Next Tuesday, March 20, is celebrated as the Assitej World Theatre Day for Children and Young People, a day to encourage access to theatre for the whole family.

On this day, the 85 Assitej (international association of theatre for children and young people) centres around the world organise events such as conferences, theatre festivals and free performances and this year they are being drawn together around a central campaign – take a child to the theatre.

Assitej’s president, Cape Town theatre director Yvette Hardie, says all partners – theatre companies and management of theatre complexes – were encouraged to engage by opening their doors and encouraging people to come to the theatre.

She applauds small businesses that are financially supporting children to get to the theatre.

“We believe it’s important that children have a space where they can access their imagination,” says Hardie, the first African to head the global organisation.

“For us, theatre is an incredibly powerful and important human development tool. It’s far bigger than mere entertainment; it’s the space where anybody has the capacity to shift perception.

“Theatre allows us to see the world through other people’s eyes, into ways that would otherwise be hidden from us. It encourages empathy and creative engagement.

“In a world where multiple perspectives need to be considered and where dominant philosophies lead to people thinking very narrowly, theatre gives people access to a multiplicity of views.”

In Cape Town, Assitej has partnered with the Theatre Arts Admin Collective in Observatory for their second Family Season of Performance.

“Many families in Cape Town do not have access to the theatre, so we’re looking at building local festivals, which families can access easily, where the work is of a high quality and speaks to the whole family.

This year, they have expanded the festival to Vrygrond, where the national Assitej offices are situated.

“We’re using this idea as a model to roll out to the rest of the country,” Hardie says.

Assitej is also associated with Durban’s Catalina Theatre and Pietermaritzburg’s Hilton College Theatre and their presentations of I-puppeti and Othello, respectively.

Hardie says many theatres around the country will be opening their doors to children and young people to celebrate March 20.

Kalk Bay Theatre is offering tickets for TheatreSports and Artscape is hosting children for a storytelling session and tours.

“It’s been wonderful to see this incredible response because everyone understands that unless we get children excited, we as the theatre community won’t survive.

“It’s a small-scale festival, but the important thing is we can engage with people where they need it, to encourage a culture of theatre loving. So often families are in many ways fractured, not just by issues such as divorce, but because they have few positive things that they can do together.

“This is a wonderfully engaging experience, rather than a didactic one, so for children and young people it’s an important way to open up their eyes to what’s happening around them.”

Every year Assitej asks a significant world leader/artist in theatre to write a message to young people to celebrate Assitej World Day. This year, Suzanne Lebeau, a multiple award-winning French-Canadian playwright, has written the message and will deliver it in Cape Town, where she will watch the local production of her play The Ogreling, which has been translated into Xhosa as iZim’elincinci by Sindiwe Magona.

Caroline Calburn, director of Theatre Arts Admin Collective, says the family season’s diverse range of performances this year is exciting and she’s keen to see more families watch iZim’Elincinci, following the positive response to its debut at the Baxter last year.

Through the play, Lebeau has engaged with the struggle between good and evil that resides within everyone and the local version draws on home-grown references in the way it portrays the adult-sized child who wants to go to school and be a good little boy, but is betrayed by his ogre nature.

“I find writers for young people are too tame, too scared to tackle real issues,” says Calburn of local writers, who she hopes will be inspired by Lebeau’s presence and the workshops that form part of this year’s family season.

The Cape Town programme also features workshops and performances for teenagers.

“We’re very excited that Ewok is coming from Durban. He’s an old favourite and it’s that exchange on the local level… we don’t get enough of it,” says Calburn.

Her only wish is that the festival had more productions addressing teenagers directly and dealing with issues and characters more in keeping with their age group. “Often, prescribed work does not speak to young people,” she says.

• For the next three years, Assitej will be uniting theatres across the world in conveying one message “Take a child to the theatre today”. Assitej encourages all South Africans to make a generous contribution of R10 by SMSing “Theatre4Youth” to 38490, thereby sponsoring youngsters to visit the theatre.