When it comes to social inclusion we can look back on the twentieth century and feel we have progressed in so many important ways – gender, race, sexuality are no longer a subject of divisiveness in the same way in the Western world. But there is one area that I am discovering as of recently where divisions have in fact erupted: parents and non-parents.
In the UK at least it seems that there are some things in life – from the London Underground to, well, theatres – which are still predominantly not fully inclusive of those below the age of three and their primary carers. Non-parents, on the other hand, customarily assume that children’s theatre is not for them – or that it cannot be enjoyed without a child in tow.
My own baby arrived in December, and by the time we got through the first six weeks of getting to know each other, I realised pretty quickly that my life didn’t change at all in one important respect – I still wanted theatre in my life and I wanted it to be part of my baby’s life as much as it has been part of mine. In addition, I thought: it is dark, it is warm, it is stimulating to the senses, so what better place can there be for a newborn to be taken to than a theatre auditorium? I speak as both a theatre-goer and a theatre-maker; but on venturing out to see what options there were out there for us, I found out I was in for a few interesting discoveries.
Sure, we do have some fantastic children’s theatre on offer – in London, the Unicorn, Polka Theatre and Half Moon, for example, have successfully reared many generations of theatre-goers, and many mainstream theatres such as the National or the Lyric Hammersmith do provide dedicated programming strands for younger audiences. However, the situation is less straightforward when it comes to taking children to performances that are not specifically aimed at them.
About a year ago an interesting discussion testifying to the division described above unfolded in response to Lyn Gardner’s blog in which she urged for more baby-friendly theatre in Britain. Despite the fact that some theatres – such as Soho Theatre – are trying out the idea of ‘relaxed performances’ whereby selected adult repertoire is performed under house lights for parents wishing to attend with their pre-crawling babies, most establishments still have policies by which babies under three are in fact not welcome to their shows, made presumably under the assumption that they are more likely to be disruptive. Gardner puts this down to ‘a British distrust of children and young people in public places’ and notes that the situation is often different on the continent. I would rather attribute this to different rates at which the erosion of community values has occurred in different cultural contexts – and in a metropolis such as London, as opposed to the regions (it’s hard to imagine babies not being welcome in Kneehigh’s Asylum, for example).
Interestingly, theatre too has had its part to play in this. The expectation that we must be quiet during the performance is really only a twentieth century phenomenon. For centuries previously the expectation would have been for us to participate, in much the same way that participatory theatre has started to demand from us in recent years all over again.
There appear to be two types of so-called Early Years Theatre (theatre for ages 0-3) on offer at the moment – presentational theatre that is still framed by a simple narrative, and a more immersive type that relies on the engagement of the senses.
The latter category includes Tom Morris and Guy Dartnell’s hit Oogly Boogly and Unicorn’s Sensacional, for example, although both shows require the involvement of mobile ‘audience’ – 12 or 18 months upwards. Additionally, music-based events, such as Scottish Opera’s BabyO could be suitable for younger babies – from 6 months on, in this case.
Scholar and theatre-maker Ben Fletcher-Watson informs me that theatre for babies is already well established as a genre in Continental Europe and, seemingly, to a greater extent in Scotland than in England. His ground-breaking essay in the journal Platform analyses some relevant examples of the form, suggesting perhaps that theatre for babies finally has the potential to be absorbed into the mainstream via its natural affinity with the principles of Postdramatic theatre. By addressing a demographic which does not have the faculties to appreciate plot and narrative quite as yet, the future of Early Years Theatre obviously lies in the ‘turbulent’, ‘anarchic’ and ‘hedonic’ dramaturgies, rather than those based on the rules of Aristotelian logic.
For the time being, however, in the first few months of his life my baby has had a chance to see two baby shows – both of them dramatic and presentational rather than immersive or postdramatic in style. Curious by Half Moon at the Lyric Hammersmith in March had no lower age limit, while Wash at the Polka Theatre was advertised as suitable for 6 months upwards. Both of these 30 minute shows shared similar features: a simple narrative frame, lots of primary colours, slapstick humour, plenty of music plus 10 minutes of interactive playtime at the end. Both shows drew from a particular everyday paradigm – a kitchen and a laundry room, respectively – and both, in their own ways, also offered some added value.
In the case of Curious – a solo piece about making a cake to celebrate Honcha, the fluffy dog’s birthday – there were no holds barred in the maker’s own licence to get really messy, causing shrieks of delight from the children and occasional gasps of horror from the parents. Wash, on the other hand – a piece about another fluffy creature, Monkey, reluctantly getting a wash – introduced my baby to soap bubbles and live music. I chatted to the makers of this piece afterwards the director Beth van der Ham-Edwards and designer Emily Austen. They’d met at the Polka and their impulse to make the piece came very much from the personal experience of parenthood.
This kind of career re-orientation, it turns out, is not such a rare occurrence, being caused partly by a lack of mainstream provision for parents and small babies, and partly by the theatre-makers’ need to keep going together with their offspring. Ever since I reached out to theatre-makers who have recently become parents with an invitation to do something together a couple of months ago, I have been inundated by expressions of interest and discovered a great number of people thinking similar thoughts. For the sake of continuity, my main collaborators on the Mums and Babies Ensemble project – Annie Rigby and baby Nina and Lena Simic and baby James – happen to be artists who I have worked with before in the context of my two areas of interest – ensemble theatre, and ‘porous dramaturgy’.
They are both based in the North of England and we are currently looking for ways of getting together to work. Initially, our question was: how can we create a performance piece with our babies for an all-inclusive audience? And we were also hoping to deal with a number of other questions regarding the politics of motherhood and female labour, and thus creating a space where both our own and our babies’ needs can be met. However, aware that our babies might well grow out of being babies by the time we get any suitable funding for the project, we have decided to focus our energies on creating a script/recipe/template that we can pass on to other parents theatre-makers to fill with their own personal content. And we hope to do this with the help of people and organizations who have so far offered us their support, such as London Bubble, for example, or the Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (GIFT 2014), which recently facilitated our first meeting and public event.
As it happens, I am pleased to report that this event also gave me great hope for our culture’s potential to overcome the problem of social divisiveness I identified at the beginning of this essay. Taking place on the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend, the workshop was attended by a cross-section of festival-goers/theatre enthusiasts including two students, one mature lady, a baby-loving non-mother as well as a selection of local mums/artists and the currently expectant mum-to-be, festival director Kate Craddock.
If I was heartened by the mixed turnout, then I was absolutely delighted when within an hour it felt safe enough for us to pass our babies around the circle to virtual strangers to hold, perform with and tell stories to. And like Fletcher-Watson’s article might have suggested, it did indeed become a form of organized chaos, culminating in a series of personal declarations and a general sense of hedonia. Definitely a baby step towards a community of sorts.
Photos by Richard Kenworthy, GIFT 2014