Of late, in a number of prominent documents and at high-profile arts events, children and young people have been referred to as ‘the audience of the future’.
This has provoked (at best) a collective sigh, (at worst) downright frustration from those of us engaged in providing young audiences with high-quality and age-appropriate theatre as, however well-intentioned these comments might be, and however laudable an aim it might be, the idea that the primary aim of our work is to create ‘the audiences of the future’ is misguided.
As with those writing books for children, we are creating theatre for children because we believe their lives can be enriched today by engagement with culture. Hopefully, their experience will stay with them and encourage them to attend theatre performances throughout their lives, but our audience is valued in its own right in the here and now. Why else would we be working with them to discover their interests and passions; researching their developmental needs; ensuring that each production will engage them, amuse them, stimulate their thoughts and emotions on the day on which they see it?
As Martin Drury, Founder-Director of The Ark (Dublin’s wonderful cultural centre for children), has often said;
a 5-year old is not a third of a 15-year old, or a quarter of a 20-year old, or a seventh of a 35-year old. Being 5 is not a fractional experience, but is a very complete state and you only get 365 days to be 5, so it is really urgent that it is as rich and as comprehensive an experience as possible.
How true! So, if I am making a piece of theatre that is intended to be watched by an audience member during the 365 days during which they are 5 or 4 or 3 or 1, I want to tell them stories that will resonate with them during that very specific time in their lives.
At Theatr Iolo – and for the other companies with which I work – I am developing what we have come to call ‘small plays for small people’ – in which the audience is given a window into the lives of others with whom they spend a little time, thus encouraging empathy and stimulating emotional intelligence.
There are many other companies who, in their work for very young children, are exploring cross-art form collaborations and making use of a range of media, or whose work is interactive and participatory throughout. Much of this work is beautiful and exciting and inspiring, but I have chosen to pursue a different route, to create work with story and character, in which magic is created through a combination of simple visual effects and the wonderful power of a child’s imagination. It is a style of work which is firmly rooted in and informed by children’s play; in which a stick can be invested with all the properties of a horse; a journey into space can take place in a bedroom with a lighting effect; and children’s mouths can water while watching characters consume (with great relish) an entirely imaginary picnic.
As with all theatre, whatever the age-range of the audience, I believe that certain emotions such as joy, sadness, fear, anger, curiosity, envy, need to be explored but within the context of situations to which the audience members can relate. Major ‘traumas’ invoking intense feelings at age three can be seemingly minor issues to adults: wanting to wear your best dress while playing out in the garden; being told to go to bed when you are not even slightly sleepy; feeling aggrieved when your friend ruins your game; not comprehending why your dad wants to stop playing a game while you are enjoying playing it again, and again, and again, and again.
We try to introduce our audiences to an aural and visual landscape to which not all young children are exposed: music has included blue-grass fiddle; Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites; classical motifs played on a double-bass or cello; Latin-American influenced percussion; and music inspired by the Beach Boys and Arcade Fire. The design aesthetic in most of the shows avoids the primary-coloured, or slightly lurid plastic world of contemporary children’s culture, opting instead for a more muted colour-palette and natural materials.
It is a kind of theatre which does not consciously invite the children to engage in active participation during the course of the performance, although the children are often invited to play with materials from the play – sand, paper, or mud after the show. Instead, we ask the children to sit and watch characters interacting behind a fourth-wall – albeit a very thin veneer of a fourth wall – as the actors regularly breech it with direct eye-contact and moments of direct address, and which the audience breeches with comments sometimes sporadic, sometimes so constant as to be almost a running commentary.
Of course we want our audiences to be entertained (and there is no more delicious sound in the world than small children giggling with delight), but a successful show is one which engages its young audience on a deep level: sitting silently mesmerised and focusing intently on the stage; gazing wide-eyed and open-mouthed in wonder at magical transformations; spontaneously bouncing and dancing when music or characters make them feel like moving; hiding eyes behind fingers (while peeking out) in excited, delicious fear which then dissolves into chortling when the danger passes.
The work is always informed by initial research with small children, and theatrical images and ideas come from our conversations or story-making or drama workshops with them. A number of productions have also used exclusively the words of small children – a kind of verbatim theatre for the under fives.
We regularly test material on audiences of children. At an early stage in the development process this may be a particular theatrical convention or musical idea. The creative team will then take on board the children’s responses and either continue with these ideas or tweak or discard them.
Later in the process we try to ensure a number of previews, after each of which there is time to develop and change the performance as result of the children’s responses. Sometimes it can be something as small as brightening a particular lighting state or adding or removing a single sentence of dialogue. Occasionally, there will be something more radical that needs to be changed.
In Under the Carpet, for example, one of the characters, an extremely dapper dresser, was distraught at losing a button from his waistcoat. At a preview, one child shouted ‘Behind you! Behind you!’ We initially thought this was simply the legacy of pantomime, but then she started repeating ‘It’s on your bum. It’s on your bum’. The teacher looked rather uncomfortable, and we subversive artists tried not to laugh – but then we realised that there was an identical button to the one which had been lost on the character’s trouser back pocket. There was, indeed a button on his bum!! Scissors came out and this button was snipped off.
We have devised a range of feedback forms on which children and adults (who are also a very important part of our audience) can feed back to us both verbally and pictorially, and our stage-managers record children’s comments in the reports on each show – some of my favourites include –
‘Is the moon really made of cheese?’
‘They’re going to make themselves sick, won’t they?’
and in response to the line ‘Once upon a time …’ a small child beamed and stated ‘Ooh, I like this bit!’
The longer-term impact of shows is more anecdotal, with parents telling us of children still singing songs or reciting lines or re-enacting scenes from productions many months after seeing the performance; a three year-old recalling a performance from a third of his or her life ago is very gratifying.
I also try to attend as many performances as possible, as observing the audience is one of the most telling ways of gauging their immediate response to a performance – and one of the highlights of my job!
Out Of The Blue, a show for babies aged 6-18 months, was performed at a Children’s Centre in Birmingham. There was a little boy of seven months who giggled infectiously throughout the show. Afterwards his carers said they had known him since he was three months-old and they had never heard him laugh before that day. That was one of those moments when you realise how important this work is and that its value lies in the pleasure it gives to even the youngest audience member here and now, regardless of whether or not it sets them up for a lifetime of theatre-going.
Sarah Argent is an award-winning director of theatre for children and young people (including babies and toddlers). She has created many productions for Theatr Iolo and also for Welsh National Opera, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Theatre Hullabaloo (Darlington), National Theatre (London), Companyia Frec a Frec (Barcelona) and Barnstorm Theatre (Kilkenny). Her production, Luna, for Theatr Iolo and Theatre Hullabaloo is currently touring Wales and England. Her new productions for both Unicorn and Polka Theatres in London will premiere this autumn.
Illustration by Dean Lewis