The One and Only Flying Banana Children’s Theatre Group

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There’s a convivial buzz about the entrance to this otherwise conventional culture centre, where I have come to check out a show by the flying banana children’s theatre group. Children throng the hallways, placidly having their faces painted and eagerly chomp wand-shaped lollipops. Like some kind of Pied Piper in reverse, I follow the trail of glitter and confetti left in their wake and enter a warmly lit room where I meet with more hubbub and merriment. The children lounge on cushions at the foot of the stage where a live sand art exhibition prologues the content of the show to come. At no point are the children ever ushered and shushed, in fact they are actively encouraged to get up and move during the ensuing performance, to feel free to express themselves and join in the fun; even to the extent of invading the stage to protect the kindly witch from the smoke breathing dragon! The show itself is interactive and vivacious, leaning towards a ‘home made’ style which appeals to the childish imagination, rather than relying on unimaginatively contrived production tricks and cheesy clichés. After the show, I caught up with top banana, Martin Cooke.

Selection_235Why the silly name?

It’s from the circus – e.g. ‘The Flying Trampalinos’ and the English comedy series, Monty Python’s flying circus. Also, the flying Stilton club, an obscure, brilliant youth club in Suffolk. I wanted to express that sense of gentlemanly English anarchy.

Who are you?

Professional, English and Canadian actors and actresses living and working in Moscow, along with Russian friends who produce, dance, make music. We also have a great friendship with Li Chi, a wonderful sand artist who illustrates our shows. I’m a theatre director from England. The Bananas were formed in 2013 by Tamara Sidneva and myself. We had done a few gigs at Tamara’s baby-bilingual club which gives ‘meaningful English exposure’ to children from 18 months. Initially we were interested in stories which were aimed at children from 2 years old to 7’ish. The bananas took off from there.

I work as an actor in pilot films made in Moscow, for Hollywood. I also play roles in Russian films when they need a foreign character. We make video games too. I’m busy with that and also teaching drama in English, to people of all ages. It’s called ‘English through Art’; it’s the same system that Shakespeare was taught by. It’s a fantastic way to improve your English; even for English people!

Selection_236Why children’s theatre?

Because it rocks! I had children relatively recently and that motivated me to take an interest in children’s art. I tell the same stories to my own children and play with them in the same sort of free way which we play on stage. We tell stories which are chosen by children and are designed for children – I don’t want to make ‘successful theatre’ which is like the old joke – ‘the play was a success but the audience died’, because it misses the point of engaging the imagination of children by being overproduced and over educational. We like to leave room for stage invasions and interactivity.

What stories do you use?

Modern masterpieces. Absolutely categorically we prefer great modern stories such as Gruffalo, Pirate Cruncher and Room on the Broom.

Education or entertainment?

‘To play is to be’ is our company motto, especially for children but that concept should apply at all levels anyhow. Some people call it edutainment, but quite honestly I call it liberty. That’s the mission. I want my own children to experience the liberating effect of theatre and theatre arts. I believe in it with a passion. If I wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be starting a children’s theatre company, that’s for sure. As things stand there’s a definite demand for what we do. We are dedicated and full time and we are meeting the demand to offer children and parents a unique experience. It’s growing and developing all the time.

Selection_234Where do you perform?

We started in a tiny room in the library which we outgrew immediately. We want to keep the intimacy but we also want to increase the production value. So we play at non-traditional venues throughout Moscow, such as libraries and yoga studios and also in real theatres or culture centres – but always with cushions scattered on the floor to encourage an informal atmosphere and also to allow for children to stand up and move around during the performance – as you saw, even getting on the stage and preventing the evil dragon from eating the kindly witch! We also like to give children soft plastic balls to throw at the actors. It gets kinda wild on occasion. But it has a very liberating effect and is fantastic fun. We also play at schools and at private parties.

What about adult theatre?

I’ve gone off it. It’s not childish enough. My own son, Arthur Tikon Cooke has been appearing on stage since he was 18 months old; he started off in Harold Pinter’s ‘A Slight Ache’, with Elena Morozova and now he’s graduated to being the star of ‘Gruffalo’ and ‘Room on the Broom’- maybe when he wants to do King Lear and the Tempest, I’ll take up adult theatre again, but for now I’m having too much fun to go back to the adult dimension. I’m glad to say that I seem to have escaped adulthood for now!

What next?

Gruffalo! Tiger who came to tea! We’re going on a bear hunt! Room on the Broom! At the JCC, 47/3 Bolshoi Nikitsakaya, and other venues, throughout the spring season. A brand new PIRATE show will be showcased and we are developing a commedia d’ellarte comedy piece to be performed by English Clownessa, Amy G.