The Little Prince aviator. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Little Prince aviator. Picture: SUPPLIED

Issues such as love, death, and finding a purpose in life are common themes for the theatre. Not always in shows aimed at children, perhaps, but the cast of characters behind VR Theatricals don’t believe in fairytales.

The latest offering from this three-year-old company is The Little Prince, a musical based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupe´ry. It’s about a pilot and a young alien prince who fly between different planets and learn the oddities of adult behaviour through some extraordinary encounters.

Elizma Badenhorst has adapted the story for the stage and directs the action, which blends puppets with real actors. She has made the pilot female to inspire young girls.

Composer Wessel Odendaal wrote the music and lyrics for songs that heighten the emotions as the prince visits other planets and experiences adult problems. Odendaal is an associate producer with VR Theatricals and says their passion is for contentious, or at least challenging, material.

The company’s most recent shows were Avenue Q, a puppets-meet-humans musical with a strong gay theme and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a salacious musical about a transgender singer.

There’s none of that in The Little Prince, but there is education in the entertainment. “I don’t like children’s theatre. That’s just people singing pretty songs with no purpose to it. There’s definitely a market for quality children’s productions that are educational,” Odendaal says.

The company’s first kids’ show, Peter and The Wolf, introduced audience members as young as three to the instruments of a classical orchestra through puppetry. The Little Prince aims at children 10 years and older, with enough visual action for younger ones to enjoy, even if some themes fly above their heads.

Little Prince puppet. Picture: SUPPLIED
Little Prince puppet. Picture: SUPPLIED

Since getting school groups to a theatre is a mission involving time, money and organisation, the company is planning to take its shows to the schools. “We’ve written The Little Prince with a view to ‘what if we had to put it into one car’ and take it on the road,” says Badenhorst.

One secret for success with children’s theatre is honesty, she believes. “We try to protect children from truth, and that’s the worst thing you can do. A show can be fantastic and magical but children also need to hear the truth, so in Peter and the Wolf we tackle being bullied and mocked, which they experience every day.

"The Little Prince is about death and love and relationships. We are very honest about these real-life issues but package it in a way that’s palatable to them.”

Theatre can help to shape children’s views of how they see the world, and it’s a privilege to be part of that, the crew believes. But to really appreciate theatre, children need to understand what they are seeing, and that requires art and culture to be taught at school.

If you recognise the skill needed to sing or act because you’ve tried it yourself, you don’t take what you see on stage for granted because you have a deeper understanding, Odendaal says. That would also improve the quality of future performers.

He has lectured in musical theatre at college and says the students’ lack of theatrical exposure means too much time is spent teaching them basic performance skills.

“It’s very difficult to refine a really rough diamond, whereas if an understanding of the magic of the process was introduced in schools then the quality of people we could feed into the industry would be 10 times higher,” Odendaal says.

The venture by VR Theatricals is a welcome addition to the work of the National Children’s Theatre and the People’s Theatre, both long-running producers of kids’ shows. But there’s little to capture the “cooler kids” aged 12 or 13, and that’s where The Little Prince sits, says Jaco van Rensburg, executive producer of VR Theatricals.

So far their efforts are unprofitable, but he laughs and asks which theatre isn’t. “That’s the magical and scary part of being a producer. You never have a clue what’s going to sell and what’s not," Van Rensburg says.

"This is a financial gamble but it’s imperative that we build audiences for the future. If we don’t create exciting work for youngsters we will lose a whole generation of theatregoers. We want kids to see theatre that’s not only entertaining but also challenges them with questions about their lives and makes them grow as humans.”

South African audiences often see blockbuster productions but are rarely exposed to more experimental work, Van Rensburg says. It may be too late to convert the current generation of ticket-buyers to that concept, so he’s aiming at the kids.

“To build a community where theatre isn’t seen as pure entertainment but makes you think about the bigger questions in life we need to get younger people to experience the magic,” he says.

• The Little Prince runs at Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg from October 25 until November 25.