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The Children’s Hour

Photo by Phile Deprez

If ever a play subverted the adage that children should be seen and not heard, writer-director Josse De Pauw’s üBung (Practice) is it. Presented by the Victoria theater company from Ghent, Belgium, this production launches UCLA Live’s second annual International Theater Festival; Marisa Carnesky’s Jewess Tattooess (see accompanying article) opens the same night. Both presentations are being shown in America for the first time.

De Pauw’s 70-minute show features a black-and-white film of a dinner party in which a group of brittle adults, under the inexorable persuasion of alcohol, become loud, sloppy and deceitful. Watching the movie onstage are six children, aged 11 to 13, who begin to mimic the screen action while providing their own lip-synched dialogue. De Pauw got the idea when, during a Sunday family gathering, he observed a room of children watching a video of The Lion King without the sound and mouthing the lines they had heard dozens of times.

Critics have found üBung to be a disturbing comment on the ways grown-ups pass on their neuroses to curious sons and daughters who are only too eager to dress up in their parents’ oversized clothing and egos. When I spoke by phone to De Pauw, who is both a Flemish theater artist and popular film-TV actor, he didn’t sound terribly upset about children listening to their inner adults. In Britain and the Netherlands, he admitted, critics were particularly troubled by the child actors’ supposed loss of innocence onstage.

“We believe in the innocence of children, but I don’t know if that is an adult projection,” De Pauw said. “Adults like to think of children as somewhat shy and cute, but kids are very eager to survive, to grow up and understand.”

At first De Pauw merely wanted to write a script and pass it on to a director, because “I was a bit scared of children — it’s been a long time since I was a child, a time that seems to belong to another planet.” He said he avoided directing “traffic” onstage and simply allowed the children to create their own blocking. It didn’t take long in the rehearsal process for De Pauw to discover just how competitive stage children can be.

“They didn’t like the film at first — they were very negative,” he said. “And they didn’t think I knew what I wanted, which was partly true. They also fought for a long time to do the sounds of the film. They would have loved to tap on stones and glasses, but we have a soundtrack that suggests those noises without having them in sync.”

Eventually the kids turned into something bigger than adults — they became actors.

“In the beginning they did not believe in what they were doing,” he recalled. “But they were stunned by the opening-night applause. Then they became more and more willing to invest themselves in the work, they became aware of the mechanics — where the laughter comes, how far you can push it, how much time you have onstage to fill in with yourself.”

One difficulty üBung audiences here may encounter is a tendency to follow the film more closely than its live counterparts onstage, especially as, in the case of this Flemish-language production, subtitles run across it. De Pauw concedes film’s “natural dominance” and our fear of missing something whenever we turn away from the screen. Still, he’s counting on American audiences to balance their focus among these three aspects.

One of the biggest difficulties for De Pauw was cutting loose the original cast after it toured for two years — as though giving the young actors an early taste of the entertainment industry’s appetite for “younger.”

“In the end they were too grown-up,” De Pauw said. “The performance depends on a confrontation between child and adult, and if the child is gone, they cannot perform it anymore. It was sad, and the old cast is a little bit depressed at not being able to continue. But they played the scenes 130 times, so maybe when they grow up they’ll laugh at what they’ll recognize in their lives.”

De Pauw disagrees with people who try to shield children from the objectionable behavior of adults; he believes that imitation is part of growing up.

“This is a performance that says we are not perfect,” De Pauw said with a weary sigh. “We do strange, horrible things, but also some wonderful things. The children are growing up, they’re going to die and may make the mistakes of the adults on the screen. üBung tells children, ‘You have a lifetime to make mistakes and learn and move on.’ Perfection is simply boring. Innocence is boring.”