Children, theatre, death and climate change

I recently went to see The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, an award-winning one-man children’s show that blends puppetry, multimedia, animation, technology, projection, and live and recorded music.

Alvin Sputnik tells the tale of one man’s journey to save a post-apocalyptic world in which rising sea levels have killed billions of people, Those who are left live in a sort of uber-Venice, where farms perch precariously on top of skyscrapers and their inhabitants sit on their verandas and fish the seas all day long. Scientists have tried everything to ‘save’ the earth: floating islands (sank), space-probing the universe for inhabitable planets (we are alone), giant sponges (rotting), chemically altering sea salt (epic fail). In a last effort they believe there may be a ‘second earth’ inside the earth’s core, an idea reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The scientists recruit crusaders to journey into the sea and activate a volcanic eruption that they believe will force the second earth to the surface.

“Many of you will die,” the brave crusaders are told by their Commander; “In fact, you will all probably die, but that is a risk I am willing to take.”

Alvin signs up as a crusader, so that he may swim in search of the soul of his dead wife, which, represented by a bobbing light globe, has slipped into the sea and down into its depths, away from Alvin’s life.

Alvin Sputnik is cute and funny – a little foam ball atop of the puppeteer’s hand, with fingers for limbs. He can swim, walk, dance, hug, and even do the moonwalk – he is the perfect hero for a children’s show.

And yet, despite the charm of the central character, the issues this show is dealing with are profound, particularly given its status as a children’s show: climate change and the extinction of much of the world’s population, the death of a loved one, the continued living presence of a soul, the self-sacrifice of an individual, and lack of acceptance of death of a loved one.

One of the interesting things about attending artistic shows with children (and live theatre certainly has more resonance here than a pre-recorded film) is that they have not developed a ‘theatre-etiquette’ of behavioural rules while watching a show. As such, they often vocalise feelings and questions which most adult-going audience members internalise. Normally, I find vocalisation from audiences frustrating and distracting (self-entitling and self-righteous members of artistic institutions, complaining or doddering elderly, or too-cute children) but in this instance I was fascinated to see how much of the youthful audience (about one third of which was under the age of ten) responded to these themes.

I was particularly moved by a small boy sitting behind me – let’s call him Tom, for the sake of ease.

At one point Alvin rows from house to house, trying to find the scientist’s headquarters. Tom asks, “where is that”, to which his mother replies, “that is earth”. “What is earth?” “That’s where we live.” “Why is there so much water Mummy?” “It’s just pretend, honey.”

Although really, with the ever-present and increasingly-accepted reality of climate change, island states preparing for their eventual submersion, and the creation of new human rights laws to deal with environmental refugees, how much of this story really will be just pretend by the time these audience members have grown up?

Further questions arose from Tom as to why Alvin is crying, what the bobbing light is and how it relates to Alvin’s wife. The mother explains that the light is the soul of Alvin’s wife, but that although the soul continues to live, Alvin’s wife herself is really dead. “It’s just pretend,” the mother repeats.

Tom’s response perfectly captures way art can blur the boundaries between what is real, what is ‘pretend’, what is a depiction of what is real, and how to tell the difference between these, or indeed whether there even is a clearly defined difference.

How confusing would it be, at eight-odd years of age, to discriminate between an alive person, a dead person, and an alive soul; an earth where we live that is simultaneously a pretend version of where we live; and why you would accept to go on a mission in which you will probably die.

Probably, at eight years of age, many of these concepts are beyond one’s immediate comprehension. While I am no psychologist, I would hope that recollections from this performance would perhaps be stowed away for future grappling, or as reference points for the inevitable dawning realisation of the meaning and impacts of death.

There have been many studies and documentation about the role of entertainment to educate children about death, and in particular the reaction children have toward death in Disney movies. Certainly in my own experience I have vivid memories of crying profusely during Bambi at the point in which Bambi’s mother dies, and of the relevance it had for me in coming to understand that my own mother would one day die too. I remember that it was not the way that Bambi’s mother dies (spoiler: she is shot) that particularly got to me, but rather the very extended amount of time it takes Bambi to realise that his mother has been shot. He thinks his mother is also escaping with him, running just behind him, and is elated upon reaching a hiding place. When he turns around to share his excitement with his mother it seems an age before he finally comes to realise that his mother is dead.

While I was doing some research for this blog I re-watched this scene in Bambi, and his dawning realisation only lasts for a couple of minutes. Nonetheless, to me as a child the points of realisation appeared to take forever: the mix of excitement at reaching safety, of the expectation of sharing a feeling of happiness with your mother, the confusion at the absence of your mother, the excruciatingly slowly dawning awareness of what has happened, and that he must come to his own realisation without the guidance of another loved one. It was that slow and detailed process of Bambi’s realisation which really hit home on the reality of death and what kind of an impact losing your mother could have. In fact, from the research that I did it, Bambi and The Lion King are costantly referenced as the two hardest-hitting Disney shows for young audiences, and which seem to have most resonance for those in their twenties. All of which is to say, that entertainment and performance has a crucial role to play in educating children about the reality and inevitability of death.

While much of this post is a review of Alvin Sputnik, I particularly wanted to explore the importance of performances such as this for children: not only to understand the reality of death, but also its educative and preparatory value in exposing children to the reality of climate change, the changes that may happen to the planet, the ceasing of the earth as we know it, and the deaths which are likely to occur as a result of this change.

It seems to me that in a world in which the extent of climate change is still much debated, and in which at a political level the establishment of measures to mitigate climate change is glacially slow (pardon the pun), it is really in the arts and in performances such as this, particularly those which reach a young audience, in which education about and preparation for the reality of climate change is able to happen. This will hopefully make some difference to the way humanity develops response measures during this coming generation’s life-time.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is created and performed by Tim Watts. It is a Weeping Spoon Production, currently produced by the Perth Theatre Company.

http://www.weepingspoon.com/AlvinSputnik/Welcome.html