The most crucial foundations of our neurological development takes place before age five, and experiencing theater can and should be a part of that development. Making theater for babies is not easy, for many reasons, perhaps most obviously and persistently because they can’t talk. You can’t ask a baby what they would like to see a show about. You can’t ask them what they thought of it after. Even more challenging is the lack of opportunities for new work development, professional exchange and programming interest in this experimental and niche form within the United States. Creating new theater work for babies requires not just a shift in our creative process, but also in the structures, resources, and expectations of how we develop new work for TYA.
"Creating new theater work for babies requires not just a shift in our creative process, but also in the structures, resources, and expectations of how we develop new work for TYA."
A decade ago, very few American theater companies were considering the 0-5 audience. We have seen a relatively recent blossoming of theater for the very young in the American TYA field, at larger venues like the Alliance Theater, Arts on the Horizon, Trusty Sidekick, and my own company, Spellbound Theatre, just to name a few. Some of these performances are traditionally staged proscenium shows, but often these shows are interactive, sensory, intimate, and utilize the active minds and bodies of the young people in the audience to help tell the story. Children move, touch, smell, and use their own voices to bring these magical, immersive performances to life. These islands of theater for 2-5 years are popping up across the country, as well as the beginnings of networks between otherwise isolated theatre for the very young (or TVY) practitioners.
Within the relatively niche age group of 0-5, there is also a distinction between theater for ages 2-5 and theater that is truly created just for babies. Live performance for 6-18 month olds is a popular staple of TYA programming across Europe, including theater, dance and opera designed especially for the infant audience. Audiences are building relationships with venues from birth, and creating memories through arts experiences as early as possible. In the United States, however, this age group remains underserved. The challenges of programming for this group are substantial, but so are the benefits. This season, Spellbound is producing Babywild, a show for 6-18 month olds and their caregivers. Only 12 children and their families are ticketed for each performance, and the intimacy of the space, with seating in the round, so that babies can move, touch, explore and engage in developmentally appropriate ways. This stretches the bounds of “theater,” blending the art-form with installation art and interactive performance art, but with 6-18 month olds it doesn’t feel experimental or avant garde in the way it would with an adult audience…it just feels natural.
"Few opportunities exist for theatre for-very-young artists to see each other’s work, garner feedback from their peers, and cross-pollinate artistic ideas in the way that all artists need to develop quality work."
Among artists who focus on this unique audience there is a deep desire to bring this emerging field out of the corners and into the mainstream TYA community, but few opportunities exist for theatre-for-very-young artists to see each other’s work, garner feedback from their peers, and cross-pollinate artistic ideas in the way that all artists need to develop quality work. In addition to more traditionally developed original scripts and adaptations, many theaters developing work for children ages 0-5 borrow from the practices of ensemble-devised theater. Even when one or two artists take the lead in creating a new work, the development process is often trial-and-error, kinesthetic and sensory, and involves bringing young children into the rehearsal room. This experimentation process feeds into our script development, which can often take 1-2 years. To ensure quality at the end of this process, we TVY artists need time and space to gather, observe, and get feedback from our peers and mentors.
So how and where are development opportunities happening for this new field of TVY? Many new play development programs require script submissions, a single playwright, and staged readings. A messy, experimental process with babies and multiple collaborators can be a “square peg in a round hole” for this model. Funding for 1-2 year processes that end in 12 seats per show is hard to come by. In 2014, the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices included one project for children under five years old within the new play development festival, but work for children ages 0-8 continues to be under-represented in most American TYA festivals and development series given the rising percentage of audiences that this age group represents. In 2018, we will see the premier of American Theater for the Very Young: A Digital Festival, which is funded with a grant through the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. This digital festival will provide TVY artists the opportunity to upload videos of their work online and see the work of their colleagues. While video may struggle to capture the immediate and sensory aspects that make this work unique, this festival is an important first step in developing this emerging field.
It is imperative that the TYA community begins to provide the resources for developing quality work for very young children, especially projects that are not traditional script-based work. The field will not catch up with our European counterparts without opportunities to share, connect, and explore what theater for babies can be. Spellbound has been lucky enough to work with New Victory LabWorks Artist in Residence program in 2014-15 and 1016-17, which provides space, professional development, community, and resources to New York based artists for that messy process of devising and experimentation to develop new TYA productions. This June, we workshopped a new sensory musical, The World Inside Me, which explores the insides and outsides of our bodies through dance, song, sensory engagement, and audience interaction. By inviting children into our workshop to participate as audience members, we discovered that we want to develop two different versions of the show for its premier in 2018 – one for 0-2 year olds, and one for 2-5 year olds. Although the content was engaging for each audience, they engaged in very different ways, and we are exploring how to produce two separate versions to optimize each audience’s unique abilities and interests. We would not have made this crucial discovery without a development process that invited children into the room along with our artistic colleagues and mentors who offered feedback for the development process. Although designed as a residency specifically for local NYC artists, this program provides a successful development structure that is inclusive of a wide range of audience ages and performance styles, and could be replicated by other communities looking to expand the scope of TYA being developed by American companies.
For the TYA USA field to embrace theater for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, we need to think about the pathways and resources available for artists to create new shows that require space for experimentation and inviting in test audiences, as well as the ability to produce theater in small spaces for small groups. If we truly believe that children of all ages and abilities deserve quality theater, we need to think about how to shift our spaces, our time, and our minds to think from babies’ points of view when making programming and development decisions. Making space for babies is not easy, but worth the effort and necessary to providing quality, age-appropriate programming for children of all ages.