Planting seeds for kids theatre: the 17th annual Sprouts Festival

Morgan Yamada, Colin Dingwall, Sprouts Festival, Concrete Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

For 17 springs now, Concrete Theatre has planted new plays at their annual Sprouts Festival — and watered them for future seasons. The idea from the start was to stimulate growth in the Canadian theatre repertoire by finding sources that are more ethnically and culturally diverse in the writing pool — and even tapping new wells of writing talent altogether.

And so it is with the three new and original 20-minute seedling plays getting staged readings at this year’s edition. It runs Saturday and Sunday for the 18 months to 12-year-old crowd at the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. 

Sisters, a story of siblings who were once best friends and are now on the outs, is by actor/playwright Holly Lewis. Wild Runner, which explores the coming-of-age challenges of a young boy initiated into the ways of a Dene tribe, is by actor/ improviser/ teacher/ playwright/ social activist/ playwright Josh A. Languedoc.

With Screen Time, Sprouts enlists an actor/playwright whose bold black comedies (Murderers Confess At Christmastime, Bitches, Happy Kitchen, Lavender Lady, The Ladies Who Lynch) tend to peel back bright, sometimes absurdist surfaces to find psycho nightmares lurking beneath. In other words, Jason Chinn has always written for grown-ups. Till now.

“It was a chance to flex different muscles,” says Chinn cheerfully. “My writing tends to be extreme, over the top….” This was a chance to see how the Chinn satirical proclivities and sense of humour could work for a younger audience.

The issue in Screen Time is all-ages, which you will know if you’ve seen grade three kids texting madly lately. The family is over-using the title commodity, as Chinn explains. “The brother is obsessed by animé. The sister is a gaming addict. The mom is hooked on YouTube and social media.” Every dinner time is a riot of bleeps and bings, and electronic noises. “It’s a hot-button issue,” says Chinn, “and always a struggle for me and my adult friends.” Without a cellphone, there’s separation anxiety, and sometimes (as Chinn confesses) “a phantom feeling my phone is vibrating in my pocket.”

“I wanted to be family friendly while not black-and-white. The family keep trying to manage itself, and keeps failing….”

The brevity of a 20-minute play wasn’t traumatic for him. “I love writing short plays,” says Chinn, who wrote a five-minute play for the Citadel’s One On One series last year, and a play for Theatre Yes’s Elevator Project. “I want to move, to be fast, to have saturation!”

Occasionally, language has to be adjusted, of course. “I changed ‘parameters’ to ‘rules’. Kids know about rules!” But the best advice he got from Concrete Theatre’s Caroline Howarth was “just don’t talk down to kids. They’re really smart!”

Lobby activities begin in the ATB Financial Arts Barn (10330 84 Ave.) at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, with the shows in the Westbury Theatre at 2 p.m. Tickets: all $8, available at the door only.

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