TiNY. Created by Replay Theatre Company. Directed by Anna Newell, with Anna Newell, Cat Barter and Kerry Cleland. At Magnet Theatre. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews and interviews Anna Newell.
THERE is a well heeded warning in the entertainment industry not to work with children or animals. What about working for children though, and specifically babies? There is a growing awareness of the value of theatre for children and South African theatre makers have embraced the call wholeheartedly with fantastic results. Joanna Evans won the Audience Choice Award for Best International Show at the 2015 Iran International Theatre Festival for Children and Youth in October for her children’s production Patchwork.
In an effort to broaden the sector The British Council SA-UK Season sponsored a visit to Cape Town by the The Replay Theatre Company. Based in Belfast, Northern Ireland they have been making theatre for young people since 1988 and shared their skills with members of The Magnet Early Years Theatre Company which is supported by a National Arts Council grant. Participants enjoyed a week of workshops learning the principles of creating theatre for audiences under the age of one year old. They also accompanied Newell and her colleagues when they performed TiNY at the Somerset and Khayelitsha Hospitals for their youngest audience yet.
“The oldest baby was four days old and the youngest seven hours! Some slept and/or fed throughout and we hope we made their dreams sweeter.” Newell describes the experience for the babies as creating a “connected, creative moment that they share with their parents”. Their work is deeply embedded in research and she says “Epigenetics has shown the transmission of trauma in the genes. Working with babies means that you catch two generations. There is a moment when your baby is between six and twelve months old where you want to change the world for your baby.”
It is this life changing and healing potential that has her excited about working in South Africa and she views “the country as a traumatised child because its neural pathways have been formed in ways that are about paranoia about closing up and not trusting the other”. Creating moments of connection is a way of healing children and their parents, something which then impacts on the broader society. The benefits are not limited to the performance alone. Following intercations with disadvantaged communities in Ireland a mother told her “I am connecting with my baby so much more”. She wants “to give them the confidence to continue, to empower them and give them creative strategies which they aspire to”.
UNICEF is one of many organisations that recognises the importance of a child’s early years. “The first few years of life have a major influence on a child’s success later in life – from good health and success in school, to the level of self-esteem and social skills. Children’s brains develop incredibly fast, and nerve connections that are forged during that period through interaction with those closest to them remain unchanged for the rest of their lives.” Lee Raby, a post doctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, led a study which followed 243 individuals from birth to the age of 32 years.
She found that “Altogether, the study suggests that children’s experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning — not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood.”
I have read much of the research about the topic but nothing prepared for me the actual experience. Watching the performance of TiNY, a story about the animals that come out at night to greet the moon, was spellbinding. The actors welcomed the parents in to the room with some basic instructions and invited them in to the tent. Each baby is accompanied by an adult and a maximum of six babies are allowed inside. You feel as if you have stepped in to another world when you enter the bespoke structure made of light blue fabric.
The performance is multi sensory and the flooring of the tent is made of different textures which the babies are encouraged to touch. Babies may lie, sit, stand or crawl during the performance.
Tiny bells were rung to open the performance and the delicate sound seemed to cast a spell on the small audience. Gradually lilting vocals were added and the soothing pitch seemed to entrance even the adults.
Then it was time for the fireflies. Tiny creatures with wings and mini torches were manipulated like finger puppets. They flew delicately as they danced with each child individually.
As no two babies reacted the same the performers engaged intuitively with each child and the movement of the firefly was guided by the child’s reactions. Some tried to grasp them inquisitively. Others merely followed each tiny movement wide-eyed. The attention to design detail is evident from the pockets in which the props are stored to the beautiful little creatures which take to the “stage”.
Small mice, miniature dogs and finally crystal moons which changed colours and cast a beautiful glow on each upturned face were exquisite.
The care that each actor takes with their actions and interacting and engaging with the babies is impeccable and they are mindful of each babies responses. While each gesture and the mini creatures are so delicate the sense of enchantment is vast.
The wonder expressed by the young audience was expansive and their relative size seemed to make each emotion somehow bigger. At the end of the twenty minute performance I felt as if I had been transported in to the pages of a fairytale and returned gently back to earth.
Aside from giving the babies their first theatrical experience TiNY evoked a memory of innocence and amazement which I carried through the day Christine Skinner shared the experience with her eight month old son and said “It was amazing to be among a group of babies that didn’t make a sound for twenty minutes, but sat captivated by the entertainment around them. TiNY was a magical experience for us all.” One parent seemed slightly shocked after the performance and said that her child’s behaviour had left her stunned. The usually hyperactive child had been completely hypnotised by the tiny characters, lights and bells and remained calm and attentive throughout the performance.
There were limited performances of TiNY but The Magnet Theatre Company will be developing an original work for babies to be performed later in the year.
Lyn Gardner, the Guardian Theatre critic said in a speech at Unicorn Theatre in 2013, “theatre for children, fires the imagination, it gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too. We should value children’s theatre and take it seriously and that means treating it with the respect that we would any work of art including reviewing and critiquing it”. I couldn’t agree more.
l www.replaytheatrecom pany.org, [email protected] theatre.co.za