Children on Stage

At the Wiener Kindertheater, theater is a school for life; Maximilian Schell stops by

Sylvia Rotter & her ‘kids’ at Wiener Kindertheater | Photo: Lukas Beck

Studio Moliere, a Sunday matinee at the Wiener Kindertheater. It’s the final performance of this year’s show, Der Talismann of Johann Nestroy – a comedy of jealousy and disguise and the ultimate triumph of honor over appearances.

The theater is abuzz with parents and children – at least half the audience is under 12, or so it seems, from the froth of giggles bubbling over the heads of the crowd. The lights go down; a hush settles over the room. Every seat is full.

From the wings, Sylvia Rotter, sweeps onto the stage. Founder and director of one of the most remarkable cultural institutions in this cultural capital, Rotter puts on real theater with real children, classics of the stage rediscovered by and with each new crop of young thespians through her seasoned eye and very sure hand. She welcomes the audience to shouts and whistles of applause; they embrace her as their own.

On stage, the room is suddenly far away, as the magic of imagination takes over. A willowy cartoon of a tree, perhaps out of papier maché, becomes a garden; a park bench becomes a palace. The boy, Titus, in baggy breeches and playing sleeves strides onto the stage carrying a suitcase, under a blazing mop of red hair. An outcast. A farm girl, Salome, too with red hair, idles in from the other side with a basket of flowers. They are fellow sufferers; she falls in love.

The plot unfolds as Titus seeks his fortune in love with the ladies of the court, “improving” himself with wigs and disguises. He charms, he ingratiates, and is unmasked by his rivals, until at last, it is the clever and loyal Salome who wins him in the end.

Academy Award-winning actor Maximilian Schell, a mentor of the Wiener Kindertheater | Photos: Lukas Beck

This is a story that children get; it’s about being “in” or “out”, being arrogant or true. And because it’s Nestroy, the dialogue is deliciously wicked, poking fun at the pompous, and making heroes out of farm hands. And under Rotter’s guidance, these small actors, ages 8 to 15, move with confidence and range, filling the space in every sense.

From the audience, the result is almost hard to believe. They are children, but not children; their small limbs present, invite and command, their young faces plot and provoke, tease and torment.  How do they know these things?

“Theater makes children smart!” Rotter had declared to the cheers of the assembled families. Although her word “schlau” has more edge to it, more like “shrewd,” or even “crafty.”  But these are her believers, the ones who need no convincing.

The ones who don’t always get it are in the government; the Kindertheater tends to get caught between agencies, the Culture Ministries aren’t sure they should support children’s programs, the Education Ministries shy away from the arts.

“It’s a constant struggle,” Rotter confided later.

At the Wiener Kindertheater, acting becomes a team sport, and everybody gets to play. Every role is prepared by several children – “there are four to eleven per part,” Rotter said – and  the cast are always intermingled, with no cast the same two nights in a row.

As the lights came up for the intermission, the audience streamed out into the foyer for drinks and cookies. On a chair in the aisle by the door, an older man stayed in his seat. A distinguished brow, a proud, familiar face: it was Maximilian Schell, mentor and old friend of Sylvia Rotter, and spiritual patron of the Kindertheater.

“The movement, it’s wonderful to see!” he said with obvious pleasure. “So spontaneous. It’s wonderful to see. They often lose this later.”  Schell himself has been on stage since early childhood, and loved it all.

In Der Talismann by Johann Nestroy, children learn to fill the stage | Photo: Luca Beck

“Everything that has to do with music, with dance, with poetic language, it’s all important. Nothing has changed,” he said. “It was the same [themes] in the classical era, the struggle for survival.” He leaned in closer. “I used to use this to defend myself!”

Rotter sees the theater quite literally as a “school for life.”

“It’s not just about theatre, we are giving them an opportunity to encounter themselves, to understand and empathize with others,” she said. “Acting helps their presence, team spirit, concentration, language – things one needs later.” Too much in children’s lives puts them in a passive role. The stage is a place where all this is given room to develop.

As they talked, Rotter seemed to draw strength from Maximillian Schell, the resonance of his voice reminding her perhaps of why theater matters.

“When a child sees with new eyes, and reacts with pure spontaneity,” he said, what more can one hope for.

“The theater is the best of schools. It is the measure of the world.”

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