A festival the kids can see, feel, smell


As the school year begins, an uncommon sort of festival for children kicks off on Prague’s ancient hill of Vyšehrad. “Vyšehrátky” as it’s called, a romp on the old high castle, offers no cotton candy, no tedious clowns and no mind-numbing kiddie rides. Instead it brings in schools and families for a more avant-garde approach to children’s entertainment organised by students of the Academy of Drama. In this week’s Panorama, Christian Falvey found that they know how to please a young audience.

Who needs 3D cinemas to entertain a child when you have a pot and pan at hand, various homemade objects to put on your head and plenty of things to sniff. That seems to be part of the ethos of the drama students organising the Vyšehrátky children’s festival, all in their early 20’s, who may actually know a lot more about healthy fun for kids than parents might expect. They started 7 years ago with a festival for adults, but in the last several years a genre emerged that was perhaps both more true to their artistic sensibilities and the children’s taste.

Filip Jevič: “I am the author of the festival and the Vyšehrátky project. We started the festival for adults, but it was not so well-defined; we were using puppets, paintings, and so on. More and more we did things for children, and in these things we were combining games, art and education, which is like a Bermuda triangle for us, or how would you call it... [laughs]. And then we decided to turn the main festival activity towards the children and their parents.”

If you’re thinking that may be the sound of a garbage truck, but aren’t entirely sure, then rest assured. Here with the festival’s bureaucratic chief, Ondřej Chalupský, we’re having a go at a childhood dream of operating that mechanical monster that wakes us up and that we watch out the window as kids.

“We have a garbage truck here. We had a children’s theatre about the truck, which just finished a moment ago, so now we have the real truck and the children can operate it.”

This is really one of the more original ideas I’ve seen at a children’s festival...

“Yeah. When I was a child I really wanted to drive a garbage truck, and we suppose every child has this idea, especially boys.”

The girls here seem to be enjoying it as well.

“Maybe this is a new generation of garbage women.”

Filip Jevič: “We’ve got something that is special to Vyšehratky, and that’s interactive objects. This year these interactive objects are about the senses. You can play with these objects on your own, you can play with them with our actors, or of course with the whole family. Let me give the smelling table as an example. What are the smells, what do they remind us of? What are the differences between the smells from nature and those made in the factory? And so on. So this is the point of the whole festival: enjoy time with your family and with our ideas”...

Martina Moudrá: “I study theatre production at the Academy of Performing Arts and here at the festival I take care of promotion and marketing. At the tent over there, there will be another very well-known attraction, it’s called Save Prague from the Nazis. The point is that the children enter the tent, they get a candle and there is an actor who is playing a Nazi and is trying to blow out their candles. So we hope it will be as popular as last year.”

Is that conceived of as a fun exercise or what exactly do you want the children to take away from that?

“We are trying to connect art, education and play; with games and art we are trying to educate children, and that’s the point of this attraction as well, and we hope it’s working. We’ll see.”

In another tent we find the hungry table, part toy part unintentional modern art piece, and about fifteen children are spending this part of their busy afternoon stuffing its many mouths with marbles, and they seem to have little intention of doing anything else for the time being. That’s just one of the exhibits in this “lounge of the senses”, which Miss Moudrá showed me before the kids came to mob the tents and tepees.

“So this tent is about your eyes, about different perspectives. This thing here is called the ‘hlavouň’. It’s a helmet you can put on your head and you can see the world not like it is. You can try it if you want. It’s nice.”

Really? Ok. It’s like of like a plastic chandelier for a lamp, with lots of diamond-looking studs. Tell me what I’ll see before I put it on my head.

“You will see the world as if through a kaleidoscope. Do you see it?”

Well... I don’t really see anything to tell you the truth, I see a bunch of diamonds, but I think if there were more light...

“Here are some other helmets you can try if you want.”

This one looks interesting, I have no idea how to describe this... it’s a wire kind of tower-looking thing that can be strapped to your head... What would this item do?

“Well, in fact, I don’t know, but I really want to try it one day.

There’s kind of like a slightly... grotesque feel to a lot of the things here at this festival.

“Yes, yes. It may look like that. The team running the festival likes to play. We just want to show the children and their parents that culture, or an artistic programme for children doesn’t have to be stupid, it doesn’t have to be about clowns. We think it’s a good thing to show children various things from early on and stimulate them.”

Filip Jevič: “We don’t like it when people talk to children in a silly way. We don’t like when people uise children for their own financial gain. We like to communicate with children as partners about themes that we think are important for children and for adults. So this is our main principle for communicating and working with children.”

33-year-old Ondřej Liška is the former Minister of Education and head of the Czech Green Party, and he came to the festival to sit cross-legged in a tepee to read to a group of children in the part of the programme called Fairy Tales of Famous Daddies.

“I think it’s a great idea and I was very happy to support this little festival. I believe in the contemporary world, you see all over the world, even in developed countries, a lack of interest in books, and reading out loud. And this is a problem categorised as ‘čtenářská gramotnost”, the ability to read, understand and interpret texts, and it’s mainly caused by the fact that parents are so busy that they don’t read fairytales to children anymore. And when the children start school they don’t know what the price, the real price, of a book is – how important it is to our civilisation. So I am always happy to join in any way to support reading books and listening to fairytales, and I hope the children will enjoy it. I picked my book....”

That’s my next question, what book did you choose to read them and why?

[laughs] “I chose a book that I like, but I don’t know if the kids will like it. I loved it as a child very, very much. It’s Tove Jansson’s book about the Moomins. The Moomins are little beings living somewhere in the mountains of Scandinavia, and they are very small and neat animals, or beings. I loved it as a child and I hope the children will love it too.”

More famous daddies will be reading their favourite stories each evening this week, to the tunes of bands playing “baby punk”, amongst other things, and you can catch that or some of the alternative theatre performances anytime until September 7.

Photo: www.vysehratky.cz