Polyglot’s Children’s Theatre

Audiences for children’s theatre have been getting younger and more sophisticated but is there a limit? Can you really created meaningful theatre for babies? That’s the question artists will discuss at a forum on theatre for very young children.

The theatre piece which has prompted the discussion is Polyglot Theatre’s How High the Sky created for pre-walking babies and their parents or carers. This immersive, intuitive and abstract work mirrors the shifting, developing world of the infant with drifting balloons, streamers, absorbing light and sound effects. Co-Director Jessica Wilson describes it as “a shifting architecture” in which the parent or carer “might play with seeing the world as a baby does”.

Theatre for very young babies is itself in its infancy in Australia, though its history in Europe dates back a couple of decades, pioneered by children’s theatre companies such as Italy’s La Baracca and France’s Theâtre de la Guimbarde. In Europe, the Small Size network, founded in 2005, supports the creation of work for children from 0–6. It has grown to include members in 12 countries; companies that have helped push the lower age-limit progressively downward over the past few years.

At the same time, naysayers insist that theatre for infants is a waste of resources, arguing ‘They won’t remember any of it’, ‘It’s just child care’, or ‘If you put the baby in front of the washing machine, they’d find it equally engaging’.

Wilson and Co-Director Sue Giles are familiar with the arguments. Children’s theatre comes under a lot of scrutiny, says Giles, partly because parents are concerned about what affects their children, but partly too out of fear. The idea of ‘value for money’ is another issue, she says, related to how people perceive ‘the place and power of children in our midst’.

Placing babies at the centre of How High the Sky, which is part of the Melbourne Festival, required a massive shift in thinking for the creative team, says Giles. ‘We were suddenly finding out what an enormous contribution to atmosphere and focus a child of that age gives, and how their sheer immobility changed the interactive nature of the work.’

The creators were also keenly aware of the role of the accompanying adults. As Jessica Wilson explains: ‘The parent’s experience of a show for babies is wrapped up in what they imagine their baby’s experience might be…We discussed the role of parent in mediating the world for their baby, and then how this affects the evolution of creativity in a child.’

Rhona Matheson is Director of Edinburgh’s Starcatchers – a theatre company making work for babies and toddlers, which has benefited from Scottish government policy that focuses strongly on children in the early years. Matheson is particularly interested in how theatre for the very young supports other work being delivered for this age group, she says, particularly in areas of deprivation.

‘If we are providing a positive shared experience for a baby and their parent or carer which allows them to spend some quality time together, this can have a knock-on effect in terms of general health and wellbeing,’ Matheson says. ‘We are in a positive place to look at how theatre, arts and creativity can support early child development, can support attachment between infants and their parents, and build confidence and well-being.’

Arts Centre Melbourne’s Program Manager, Families and Young People, Emer Harrington, agrees that there is a wider, more culturally connected view of this form of theatre. ‘I always remind people that often kids aren’t sitting and watching a show on their own: it’s about the connection and the discovery that takes place between those family members and then between people as a society and a community,’ Harrington says. ‘It’s not about the 6-month-old – it’s about the 6-month-old and the adult that they’re with. There’s something going on there, and it’s not just about the 6-month-old who you could put in front of the washing machine.’

For Sue Giles, the adult–child connection is central to creating a work of depth and insight: ‘It was important to us…to know that the adult was going to go on a journey as much as the baby… Theatre is such a great opportunity to delve as deep as you can, and our challenge with this work is to make that journey one that both participating audience members enjoy, from their own levels of understanding.’

Babies are responsive, open and unpredictable in ways that as adults we are forced to forget. Says Wilson: ‘The point of How High the Sky, is that we cannot ever really know how a baby views the world; and that is because it is likely very different to how we see it. We are interested in when this ‘view’ starts to shift – at what age – and how we as adults affect that shift.’

Giles adds: ‘It’s a chance, with this show, to take a step back and see…what the baby brings to the relationship, not what it receives or learns…Following the choices [of] someone so young…makes us think as adults how literally we see the world, how routine our understanding quickly becomes: how much we rely on 1 + 1 = 2.’

Rhona Matheson says adults can cope with abstraction in a way adults can’t. ‘[Babies] are amazing, they are always honest, they never cease to surprise artists, they inspire their parents…They are incredibly clever and can be challenged creatively. They are not afraid of abstract work – abstract work links to how very young children play, so I think they can cope with it in a way that a three- or four-year-old (or an adult) can’t.’

US children’s theatre pioneer Winifred Ward wrote, in 1950, that children under six do not need theatre experiences, as ‘their own dramatic play is entirely satisfying’. As recently as 2002, early childhood researcher Shifra Schonmann has argued that young children see no distinction between reality and fiction, and can therefore not appreciate theatre as art.

But Rhona Matheson says children of all ages have the right to access arts and culture and Sue Giles says offering babies theatre acknowldges them as individuals.‘As with all the work that is being explored for this age group, we recognise the Person, no matter how old they are; and the validity of personal response. By acknowledging the right to cultural experiences at every age, we are firmly placing children alongside adults and underlining the need for value and recognition.’

Jess Wilson agrees: ‘We are all born creative.’

How High The Sky Artist Discussion Forum  4pm, 26 October 2012  Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio Foyer Produced by Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Melbourne Festival and Polyglot Theatre. Registrations at the Arts Centre, Melbourne

How High The Sky is on at the Arts Centre as part of the Melbourne Festival.

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