“I do theater and shows for babies – they are an extraordinary audience to work with”
“For the first 20 years of my career, I pretty much mostly did shows for big people in big theaters. But then, without even realizing it for a long time, I started to find myself doing more and more shows for younger audiences.
Growing up in Belfast in 2004 I absorbed the brilliant and diverse international work for younger audiences that I saw at the Belfast Children’s Festival and realized that this is what I wanted to do.
The older I got, the younger my audience got. Now almost all of my work is for what I call “extraordinary audiences” – babies, toddlers and children and young people with complex needs. Audiences for whom there is little quality art, including worldwide.
The last 12 years since I stopped doing theater for big people in big theaters has been an amazing and wonderful roller coaster ride. My work has been seen on six continents and off Broadway, in schools, churches and community centers across Ireland. In 2015 I launched the world’s first BabyDay and helped found the Babytheater in South Africa. My youngest listener was four days old.
I didn’t know it then, but in those first 20 years a crucial seed was planted. While working as Associate Director at the Dundee Rep Theater in Scotland, I accidentally started a large female a cappella harmony singing group Loadsaweeminsingin (which is still going strong almost 30 years later). There was this woman, Suzanne, who never joined the group but came to pretty much every gig and proclaimed herself our biggest fan.
When I started doing my first show for children with complex needs 12 years ago, two important things happened. During a creative counseling week in a classroom of children with PMLD (pervasive and multiple learning disabilities), these children showed me what I think theater is. It’s many different things for many different people, but I realized that for me it’s one human being connecting with another. That’s it. My job is to create the best environment for these wonderful connections.
The other thing that happened was that I found a great book on how to connect and communicate with people without verbal communication. And it was edited by this woman, Suzanne – who, it turns out, had been known for years. Or rather, Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, one of the most famous and inspiring researchers of early childhood. For me, Suzanne’s passion and knowledge opens the door to beautiful and fascinating ways of connection. She thinks artists should rule the world.
When working with babies, people often ask, “But what’s the point? You won’t remember’. But actually, science tells us that what happens to us in the first three years of our life, more than just “remembering,” has a direct impact on how our brains form — and it forms and changes over those three years faster than at any other time in our lives. Most of the research on this revolves around bad things that happen, but to me the flip side of that has to be true – that magical, lyrical, musical, creative experiences have to impact the way babies’ brains are formed. As Suzanne says, it’s profound. As I said, baby theater can change the world.
People often ask, “But what’s the point? You won’t remember’. But actually, science tells us that more than just “remembering,” what happens to us in the first three years of our lives has a direct impact on how our brains form
In 2020 I did a show called GROOVE which I described as “a 1970s-inspired happening for children and young people with complex needs.” In 2021 I did a version of this show called babyGROOVE this was to be “a 1970s-inspired happening for babies.”
When I first came up with the idea, I was looking for a loose definition of what a “happening” is, and that’s it: there’s music, there’s visuals, and everything else that happens depends on what everyone who is there brings along, as well as individuals and as a small temporary community. All my shows are kind of like that. We’ve done literally hundreds of performances on some of the shows and every show is different. Because every child is different. And that’s wonderful.
Parents can get very anxious [their baby] crying, but actually we’ve had shows where we’ve played to several hundred babies and you could count the number of people crying on the fingers of one hand. There is nothing more beautiful and wonderful than the sound of a baby laughing, and in general all adults laugh when a baby laughs.
We encourage parents to let their babies find their own path and react in the way they want. Some babies come up close and some watch quietly from their parents’ laps. One of the things I always say to my cast members is that they would never jump out and yell “Hello!” in someone’s face and touch their cheek. But people do that with babies all the time and then wonder why the baby is a little insecure about them.
Probably the most unusual show I’ve done is sing me to the sea, which I did in 2018. It’s a blissful aquatic adventure for kids and teens with complex needs, taking place in hydrotherapy pools. For this show, three viewers, their accompanying adults, and the performers are all in the water. As with all my shows, it creates a space where each and every viewer can directly act on their experience of the show, so sometimes it’s incredibly calm and serene and other times it’s very, very sparkling.
One of the most extraordinary moments that has ever happened during a show happened during sing me to the sea. The kid I was with was much more interested in the shapes my mouth made while singing than the objects I was playing with in the water. So that’s what I focused on; his mouth began to copy mine and the shapes he made, a tiny, almost imperceptible dance. At the end of the show, his mother told me that he was considered non-verbal and had never done that before. What we didn’t notice until they were gone was that as they exited the pool area, he stopped, turned around and said “swimming pool”. That was a good day at work.
We should be on tour sing me to the sea in the summer of 2020. Obviously that didn’t happen – just that it did. Very early in the pandemic I decided that online just wasn’t enough for my audience and that I had to try and find a way to tour live work, especially for these families who had suddenly lost all their support structures.
Thanks to the generosity and flexibility of my funders and my venues, we made it. We rented an RV and brought a land version of the show to individual families in their driveways and gardens in August 2020. Neighbors’ children hung out of windows to watch, family pets joined in the show, delivery trucks drove by with drivers staring in bewilderment at three women in lime green tutus singing and lifting water strainers from buckets in someone’s front drive . And for all of us things felt a little bit more hopeful.
I don’t have any children myself and that always surprises people. But then again, it always surprises me that people think only people with kids and babies are interested in them. I have always found babies and child development very fascinating and as an artist I find them to be exceptional audiences to work with.
I believe in the fundamental human right of all people, no matter how young they are or how severely disabled they perceive themselves to be, to quality art experiences that are designed specifically for them, designed to put them at the center and where they have space, themselves to be and not just to react as we adults see fit.
Thanks again to the Arts Council of Ireland and my Network For Extraordinary Audiences, we’re going on tour GROOVE, babyGROOVE and sing me to the sea this year. I’m already putting together my grant application for my 2024 program, to which half the audience isn’t even born yet. Everything about my audience is exceptional indeed.”
The Anna Newell Theater is touring with a new work program for 2023. See annanewell.ie for more
– As Katie Byrne was told
https://www.independent.ie/life/i-make-theatre-and-shows-for-babies-they-are-an-extraordinary-audience-to-work-with-42319960.html “I do theater and shows for babies – they are an extraordinary audience to work with”