other hand. Therefore, it maybe really important for those who make a show for children to consider what you can provide for children on the imagination.