HATCHLING: Its hoped Patchwork will lead to something bigger that will support the ideals of early childhood development, sorely lacking in South Africa.

Theresa smith

Theatre for under-sixes is a growing trend in Europe, but still a foreign concept in South Africa.

“No one has really tried it here,” says director Joanna Evans, of Pillow Fort Productions, a prod- uction company that is taking this route.

“I think it’s just not something people have thought of. A lot of people don’t expect such young children to sit for 40 minutes engaged by a show,” said Evans.

Together with puppet designer/ theatremaker Merryn Carver (A Tale of Horribleness), Handspring puppeteer Gabriel Marchand (Ouroboros), Asanda Rilityana (OfficeBlock) and Pedro Espi-Sanchis (yes, the Music Man), they are conceptualising Patchwork.

While they have all worked in children’s theatre, none has experience working with 1- to 4-year-olds, so they spent a good deal of time in creches last year, getting to know how small children react to creative stimuli.

They applied for seed funding from Small Size Network, a Euro- pean network centred on perform-ing arts for early childhood, to develop the show and after the run at the Baxter Theatre they will travel to the International Small Size Festival in Bologna, Italy, in March.

“The thing we were most concerned about was we didn’t want to make assumptions about what that age group was interested in,” Evans said of developing Patchwork. “Every week we’d go to a creche or have kids come to us and play with them to test it out.

“The exciting thing about that age group is they’re so responsive because everything is new to them. You can delight them so easily and overwhelm them just as easily. If they don’t like it, they’ll start to cry or walk away.

“It is the most careful work I’ve ever had to do because you have to engage them the whole time and pace it just right so they’re stimulated but not overwhelmed.”

Over the weeks they have discovered that the 1-4 age group responds best to simplicity and simple imagery.

Rilityana and Evans perform while Espi Sanchis provides the music. Carver and Marchand have helped with the puppetry.

“It’s very much about how we interact. We could teach it to someone else, but a lot of this theatre is about the kind of mood you are creating – that’s what the kids respond to.

“A lot of it is about helping them to develop empathy. We communicate with them in a way people don’t usually communicate with them. We use puppetry. We bring objects to life, like dressing gowns and pillows,” she said.

Evans hopes Patchwork is going to lead to something bigger that will support the ideals of early childhood development.

“So many kids do not have access to a lot of stimulation. We especially designed our show with no language, a lot of music and a simple set-up.”

l Patchwork is on at the Baxter Masambe Theatre from February 14 to 22.