There are many moments of self doubt when parenting. The day we were planning to attend Cerita Anak (Child’s Story) was one of them. My children were tired, grumpy, battling colds and not remotely interested in going to the theatre with me. But the tickets had been organised long before and it was a children’s show so I needed my junior critics along with me. More importantly, I wanted them to experience the magic of the theatre. But oh the effort to get in the car and get there on time. Was I pushing too hard? Should we just stay home? Would we understand the story if it was in Bahasa Indonesian? I wasn’t even sure who the ‘child’ in the title was.

When we finally made it to the State Theatre Centre the warm welcome by the three cast members Pambo Priyojati, Emily Tomlins & Sonya Suares was just what we needed. At their invitation we designed and coloured some sea creatures. The magic of the production was already at work as we subtly transitioned from spectators to co-creators.

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Pambo Priyojati at the bow in Cerita Anak. Photo Toni Wilkinson

Cerita Anak (Child’s Story) was created by Melbourne’s experiential children’s theatre company Polyglot Theatre in collaboration with Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theatre who create theatrical art installations incorporating Indonesia’s world-renowned puppetry traditions. The story blends the sea-faring history of Java with the true story of a boy who arrived in Australia by boat. Taking inspiration from the artwork and play of children, Polyglot and Papermoon have created a imaginary world where the audience actively participates in the performance. It is one hour of pure wide-eyed delight.

When we were ushered into the theatre space it was quite simply a child’s wonderland: a playground mix of Ikea and Scitech.  Some children focused on the mechanics of the ropes and canvas walls of the large wooden boat structure, others went for rides on small crates pushed around on the floor. The cast alternated between playmates, stage hands and crew members assisted by director Maria Tri Sulistyani and associate producer Julie Wright so that each scene unfolded with incredible logistical smoothness.

As we gathered in the boat the sensory experience became all-encompassing: large blue sheets rippled into waves as fans blew air underneath, plastic balls fell like rain which we had to bucket out of the boat and then a storm arrived with lightening and blasting horns. The engine broke down and the crew beckoned everyone to stay down in the boat as the waves began to splash over the sides – we felt the droplets as water was sprayed playfully in the air.

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Photo Theresa Harrison

Just when things were getting a little intense – the children were desperately tossing balls overboard or huddling with their parents – the sun came out and we spotted fish in the water. In fact it was the creatures we had made on arrival and everyone had a go catching them with bamboo fishing rods.

Another whimsical scene was a trip underwater, cleverly created by the canvas walls of the ship lifting to the ceiling to become a white screen with projections of sea creatures gliding past. Fish stencils were passed around with torches and we made shadow puppets on the walls. A large manta ray floated above us, made from grasses and hovering on the end of a long pole.

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The tireless crew members were constantly connecting, reassuring, urging interaction and simultaneously manipulating props to move the story along. There was a lot of activity and minimal language – just the occasional exclamation or word to steer our awareness.

The storm returned – an immersive experience bordering on overwhelming for some little members of the audience but there was also a sense of empowerment; we were part of the storytelling, it wasn’t being imposed on us. Still there was a tangible sense of relief and delight when land was sighted – hills and buildings projected on the walls of the theatre. We built a bridge of boxes to get to the  land (my children chose to swim) and waved goodbye to the crew.

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Land is sighted. Photo Theresa Harrison

“I don’t want to leave,” declared one child. Another who had cried during the storm told his adult “I loved it”.

It had been a trip to another world, another space in our minds where we were encouraged to find freedom, creativity and wonder. We had subtly and without politics (here’s the magic of the theatre at work)  become boat people, experiencing first hand the vulnerability and bravery of their story.

It is a shame the production (the only show specifically designed for children in the festival) has such a short (sold out) season as I would have loved my friends and family to experience this.

My family emerged buoyant, refreshed and inspired. We went home to make paper boats, cut out shadow puppets and look for a fan and a sheet. We now knew who the child in the story was. Cerita Anak was our story and it wasn’t over yet.

Cerita Anak runs until February 25th. The season is sold out.