Last weekend Muziek van Beneden (Music from Downstairs) by Het Houten Huis theatre for young audiences travelled to Moscow. It opened the Gavroche Festival which hosts a good number of Dutch TYA companies. We talked with Janice Slot, one of the performers in Muziek van Beneden, and Barbara Ennik, marketing & publicity assistant for Het Houten Huis, about their Russian adventure.
First things first: can you tell us briefly what Muziek van Beneden is about?
Janice Slot: The play is about a residential area where the neighbours basically live right on top of each other, but barely know each other. You follow the daily routines of all the different neighbours, who live side by side, without ever really connecting.
Some of these neighbours are quite exceptional, aren’t they?
Slot: The street does have its fair share of curious inhabitants, yes. There is a businessman who shares his flat with a huge egg, there is a bunny family whose children are half-human, half-bunny. There is also a tiger-girl who roams the street at night.
And don’t forget the giant human eyeball with tentacles instead of arms!
Slot: Yes, there is an eyeball in there, too.
Which character do you play in this performance?
Slot: I am the mother of the bunny family. My character is human, but my ex-husband is a rabbit. The dad is quite a flighty character. He only shows up when we don’t expect him. So most of the time my character is a single mom.
How did this performance end up at the Gavroche festival?
Barbara Ennik: A couple of ladies from Russia attended one of our shows in Belgium. They were so impressed they booked us on the spot. We were very honoured to be allowed to open the festival.
What kind of festival is the Gavroche Festival?
Ennik: Its main focus is on theatre for young audiences. We are not the only company here from the Netherlands. Bonte Hond is playing here as well, as is NT Jong. There seems to be more of a tradition in Russia to take your kids to the theatre from a very young age. The kids show up dressed to the nines, like they are going to a gala performance.
For the families here, it is really seen as an event?
Ennik: It is. We also found out that there are no school performances here, like we have in the Netherlands. Which feels like a missed opportunity. It does make it hard to gauge if the audiences that come here are an honest representation of Russian society, or if this is something only the children with rich parents can afford.
Did you make any changes to the piece before performing it here?
Ennik: We didn’t. This performance is really expressive, there is very little dialogue, so there really was no need.
Slot: There are a few sentences in Dutch, but you don’t really have to understand what is said to know what is meant. The play is really accessible. The kids here laugh at exactly the same jokes, which makes us really happy.
It sounds like the show was a success.
Ennik: We couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic reception!
Slot: The response was quite overwhelming. People kept applauding and shouting ‘Bravo!’. We had to come back multiple times to take a bow. People wanted to take pictures, give hugs. There were even a few tears.
Does this mean the response from a Russian audience is more emotional than a Dutch audience’s?
Slot: Yes, I think it is. What is also interesting is that at the end all the children, even the boys and the older girls, wanted to hold my bunny baby. Dutch boys are way too cool to be seen holding a doll. The audience really went wild for one of the characters, a lonely grandmother (played by Marlies Hamelynck). A ‘babushka’ – a grandmother, or elderly woman – holds a special place in Russia. When she starts playing a guitar near the end of the show, the audience is literally cheering her on.
What was the make-up of the audience?
Slot: It was mostly families with children. What really stood out for me was that the children here not only laughed at the same jokes as the Dutch kids, but that the questions they had for the characters were basically the same.
What kind of questions are they?
Slot: They wanted to know why the father isn’t living with his bunny family, or why the grandmother is so sad. They also wanted to know who, or what, is living inside that huge egg. It is really universal.
So at the end of every performance the audience is allowed on stage to hold the bunny baby and ask questions?
Ennik: Exactly! They can also write a letter to one of the characters, and every letter writer will be answered. In between shows we have been very busy answering every letter – with help from a Russian interpreter. So far we have received 300 letters! We will take all the answers back with us to the Netherlands and will send them from there. That way everyone will receive a personal letter posted from the Netherlands.
What has surprised you most about performing in Russia?
Slot: It is traditional to receive flowers on your first night, but what I found really special was that members of the audience brought their own flowers, which they then personally delivered to the performers after the show.
Ennik: I was really impressed with the children. They were so attentive, so well-behaved. They even came around to thank the performers for their performance. I thought that was really sweet.