Ever since the beginning of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity working to instil positive values and social empowerment to underprivileged children in India that is now in its seventh year, we are on the radar of young musicians worldwide who want to work in this sector.
In December 2015, we were contacted by Abi Heath from England, a member of the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company, a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London. “We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, she wrote in her email to us. And about a week later I got a supporting email from our friend in London, Goan-origin pianist-pedagogue at Trinity Laban Karl Lutchmayer.
Thus began a chain of correspondence that led to their performing for our Child’s Play children in addition to other locations in Goa in August last year. The quality of their performance was so good that it seemed a shame that more children (and adults!) couldn’t have the experience. So when the Wind-Up Theatre Company got in touch again this year regarding a return visit, I resolved to have their performance in a more public, larger venue. And so their performance will be at Caritas Conference Hall St. Inez on 31 July 2017 at 6 pm.
I interviewed Elisabeth Swedlund for this article: “The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company was founded in 2012 by myself and my classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. I’d been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for the past 5 years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. By fortunate coincidence, Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised our whole first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – we went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of us), the next winter. Our university – and therefore Penguin – is very international. During our second project, Bozhana, from Bulgaria, offered to organise a project in Bulgaria – same with Carlos, our Colombian friend. Once we’d realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, we started to extrapolate to countries we really wanted to work/perform in. Five years later, after 13 projects, and over 10000 children performed to in more than 150 different places, we’re still going strong!”
The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crisis in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.
Swedlund talks in particular about the children in the refugee camps: “We very much can tell that the refugee children we perform to have witnessed violence and severe insecurity. They have extraordinarily high energies, and often people who work with them find it difficult to get them to learn, understand, behave. Artistic experiences, I feel, are crucial at this point: in our workshops, we use games and music/singing to channel children’s energy, enabling them to run, shout, play, in a safe space, all through being creative (which they often very much are).”
Any experiences that stand out it Swedlund’s memory? “I’ve had so many! At the time of this interview, we were performing in Victoria Square, a Square in Athens where many Syrian children play with their parents. A few children ran up to us and asked us about ‘the boy’ (the puppet we’d been performing with in our previous show). They also remembered ALL of the songs we’d taught them three months ago. It very much reminded me that, what I sometimes feel might be a ‘normal’ performance, can inspire children and stay with them, hopefully, in difficult moments.”
The troupe also has this endorsement from the Head of Music at the Guildhall School, Jonathan Vaughan: “The Wind-Up Penguin are a group of highly motivated students who are really interested in charity work. They produce really dazzling and colourful productions to entertain children throughout the world.”
How does Wind-Up Penguin choose its members? Swedlund explained “As the founder, for me, Penguin combines two equally important aspects: to bring professional-quality music and theatre to children in parts of the world where they don’t have access to art, and to inspire music and drama students to use their skills and training in an altruistic and world-focused way. We specifically advertise our projects to students from the Guildhall School and a few other performance universities of similar high level around London. The project leader (often myself) interviews the members – we make no distinction artistically, as we know that anyone studying in these universities automatically has a high musical/theatrical level. What we mainly look for is an interest and enthusiasm about discovering the world and helping others through art, and a willingness to work and live alongside a group of other eccentric artists for a couple of weeks!”
At their performance tour of India in July-August, last year, in addition to Goa, the Wind-Up theatre company also visited Mumbai, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Tiruvannamalai and Chennai, logging in 31 shows and theatre workshops to over 5000 children.
So what will their performance involve? “It’s a cross arts show, incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets. It’s very interactive with the kids. All colourful and fun.”
“For me, Penguin is about inspiring artists, who often are on their way to a highly successful career, to perform with an altruistic view on the world. And of course – for children, through music, theatre, and laughter, to get inspiring, very much out-of-the-ordinary, and hopefully memorable experiences,” says Swedlund.
(An edited version of this article was published on 30 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)