That Night Follows Day isn't simple kid stuff

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      Young actors share their thoughts on giving voice to some very grown-up ideas about child-rearing

      Tim Etchells’s 2007 script That Night Follows Day explores the dynamics between grownups and kids, and was written for adult audiences—but it’s designed to be performed by children. You might say that it uses a group of young people as a giant mouthpiece that allows older people to reflect on their own behaviour and impact. Does that mean it’s exploitative?

      With James Long, her partner in Theatre Replacement, Maiko Bae Yamamoto is directing the English-language premiere of That Night Follows Day, which will run from February 4 to 8 at the Roundhouse Community Centre, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

      It’s easy to see one of the reasons for her interest in this intergenerational text; during an interview at her condo near 12th and Main, her 18-month-old son, Hokuto, is riding around on a toy truck. “His name means ”˜big man from the north’,” Yamamoto explains. “He’s the North Star.” She adds that, since Hokuto’s birth, her life has been revolving around him.

      In its form, That Night Follows Day is challenging. There’s no story as such; the script consists of 26 pages of declarative statements. The play begins with the 17 cast members—ranging in age from nine to 14, and all from Vancouver—speaking as a chorus: “You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us.” Throughout the text, the structure remains the same, but the passivity sometimes explodes into resentment: “You tell us to keep our dirty little hands clean and our big fucking mouths shut.” A major theme is learning—from “You teach us to draw shapes and lines, animals, bonfires, blue skies and people,” to “[You teach us] that AIDS is God’s punishment.”

      Yamamoto allows that there are dangers in asking youngsters to present the playwright’s adult perceptions of youthful experience. One criticism of the original Flemish production, she admits, was “that it almost felt like the kids were robots, that stuff was being transmitted into their brains and they were being forced to say it”.

      Still, the director points out that Etchells workshopped the script with the original cast. She also maintains that, in performance, the material has enormous emotional impact. She remembers the first time she heard child actors speak the text during auditions in September: “It just sort of blew us over. Kids trust in us so much and they believe what we say. We’re responsible for all of that.”

      Eager to get the perspectives of some of the performers, I caught up with 10-year-old Dexter van der Schyff and 13-year-old Sofia Newman at the Roundhouse, where the company is rehearsing.

      Van der Schyff acknowledges that some of the play’s political and historical content is alien to him. “I already knew that [Osama] bin Laden was, like, the most wanted terrorist of all time,” he says, “but I didn’t know what the Siege of Stalingrad was. I think that was when Hitler died.”

      Both kids are clearly drawn to the challenges of the work, however. “Some of it is really deep,” Newman offers. Referring to her favourite passage, a chunk of material she delivers with three other performers, she adds, “We call it the heavy section. There’s all of this crazy stuff about racism and hypocrisy and gossip.” The lines include: “[You teach us] that white people are full of shit/That black people are stupid/That foreigners stink.”

      “I’m not in the heavy section,” van der Schyff says, “but I do want to be in it. There are lots of things in it that are very exciting. Like she said, deep.”

      Neither van der Schyff nor Newman recommends this show for little kids. In Newman’s opinion, the performance is directed primarily at parents. “I would rate it PG or PG-13,” van der Schyff adds.

      Both have tremendous confidence in the piece. Asked what people will appreciate about it most, van der Schyff replies: “Probably how emotional it’s going to be.”

      Newman, on the other hand, points to the jarring contrast between the hard-hitting message and its young messengers. “I think it’s pretty amazing that kids are saying these things,” she says. “Sitting in the audience watching it, it would strike me as really interesting.”

      Regardless of audience response, Yamamoto has already gotten a great deal out of the project. She’s moved by the young performers’ faith that she and Long know what they’re doing—just as any parent who takes the time to notice is moved by the faith their children put in them. Doubtless, the play’s format emphasizes this trust: “You tell us.”¦You teach us”¦”