by Lauren Brotman
As I nervously entered the Performance Studio at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse for the opening conferences of the WeeFestival, into a room full of delegates made up of academics and arts practitioners from various parts of the country and the United States, I wondered how I was going to manage to focus and take in all the information, enough so that I could write about it with a 9 month old baby strapped to my body. The moment I entered the space my baby’s coos filled the room, the presenters paused, all heads turned and as I was about to smile to reassure everyone that my baby would not distract from the intensive presentations and discussions that would continue for the next 5 hours, it was their smiles that came first, as a sort of reassurance that we were welcome to participate in any form. I unstrapped my baby from his carrier, opened my notebook and, for the next 5 hours sat in on the most stimulating and inspiring presentations and discussions about art for the very youngest of audiences.
One of the issues that kept coming up, something that arts practitioners, educators and leaders of theatre (arts) for young audiences are confronted with everyday is the mentality that there is a separation between arts for young people and arts for adult audiences. While there are obvious differences, there seemed to be a genuine consensus in the room that when it comes to people’s perceptions of art that is being created for young people, both audience and artist are undermined and underestimated. We heard from a number of accomplished academics and arts practitioners about why this perception aught to be challenged.
Kate Einarson presented on what can music research tells us about arts participation for infants and children? According to Einarson, studying music provides a unique window into human development. When it comes to exposure to music, the earlier the better. Music has a direct impact on an infant’s communication skills, for example. After 6 months of taking music, there is an increased sophistication and measurable changes to the brain. Further, music contributes to bonding, between caregiver and child, as well as in a social context. Studies are showing more and more that music exposure contributes to helpfulness and empathy. And that there is no reason that sophisticated music should be withheld from a young baby. While some argue that what a child craves is predictability, it doesn’t mean that the art has to therefore be simple. It just has to be, or become, familiar.
Marc Richard went on to discuss creative dance as embodied learning, whereby “the child is a protagonist in their own learning”. He spoke of creative dance as an art form that is based on natural movement, but that there seems to be very little understanding of the rich layers available though this discipline. Dance is an opportunity to learn about communication through touch, but in fact, children are constantly being reminded not to touch, to “keep their hands to themselves”.
Next up was Caroline Fusco who discussed the idea of navigating the cultural space of play, that is the modern concerns about play (not enough play, not the right kind of play), that children are not been given enough credit for choosing their own cultural type of play and that “other” types of play, that is play that does not fit into the “60 minutes of cardio a day”, are being marginalized. The government of Canada gives tax credits for children’s traditional cardio and respiratory activities, but dance is not included in that. As well, as our environment changes, how does that affect children’s play.
We then saw some fascinating and seriously fun Apps for smart phones, presented and designed by developers Hilary Leung and Nick Shim who design and test digital play for the very young. Check out Sago-Mini. I couldn’t put it down!
Former Artistic Director of Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Leslee Silverman, spoke of studies that measure the brain landscape and that if a child hears 1200+ words a day, “their brains sparkle”, especially true while collaborating. She spoke of a time in the 60’s where children would see a production of Hansel and Gretel in tandem with a production of Cat on Hot Tin Roof, a time when there was no separation between Theatre and Theatre for Young People.
Theatre creator Elyne Quan spoke of creating theatre that matters for young audiences and giving children credit for their ability to follow along and not under estimating the extent to how much emotion they can take.
Bethany Corey discussed the range of possibilities and the audience roles in theatre for the very young, while Ben Fletcher presented on defining the developmental capabilities of babies and toddlers.
All seemed in agreement that theatre, especially for young people, is not just one thing; that it encompasses all the expressive languages and art forms, that it is the intersection where reality and imagination take place, that we shouldn’t just be nurturing young people because they are our future audiences, but that children deserve an arts culture in their own right. And as I looked around the room at my own child exchanging and experiencing his own form of play, I was filled with gratitude to Theatre Direct’s Lynda Hill and Heather Fitzsimmons Frey for bringing these extraordinary people together to chart new territory and begin a new conversation about play, our children and the art they will get to experience.
Next Up: Tuesday May 13th
See show schedule for morning performances, and then at 10:45, at Tarragon will be chats on Study in Performance Practice and “Let’s Talk Baby Theatre”.
Also on display is the powerful exhibition on the Charter of Children’s Rights to Arts and Culture based on 18 principles, on display at the Wychwood Barns all week as well as a number of terrific events and activities for families.
Check out today’s feature in the Toronto Star.