A day at the National Children’s Theatre in the magical IMAGINATION Outdoor Theatre is a day like no other especially for children, young adults and their parents or guardians who throng the lush green grounds and picturesque environs to be enchanted by the magic of theatre.
The latest production to be staged is Sparky, based on a novel written by American writer Jenny Offill and adapted for stage by Jessica Wright Buha. What makes this production distinct is that it features a diverse amateur cast of children and young adults who attend the National Children’s Theatre’s Saturday weekly workshops which among other things focus on drama, music, dance, and physical theatre and, trained and experienced adult performers in the key roles of Sparky and Mother/Mrs Edwin, expertly played by Thokozani Jiyane and Neo Seoketsa respectively.
According Eleonore Godfroy, who is in charge of Social Media at the National Children’s Theatre,
“Historically, we have given a chance to our workshoppers to perform on stage, over the past years children have taken part in The Cat in The Hat, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Tiger Who Came to Tea to name a few. Theatre fosters personal growth, communication skills and self-esteem, and instils confidence, as well as opening the minds of children to the creative industry. It is part of NCT’s vision to empower children and share the magic of theatre on stage with our audiences.”
This is a welcome and admirable development in that it creates a platform for children and young adults who may have never acted on a professional stage to share the stage with trained, professional actors which provide a priceless opportunity for experiential learning and mentorship. This can only augur well for the future of theatre in South Africa as both the performing and audience side is being taken care of and it is institutions like the National Children’s Theatre which are leading from the front.
Sparky, tells the story of Libby, a young girl who wants to have a pet but her mother insists that such a pet should not need to be “walked, or bathed, or fed”, and after consulting the librarian she is able to do some research which leads her to deciding on having a sloth as a pet. The decision comes with a lot of complications for her, mother, and her friends and this is where the magic of Sparky lies in that as Libby tries to train her sloth and ensure she sticks to the agreement made with her mother, she encounters various challenges and has to find solutions to them.
The story teaches children and young adults about the importance of inquisitiveness, reading, responsibility, initiative, and many other positive attributes as the story unfolds. It is suitable for 3–8-year-olds but even the parents and guardians who attended were all left in stitches at the antics of the sloth as it lumbered around the stage as slowly as any sloth would be known to do.
Kopano Tshabalala, who holds an Honours Degree from the University of Witwatersrand and is the young director at the helm of Sparky does a fantastic job of bringing the story alive through song, dance, and various theatrical techniques. This production must have been a challenging task for her given the difficulties of working with children and young adults especially ones who are amateur performers and trying to integrate them to create a seamless and engaging professional production with trained and experienced adult actors.
Sparky was directed by Kopano Tshabalala, with script by Jessica Wright Buha, adapted from the book written by Jenny Offill, with music and lyrics by Laura McKenzie. It featured Thokozani Jiyane, Neo Seoketsa, Alupheli Mzayidume-Maseko, Harmony Magodi, Arnold Ague, Yusuf Asvat, Daniel De Dominics, Isa Asvat, Maryam Jina, Leeto Nchoba and Nabiha Patel. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Johannesburg from 03-31 October 2021