Arts and Culture for Early Years       May 4 – 24, 2020        

One month later…

It’s a month later and I’m still thinking about it – images from the shows dance through my mind. When my children bang sticks together at the park, I think of Knock. When they blow bubbles and spritz me with their spray bottles in the backyard, I think of Flying Hearts. When I smell bread at the bakery, I think of Baking Time. When my two-year-old talks in gibberish and my five-year-old bangs on things to hear the tone of the sound they can make during our walk back from school, I think of Mokofina. When I hear birds singing or see a nest, my mind goes to Tweet.  And, lately, I’ve developed a lazzi by popping my head from out of the kitchen door saying that I’m looking for someone in our family who is already at the table, but really, I’m pretty sure I’m looking for Ogo. And, it goes on like this… The shows at WeeFestival inspired our imaginations; we continue to dream around them and that’s because they touched us deeply.

Why? Perhaps there is some kind of magic that is part of the recipe for making theatre for the very young. It was so clear how moving it was to see and feel little people connect with the stories being told. When they were engaged, I could see the adults becoming quite emotional. Winning the attention of children is not a given and in theatre we are often told that children are the most difficult audience because they are so honest. I think this is true – if they’re bored, they’re bored; children can’t fake their interest like we can. It’s a testament to the programming of this festival how enraptured the very young audiences were – mine included – and anyone who has met my two boys know that they are not your typical sit down and listen type of kids….

Then there was the conference. I could almost not believe this happened at the same time as all of these shows, and I was astounded by the organization of it all, truly. Just the smoothness of how it all ran – the lunches, the tech set up, the panelists, the venues, the workshops, and even a series of receptions to host the visiting artists. It all seemed quite seamless, which made it possible for the delegates to aptly concentrate on the content at hand.

One of the highlights of the conference was the panel discussion called Arts For All: Access and Inclusion. We heard from academics, directors, managers, and artists of mixed abilities about their varied and comprehensive approaches to inclusivity in the creation and dissemination of theatre. But we didn’t just hear workaround solutions; we were challenged to use a different perspective to enter into the creative process in order to discover a more inclusive outcome. During the artist talk at the closing of the conference, several artists mentioned how provocative this panel was for them. One of the conference delegates, Julie Lebel, Artistic Director of Foolish Operations, said that this panel has driven her to reflect on the importance of choices made at the beginning of a creating a new work, and how these choices can impose barriers on participation or facilitate accessibility. And, Ceilidh Wood, Program Coordinator at Ontario Presents, said that as a result of this panel she is reflecting on the make up of her audiences and the needs of artists of different abilities and how to include diverse voices and varied perspectives in her programming, adding that she was particularly inspired by Alex Bulmer, a blind artist on the panel, who spoke about the process of creating from a blind perspective.

David Barnard, Senior Program Advisor for Canadian Heritage moderated this panel and told me, “I was impressed by the diversity of the programming which included a range of opinions and expressions. Lynda’s truly figured out how to connect early years and other work”.

And even while all of this conference activity was going on, an entire other group of artists was in the midst of a 4-day  intensive led by Magnet Theatre from South Africa. This was a very niche and specialized workshop that looked in depth at how to create work for 6 – 12-month-old babies and then 3-5-year-olds.

I was at the opening of the festival, which was a performance of Cut Outs from Italy, and one of the most beautiful and unpretentious shows for children that I’ve ever seen. After the piece, it was incredible to see all of the artists from around the world invited up on stage to receive flowers from the WeeFestival. I am sure they all must have felt warmly welcomed and valued right from the start, and my son felt very excited to be at the opening as well when he saw the WeeFestival cake awaiting him in the lobby.

Other festival highlights were surely the conference opening including the keynote and workshop around sowing the seeds of reconciliation through art in early childhood. I was on after school pick up duty that day, but my counterpart Claire Wynveen blogged about those events here:

I would be remiss not to mention my own proud moment in the midst of all of this awesomeness, and that is a forum that I hosted called Parenting in Theatre which took place at The Drake Underground and for which more than 30 artist parents came out to discuss this issue of growing concern in our field.  So many insights into the kind of support artists really need to balance a career in the arts and parenting emerged and many great actions were promised. This meeting of minds would have never happened without the support of the WeeFestival and the encouragement of Lynda. This discussion has expanded thinking and has provoked ideas on how we might build on this momentum and create some real change in the industry for artist parents.

And, like some many facets of this festival and conference, the opportunity that was offered to participate, to create, to present, to attend, to eat, to play, to discuss, to convene, has stirred something. Now that it’s a month later, it’s clear that that the festival did exactly what it set out to do because the sparks keep flying, shedding light on theatre for the very young, and firing up the conversations as we dream about the next festival, which I’ve heard may become annual. Fingers crossed.

I asked Fanny Martin, Chair of Theatre Direct Board her thoughts for the future of the festival, and she told me, “I loved that the festival was so multi-disciplinary – and as a festival for young audiences as it continues to grow it can really move away from categories. In this work, I think that’s a huge area of development to continue to put things together in new ways and question the place of the audience, their expectations and what role they play in the experience themselves. This is something that adult theatre plays with and with WeeFestival there is such an opportunity to break down these expectations and grow the form through experimentation, which is free from habitual categories. The pieces can be for children, but also by them, and with them.”

It feels like at WeeFestival, perhaps anything is possible. And though there is no doubt it’s due to sheer hard work, I’m sure the magic of theatre had a hand in it too…

  • Written by Lisa Marie DiLiberto





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