Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018, Polyglot Theatre is a treasure of the Victorian arts scene, delighting the young and the young at heart with powerful imaginary play.
The first time Polyglot Theatre staged their immersive work We Built This City, where kids take over a public space and build a town out of thousands of cardboard boxes, they didn’t really know how to fill out their risk management plan.
“So we put ‘paper cuts’,” says Artistic Director Sue Giles.
It was the year 2000, Sue’s first year on the job, and the beginning of a shift towards something new for Polyglot. Since 1978, when the company was founded by art teacher Naomi Tippett, Polyglot had captured the imaginations of children all over Australia with its entrancing puppet shows. But Sue, with her background in experimental and devised work, wanted to bridge the divide between the audience and the stage.
“Staged puppetry works were the main work of the company, and I was interested in expanding what that experience could be,” Sue says. “It was the beginning of realising that the audience experience can happen on many levels, and needs to happen on many levels.”
Eighteen years later, We Built This City is still touring. It’s been all over the world – to the USA and the UK, Abu Dhabi, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, and in 2013 it went to the tsunami-ravaged fishing village of Minamisanriku in Japan, where Polyglot’s performers played a role in healing the trauma of the disaster.
“It felt like it was a great disaster recovery work,” says Sue. “That kids could build their own town back up again. It was really successful, and really moving for all of us.”
It was Polyglot’s second visit to the village, and there have been two more since. This year the company took another cardboard world-building adventure, Paper Planet, which invites children (‘and their adults’, according to the company’s website) to populate a cardboard forest with their own creations.
“It was such a great example of how something very simple can make a difference and can bring, for a moment, something that people will remember,” says Sue.
Interactive ‘Play Space’ installations now form the lynchpin of Polyglot’s work. In addition to the cardboard chaos there’s Tangle, where children weave a huge network of brightly coloured elastic to bounce and play in, and Sticky Maze, an environment made of thousands of dangling strips of paper, some containing secret messages.
Other projects focus on community, such as First on the Ladder, a collaboration with Beyond Empathy in partnership with two Indigenous sporting clubs – the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club in Shepparton, and the Moree Boomerangs in New South Wales.
“It's an exploration of how is art relevant to a sporting club, and how can we work together to build the communication between the Aboriginal, and the non-Aboriginal communities in both those towns,” says Sue.
The company has also worked on several projects in collaboration with their Indonesian equivalent, Papermoon Puppet Theatre. The two companies created Helpmann Award-nominated Cerita Anak (Child’s Story) together with local children in a fishing village north of Java, and will be taking the show back to Indonesia later this year with funding from Creative Victoria.
With the company celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it’s a good time to examine its incredible output. In the past five years, Polyglot has reached an audience of over 350,000 people, created 11 new works, staged 1,226 performances and toured globally. In its forty year history only one production has been an adaptation – the rest have all been original works. Last year they staged 263 performances and held 172 workshops – a schedule most small to medium theatre companies can only dream of.
Apart from staggering levels of productivity and a robust touring schedule, Sue puts Polyglot’s longevity down to its willingness to change.
“I reckon it’s because we’ve never been afraid to try new things, or go in new directions, but our vision hasn’t really changed since the beginning,” she says. “You can’t help but keep changing if kids are right in the middle of stuff, because the audience is constantly changing. It’s the idea of keeping a strong eye on contemporary childhood that doesn’t rely on adults being the gatekeepers.”
And change is in the air for Polyglot. For 38 of the last 40 years they’ve called South Yarra home. This year the company is moving into a purpose-designed space in the Sacred Heart building at the Abbotsford Convent.
After years of staging work everywhere but their own theatre, Sue is looking forward to new collaboration opportunities now that Polyglot will be surrounded by other artists.
“This feels like a turning point,” says Sue. “We’ve had an incredible history, but we’re moving to a community of creative thinkers, and I think that’s going to make a massive difference.
“Walking through the Convent, there are so many great people, so many like minds. And so many families and children come through those gates all the time.”
Polyglot Theatre is one of 88 small to medium arts organisations funded through the Victorian Government’s Organisations Investment Program.