Mike Kenny talks about Bag Dancing with the Blahs

Mike Kenny talks about Bag Dancing with the Blahs

As part of the Bag Dancing tour, Mike Kenny the play’s author joined our public performance and shared some thoughts and reflections on originally creating the piece, re-imagining it for a contemporary audience and of course working with the Blahs over the last 30 years.

This blog is a summary of what Mike talked about.

The Blahs in 1988 were a very new company, almost fresh out of university. Bag Dancing was the second piece he did with the Blahs, the first piece was devised but this one there was a definite time pressure and Mike took the initiative to say “I’m going to write this – take the ideas we have together and put a script together”.

At the time the Blahs used to rehearse in a church hall where the vicar used to keep all the left over items from jumble sales. This jumble became an area of exploration for the company – they made a worlds from these resources.

Actually fragments of several people’s stories and ideas inspire the stories within Bag Dancing. The character of Imelda came out of a chance encounter in a coffee shop, where an older lady leaned over to Mike’s friend to ask her if she was Jewish? Then as the friend was Jewish the lady opened up and began to tell her story of surviving the war in Europe.

This was the first piece where Mike felt he broke through the fourth wall and has never used it since. He wrote the play for Youth clubs to be performed in those community settings, for the theatre to be in those spaces – made where you were.

When Bag Dancing was first toured there were lots of conversations about homelessness now with this tour the conversations seem to be about refugees and mental health. While there are certainly themes and issues within the play, the focus really is on the characters as people, their world and the impact things are having on them.

When an audience member asked ‘what is the shoe phone all about?’ Mike explained that, it is Imelda opening Neville up to an imaginative universe, this was written long before mobile phones so is more of a leap for the imagination. She does it and she opens him up to the imaginative and he eventually embraces it and has the freedom to tell the stories of his experiences.

Mike is fascinated with stories and while reading The Story Animal found a quote that he really wishes he had written “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”

Working as a children’s playwright is an interesting dynamic as it’s not like writing a book that children can lift of the shelf and read themselves, you need other people to create the stuff. You need a group of people who will create the world with you as directors, actors, designers etcetera – you need to then persuade these people to be an audience too. Interestingly the target audience of children and young people are not the ones who get to make a decision about what they see, those decisions are made for them by parents, grandparents, teachers and guardians.

Mike acknowledged that there has been a huge shift since the Blahs began in what involvement with theatre and drama schools are able to have. With the National Curriculum limiting the choices that individual teachers are able to make and the change in how budgets are managed, this restricts the type of work that is being commissioned.

Looking at the work Mike has been commissioned to do realistically the last Youth Club plays were commissioned in 2000.   TIE’s approach has always been ‘where are the children and young people? – Right we’ll go and create work there’, now most work is commissioned for theatres. Then because there are economic necessities for the theatres, there are never any surprises for the children or their guardians – no challenges either.  As a response in part to this Mike has moved into the telling of fairytales as they are often very universal stories, yet can also be quite dark.

Mike stated that art is essential to our humanity, a deeply held conviction borne of personal experience of the transformative and healing power that art can have.

In Bag Dancing the character of Neville’s mum who had a breakdown is based on Mike’s own experience of his Mum having mental health issues and their family GP recommending to his Dad that it would be good to get her to do some painting. So Mike’s Dad went to Woolworths and bought painting by numbers kits and his Mum painted herself sane again. Mike believes art is essential to our sanity and schools are close to becoming Art free zones. He challenged us all to confront this status quo both personally and socially.