Stephen Noonan puts children's theatre on the world stage

Stephen Noonan on set with large yellow cylinders and a ball

the Boy & the Ball | Image: Andy Rasheed - EyeFood Photography

When asked how to create plays for children, Constantin Stanislavski, the seminal Russian theatre director, actor and theorist reportedly replied, “The same as for adults, only better.” Stephen Noonan’s mission is just that. He is a performing artist with a diverse practice working in the Theatre for Early Years field, making high-quality and meticulously crafted original performances for audiences from six months to eight years of age.

Stephen graduated in 1993 from the University of Adelaide BA in Educational Theatre. At the time, the Head of Department was the pioneer Frank Ford AM, founder of both the Adelaide Fringe and Adelaide Cabaret Festival. “Frank had a profound impact on my work as an artist,” says Stephen. “He encouraged students to be risk-takers and to think about their role in the world as cultural contributors and changemakers”.

Stephen Noonan shakes hands with Sonia Petrovic

Stephen receiving 'People's Choice' & 'Pedagogy in Theatre' Awards from Sonia Petrovic, Festival Director, 29th Festival of Ecological Theater for Children and Youth, Serbia.

Stephen’s time at the University of Adelaide created many international opportunities. In his final year, he undertook a study abroad program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus. “My time at UCSB showed me how common it was for American students to travel for their studies, often avoiding universities in the city where they grew up, rather seeking out a university that enabled them to travel and perhaps be independent of their families for the first time. Towns and cities would often grow around the university culture and infrastructure of those locations, to the point they would become a ‘university town’ like UCSB.”

Stephen has performed overseas in China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, USA, Canada, France, India, Scotland and Denmark. He has taught drama and dance at a number of arts institutions in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Sweden.

In mid-2023, Stephen was thrilled to perform his current work ‘the Boy & the Ball’ at the 29th Festival of Ecological Theater for Children and Youth in Serbia and Con Fusione Festival Italy. In Serbia the performance was attended by Mr Daniel Emery, the Australian Ambassador to Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro and BA and LLB (Hons) alum of University of Adelaide.

Kids captivated by Stephen Noonan

Audiences at the Ball & the Boy performances 29th Festival of Ecological Theatre for Children and Youth, Serbia.

Currently, Stephen is in Malta where he is performing ‘the Boy & the Ball’ at ŻiguŻajg International Arts Festival for Children & Young People. And in 2024, the performance will return to Adelaide as a part of the Adelaide Fringe.

'the Boy & the Ball' is a story about making a friend and how one friend can become many. In a quiet heuristic world, simply constructed from multiple cylinders of all shapes and sizes, we meet a very shy boy and witness how, with the assistance of his ball, he makes a friend.

“This solo nonverbal performance is a wondrous tale of reassurance, joy and connection... with a little visual magic achieved through carefully devised theatrical illusion,” says Stephen.

Navigating the world of friendship is a ‘rite of passage’ experience for most children. In an ever-increasing world of change and difference, relationships with others are what really matters. When a young child has a positive sense of security and belonging, they have life-long foundations for developing friendships. “Through the experience of making friends, made gently visible in the performance, young audiences witness processes of negotiation, problem solving and active participation in their own society with their peers.”

Developed over a two-year period in close consultation with a highly experienced team of artists – including University of Adelaide graduate, James Brown, M Mus (Music Performance) – and with the collaborative participation of kindergarten children and their educators, Stephen says, “the Boy & the Ball is exquisitely nuanced to engage three and four year-old children in storytelling wonder.”

Stephen Noonan with Ambassador Daniel Emery

Stephen with Ambassador Daniel Emery, Australian Ambassador to Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro and alum of the University of Adelaide. The Ambassador was a guest at the festival and saw the Boy & the Ball, 29th Festival of Ecological Theater for Children and Youth, Serbia.

'the Boy & the Ball' invites children aged 3-4 years into a world created in response to their capacity for wonder, abstraction, connection and play. As Stephen explains, “In specific moments of 'the Boy & the Ball', young audiences are invited to become participants and co-creators in the performance. It requires from me a responsive relationship with young audiences, harnessing their participation as a critical aspect of the materiality of the work.”

Stephen says “My artistic priority is to make performance works for an extremely specific age group because I can create and respond to the cognitive and emotional experiences specific to the age group.

“The research process underpinning the show revealed this age group's expertise in reading non-verbal imagery, and from my experience of the consultations in kindergartens this age group comprehends narrative through movement, gesture, gaze and music interlinked with the emotional tone of each moment.”

Stephen continues his relationship with the University of Adelaide as a casual staff member in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Adelaide Health Simulation, where he does medical role-play with medical and nursing students.

Reflecting on his time at the University of Adelaide Stephen says “Not only were the content and teaching staff of the University world-class but the learning that happened from and between other students was hugely significant. New students often think all the learning comes from the teaching staff but I think I learnt as much from other students in my course, many of whom are now some of South Australia’s leading artists and producers.”

You can learn more about Stephen's work on his website.

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