The Potential of Children from Extraordinary Situations
— Providing Opportunities for Encounters Between Artists and Children

Originally published on Tokyo Tokyo FESTIVAL 2021.01.13 release
Performance Kids Tokyo (hereinafter, PKT) is a project conducted by the non-profit organization Children Meet Artists together with Arts Council Tokyo (Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture).
It sends out professional contemporary artists to schools, halls, foster homes, and other institutions to hold workshops that last around 10 days. During this time, children create a stage production in which they play the lead roles, and they present it on the last day.
However, schools were closed in spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did they restart the project amidst the confusion of not only the children but also the parents, teachers, and other adults involved? We spoke with NAKANISHI Mayu, the General Director for Children Meet Artists, about the situation during the six months leading up to September 2020.
NAKANISHI Mayu, General Director of Children Meet Artists
NAKANISHI Mayu, General Director of Children Meet Artists

New Discoveries Every Time

―Since beginning its activities in 2008, PKT has provided opportunities for roughly 8,600 children to meet with artists. How has working on this project made you feel, Ms. Nakanishi?

I discover something new every time, and I never get tired of it. Sometimes it's a child standing on stage who was expected to perform poorly in front of an audience; sometimes it's a child who has had trouble with relationships with friends and is looking forward to going to the theater hall. It feels rewarding when these little story-like events take place at various event sites. I'm always moved during the performance on the last day, partly because I have seen the process that led up to it.

―Parent comments have included "Riding alone on the bus or train was a good experience," "I was touched at the sight of my child giving a lively performance on stage," and "I cried." Ten days can change a child, can't they?

I think children innately have a lot of potential—the potential to change, that is—and it's brought out when they meet adults they would never otherwise meet.
Of course, parents and teachers try to bring out the best in their children every day, but using a slightly different approach to get involved with them reveals another side to them. That's not to say that artists are "wizards" who can transform children.
I think that even the artists can expand their own range of expression through these experiences and create interesting things through synergy.

―And then there's the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on such a valuable place for children....

Around February and March, daily life was interrupted, and I found it really distressing that our in-progress workshops were suddenly cancelled and that I couldn't even meet with the children to say goodbye to them.
When I visited a reopened school in summer, I could see for myself from the bulletin board and so on that the children were under a lot of restrictions in terms of interaction and talking, and I was concerned about the various effects this could have on their physical senses.
The pool was also closed, students from different classes weren't allowed to mix, and there were no grade-wide assemblies. There were some concerns about whether it was okay to hold real workshops under those conditions, but after referring to the guidelines for theaters and other facilities and holding discussions with artists and staff members about how workshops could be held safely, we decided to resume workshops starting with Komae Ecorma Hall in August.

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August 2020 (eight days total): Dance workshop and presentation of achievements for "Sky: Maps of Light and Sound"
Choreography/organization/direction: Yoko Ando (choreographer/dancer)
Performers: Children from second grade elementary to first grade junior high

The Experience of Immersion Without Anyone You Know

―What specifically has changed from last year?

We've reduced the capacity of the large hall this year from 30 participants to 15 in order to avoid the three Cs. In addition to wearing masks and using sanitizer during the workshop, we eliminated combined morning/afternoon schedules to reduce the risk of prolonged group activities.
The schedule was also shortened from 10 to 8 days due to the shorter summer holidays, and with the new school term starting on the 24th, the final production was moved up to the 22nd.
Participation this year was limited to children from second grade elementary to first grade junior high. For the children, I think it was the first time in a while they'd had a "real gathering" with others. The children took turns being in charge of the sanitizer, and they were so incredibly cooperative that it seemed like they were doing even more than was necessary.

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Children willingly using hand sanitizer (photo: HATORI Naoshi)
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Wearing masks during a workshop while being careful about heat stroke (photo: HATORI Naoshi )
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Practicing while maintaining distance from each other (photo: HATORI Naoshi)

For staging, Ms. Ando clarified the on-stage standing positions, and she came up with ways of using the space to ensure distancing using chairs and so on. The final production was 40 minutes. Masks were removed, but no vocalization was involved. It was dancing only.

―This was a hall where the children were meeting each other for the first time, and not a school where they already had existing relationships, so there wasn't much communication, such as eating together and chatting, right?

And they didn't spend long periods of time together. Surprisingly, however, they soon got along well. We would frequently take short breaks to avoid heat stroke, but we didn't have a lot of time to chat, and in any case, though it seemed like they would immediately move on the next thing after hydrating, before long, they were treating each other as friends. I thought that was so interesting.
Maybe it was just their unconscious desire to "do something with someone". I think maybe the children's bodies were also eager to run around on a large stage.

―What have the children and parents been saying?

Here's the kind of feedback I've gotten from the children:
"I want to do this again!"
"It was my first time being immersed in an environment with no friends, and it helped to build self-confidence."
"It was a valuable experience meeting and getting to know participants of various ages from different schools."
I've also received many words of gratitude for hosting this workshop during the pandemic, which had taken away so much fun.
I also heard a junior high school student tell me, "It's easy to do just whatever you're told, but it was fun thinking and moving on my own." And many parents have told me they were impressed by how each child used their bodies to express themselves while thinking.

Thinking for Oneself a Necessity at Times like This

―So it's not just a matter of everyone dancing a fixed choreography, is it?

While Ms. Ando prepared choreography for everyone to dance to, she made various efforts this time to allow people to enjoy being on stage despite restrictions that prevented direct contact.
For example, in some scenes, it was okay for children to use their own timing to start dancing, instead of doing it the same as everyone else. Even though there was music, they were free to start moving slowly. In other instances, the rules and timing were fixed, but the children could decide how they wanted to move.
It was times like that at which the children could harness their individualism to embrace the challenge of standing and dancing at their own volition. It's interesting to think for oneself.

一Not having to be the same as everyone else is what makes it different from school life.

Expressive activities at school, such as athletic events, tend to require students to work toward a predetermined solution and to be able to do the same thing during practice and the actual event. However, since it's okay for our workshops to be different each time, a child will sometimes unexpectedly do a solo dance or something during the actual production that makes me think "Wow! They've never done anything like that before!" (laughs).
That doesn't jibe with the values of a school, and I think it makes a lot of teachers uneasy when we do workshops at school because they will never see the finished product. Children are surprisingly okay with that. It's probably more difficult to shake up the values of adults.

Children walking around in accordance with maps they have drawn themselves (August 17 workshop / photo: HATORI Naoshi)
Using chairs to maintain a fixed distance (August 22 presentation of achievements / photo: HATORI Naoshi)
Expressing oneself on stage (August 22 presentation of achievements / photo: HATORI Naoshi)

一It's important to think about things that one doesn't know the answer or the solution to, isn't it?

If you're raised with the ability to do only things that all have a predetermined correct answer, then how you will be able to live in the future is a concern. In the real world, irregular stuff happens. But I don't think that's the approach teachers want to take; it's the current educational system that makes them do things that way.
Artists are in a different position than teachers, so they can allow children to see their problems and mistakes. They can say, "next time, let's try it this way," and even though they don't know the solution, they can consider the situation together with the children to make something they think is good.

一You could say that "learning is also a process."

Today's children tend to avoid mistakes. When Artists tell them to try making a scene, they hesitantly try to figure out what is expected of them before they act.
Seeing children like that, I think it's okay to express your feelings honestly, there's not a single right answer, it's okay for other people to think differently from you, and it would be more fun if we could be a bit gentler in our acceptance of each other.

一You also hold workshops for special needs classes and foster homes.

Adults tend to remove all potential hindrances when it comes to children with disabilities in particular, but outsiders can perceive certain things that insiders overlook.
Teachers were worried that this kind of choreography would be too difficult for those children, but when they tried it, they were surprisingly able to do it, and even though there were always several teachers standing by right behind them to prevent them from moving around, they were able to perform without any adults around during the presentation.
There are, of course, "tips and tricks for interaction" that are unique to those children, so I don't mean to dismiss the teachers' approach at all, but I think it's ideal if we can exchange ideas and suggest solutions that we think would work surprisingly well.

一Lastly, what message would you like to convey to people?

Even amidst the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still experience the importance of connecting with other people and the joys of self-expression by spending time together to create a work of art. I think that encounters with adults and children who have different values from your own are an opportunity to discover something precious.
We are continuing to hold successive workshops at schools and other institutions from September onward, with infection prevention measures in place. With a track record of creating opportunities for children to express themselves, we are taking a flexible approach that is open to suggestions, and we would be happy to accept applications for further workshops.

2020 Performance Kids Tokyo — "Sky: Maps of Light and Sound"
Children actively expressing themselves through their presentation of achievement (August 22, Komae Ecorma Hall / video and editing: KANEMAKI Isao)


General Director of Children Meet Artists. Born in Osaka in 1980. Studied photography at university. After working as an elementary school teacher in Osaka from 2006 to 2008, she studied abroad in the UK for a year and a half before joining Children Meet Artists in March 2011. As the workshop coordinator, she is responsible for programs conducted at schools (including special needs schools), foster homes, institutions for disabled children, and similar institutions.
Coverage and editing: KATO Mizuko