Creating theatre for babies and small children requires patience, attention to detail, and a facility for play. I often feel that the process is longer, more intense, and more exhausting than creating original work for older audiences. Partly because you are constantly trying to put yourself into the frame of mind of a baby – which is basically a super computer of observation. Skipped over a detail? They will notice. Blurred the lines a little? They will notice. Logic of your world and story don’t add up? Yup. They will notice. Here are 12 guidelines to help navigate the pitfalls of creating theatre for babies and young children:
- Keep it simple. The world is complicated enough. Break it down and stick to the story.
- Simple doesn’t mean stupid. For the love of… please don’t dumb down your subject matter or shy away from difficult concepts. Think of the best children’s literature available, it frequently tackles difficult issues, but for some reason in theatre we think they can’t handle it. They can. And they will, at their own level.
- Set designer. Hire one. Now. Preferably one that can also build and understands the necessity of creating a durable, lightweight, tourable set that creates the right atmosphere for your show. It could be immersive, it could be end on. It must be well designed.
- Words – use less of them. Duvet Day uses three words. Up, night… ok it uses two words. Even better.
- Eye contact; make it. Babies love to be looked at and connected with. It reassures them, and it lets them know they are being included. You will also be in a better position to assess the needs of individual babies and adjust your performance accordingly.
- Good original music that compliments your story is a must. Follow rule one and don’t overload baby ears. Also follow rule two.
- Don’t be noisy about it. Be genuine. Share a moment, give them an object to explore, be surprised together. Anyone can make a room full of children shout ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a count of three. That doesn’t make it good. Don’t do it. See rule two.
- Story still counts. Yours should have depth and meaning. Which is why a good actor is useful. Will the babies understand all of the layers? Yes – at their own level. The puppeteer character in Duvet Day has a personal struggle and journey like in any good play. And it hurts just a little bit to watch it, because we recognise that struggle. Young children and babies have extraordinary capacity for empathy. Let them exercise it. Empathy is what makes good people. And we could use more good people in the world.
- Remember that adults will always be part of your audience too. They deserve to be engaged too. Give them some love.
- Hire the best actors (puppeteers, dancers) you can. If someone thinks they are slumming it making children’s theatre they are not worth working with. Most other countries don’t differentiate theatre for children from theatre for adults in terms of quality. This is a bizarre British and American concept and it needs to stop. We can make it stop by creating theatre with integrity and substance for all ages.
- You can never predict what a baby will do, and that is ok. They are babies! Be flexible, be reactive, and most of all be understanding. Don’t expect them to sit perfectly still and be quiet the entire performance. They will move around a bit, they will talk, and laugh, and cry. They will want a snack. It’s all good. Let them be babies. And give them time to interact – with the show and with their parents. One of the nicest things about bringing a baby to early years theatre is the shared experience.
- Creating work for babies and toddlers is a special process. Enjoy it, pour your soul into it, and never stop playing.
Duvet Day is on tour in April.