by Lauren Brotman
The focus today was to probe into what creating and engaging for the early years looks like with representatives and pioneers from Europe and Quebec, to explore what the Ontarian, what the Canadian movement looks like. These ‘trailblazers’ had fascinating stories to tell about their journeys, not just in creating for babies, but each having founded an actual festival for the very young in their respective countries. And there challenges were many, and for the most part, incredibly similar. Not just in creating the work, but in building audiences and acquiring funding. Here are some gems of insight and inspiration that I found particularly perceptive.
Artistic Director of La Baracca-Testoni Ragazzi (Italy), Valeria Frabetti believes there is not one way to create for children. What is most important is that the artists must be genuinely interested in the children, that you must perform for each child as well as for the group because every child will give you something back and the audience must therefore be intimate so that it is special for each child. She believes that if you can play to a child then you can play to everyone and not the other way round.
Alain Gregoire, Executive Director of La Maison Theatre in Montreal got his inspiration from the fact that children were being turned away from theatres because the TYA productions had very specific age restrictions, none of which served babies. Alain refused to believe that babies did not have the capacity to understand and therefore sought out creating work that considered them in the same regards as adults. But how do you ask a parent to travel for an hour to a show and an hour back from the show when it lasts only 20 minutes? The answer again was in presenting intimate productions. In fact, he found that the fewer children there were who were allowed in the audience, the more the parents became interested in taking their children to the theatre because it was now a special and coveted experience.
Grainne Powell, Executive Director of Sticky Fingers from North Ireland had a tremendous amount of resistance resulting from the conflict that Northen Ireland was experiencing in a political sense. Children were not a priority. As well, she was attempting to make theatre for children in a remote region where this was a completely new concept. She realized that in order for creative development to take place, a re-education of the population needed to happen, and policies had to be changed. So she beginning educating and training other sectors, to make them passionate about theatre, then go to different governmental departments and receive political support because she was getting support from families who now wanted theatre, especially for their children.
Next we heard from the person who was Lynda Hill’s inspiration for setting the standard for theatre for the very young, Michael Lurse, Artistic Director of Helios Theatre in Germany. As an artist, he never wanted to play or behave as a child, and yet he was passionate about creating theatre for that audience. Further, in Germany, text is such a priority that he had no idea how to program for little ones who wouldn’t understand the text. But if there was no language going on in the baby’s head, then what is it that is going on in the baby’s head? So he asked himself “How can we meet?” And he discovered that the meeting place was in the moment of sharing and of connection between the performer and the child. And that watching theatre is something you have to learn to understand, and that more importantly, it isn’t necessary to the experience to understand everything. For Lurse, making theatre for babies is not about making them laugh, it’s about making contact and finding the conventions particular to each production and child that allow this to happen.
For Helene Blanchard, Artistic Director of Theatre des Confettis and her company of artists from Quebec, writing for babies is the hardest thing they’ve done. Young ones cannot get inside the narrative the way adults can and therefore one has to find different ways of telling a story. To do this they have been working back and forth with daycares to understand what is happening in the minds of babies and they’ve essentially reinvented the codes and languages of theatre by truly exploring the unknown. Their work transformed the children yesterday. As it did me.
Finally, we heard from Kevin Stewart and Carolina Ramos, Co-Artistic Directors of Katarsis, Educaion y Teatro S.L. from Spain who are presenting Bedtime, inspired by their own baby who would not go to sleep. Their biggest challenges have been finding ways to you quantify to the funders the impact of what the artists are doing. As well, since in Spain, it is a priority that everyone has a right to culture so while for the most part culture is free, it can also mean that it is taken for granted. So they had to find new ways of getting parents to bring their babies to the shows. So they’ve tried to create a stress-free environment for parents and children. If the child is not having a good day, for example, and needs to leave, then they let them know it is okay to come back another time. They help parents understand that they can let their children see what they see and experience own version of the show so that the parent can share in that experience with the child.
All around, as is true in any art form, everyone spoke about the continued financial struggle of making theatre for babies. In the first place it is not economical because it is difficult to get people to attend but also, the productions have adult costs and yet you cannot charge adult ticket prices for babies. As well, as intimate audiences are what allow the essential connection between artist and child to take place, the struggle to pay for these productions is that much more challenging. Everyone spoke to the importance of the artist and child, as well as the parent and child sharing this experience together. And that if you can involve children early on, then they will have the opportunity to be a completely different person, a better person.
Lynda Hill has always been a leader for the Canadian Theatre Movement for Young People and today, after watching this extraordinary happening, led and put together by Theatre Direct Canada, and after witnessing the captivating art she created with our artists in Toronto, I feel incredibly proud of how our community was represented to these International leaders. The struggles will always be there and they will always be the same. It’s important that we all embrace the extended hands offered to us from our colleagues all over the world, something that WeeFestival and all our festivals for that matter, afford us the opportunity to do.
Tomorrow is a DIGITAL DAY at WEEFESTIVAL and one of artistic professional development.
Details at www.weefestival.ca