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Julissa Sabino in "The Lizard and El Sol" at the Alliance Theatre. (Photo by Greg Mooney)

Start ’Em Early: Theatre for the Very Young Brings in New Audiences

In creating work for babies and toddlers, Alliance Theatre, Metro Theatre Company, and others get back to the roots of theatremaking.

Last year Alliance Theatre took babies (virtually) underwater, and this year they’re sending them to outer space. The new production Babies in Space, produced with the experimental curatorial agency Dashboard, is an immersive art installation and performance for audiences ages 0-24 months and their caregivers. Tiny patrons can explore a squishy, stretchy environment of craters, moonrocks, and shooting stars. They can also interact with performers from the dance collective Fly on the Wall, on hand to explore the concept of anti-gravity through dance.

“It’s a trippy play space that will, in a beautiful way, disorient you,” says Olivia Aston Bosworth, family programs manager at Alliance. “There aren’t any conventions that you have to follow in theatre for the very young. It’s fascinating to watch families come into a space that completely transforms their idea of theatre.”

Theatre for the very young (TVY) is a movement that is gaining visibility in the U.S. and aims to transform adults’ ideas about theatre in the process. Geared toward children ages 0-5, TVY can be wordless, devised, interactive, or immersive. The fourth wall tends to disappear, as does any sense of a traditional theatre space.

An audience member at "Babies in Space" at the Alliance Theatre.
An audience member at “Babies in Space” at the Alliance Theatre.

“The excitement about this audience is that you can break all the rules, so as theatremakers, it allows us to play and engage directly with our audiences in the most unexpected ways,” says David Kilpatrick, manager of theatre for young audiences at the Kennedy Center and a creator of TVY work with Arts on the Horizon in Virginia. “I think it’s experimental in the true sense of the word.”

Babies in Space, which runs through Sept. 3 at Alliance, will also be a part of Atlanta’s Woodruff Art Center’s third annual Toddler Takeover, a collaboration between the Alliance, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art, which runs June 3-5. The Alliance will run additional shows in rep for children under the age of 5 during the weekend, including the premiere of Kenneth Lin’s Pancakes,Pancakes!, an adaptation of the Eric Carle book.

Babies in Space may be the most free-form of these offerings, but, according to Bosworth, all the pieces in this genre blur the line between performance and reality, actor and audience member. “In our shows, the audience is always a character,” she says. “They are a part of the world we are creating, and they often play a big role in the dramaturgy.”

Though TVY is still new to the U.S. compared to other parts of the world, the Alliance is one of the growing number of American theatres producing work for this demographic. In this they’re following in the footsteps of European and Australian companies like Oily Cart, Polka Theatre, and Windmill Theatre, and working alongside Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md., Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Spellbound Theatre in Brooklyn, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in North Carolina, and Metro Theater Company in St. Louis, among others.

Metro Theater Company just completed a pilot run of its first show for the very young, Out of the Box. Targeted to audiences ages 2-5, Out of the Box is a wordless play with sound and music, full of interactivity and multisensory stimuli.

“If we described what we were doing without saying that it was for 2-year-olds, people would think, ‘Wow, that’s really edgy and avant-garde,’” says Metro artistic director Julia Flood. “This piece gets back to the very root of why I do theatre in the first place. It’s rejuvenating to get back to the essence of play, to the essence of creating something that is both real and surprising at the same time.”

Karen Cassady, Mo Willems, Matt Myers, and Corinne Weintraub in "Play the Play With Cat the Cat" at the Alliance Theatre.
Karen Cassady, Mo Willems, Matt Myers, and Corinne Weintraub in “Play the Play With Cat the Cat” at the Alliance Theatre.

While an “anything goes” attitude is crucial to the spirit of this work, some best practices have emerged. As is the case with a lot of devised work, TVY productions often have extensive development periods. Flood describes a process for Out of the Box that included observing children at play, consulting experts from both the theatre and the early education worlds, and collaborating with early childhood centers. “It was really a year of thinking and planning and playing,” she says.

Another shared value in TVY is the importance of giving the audience a role in the outcome of the story. “Interaction in our shows typically happens every five minutes,” Bosworth says. “There’s always some sort of planned moment where the audience is invited to participate in whatever the action of the play is.”

Kilpatrick cites examples of shows in which audience members are given tasks that influence the action onstage. “There are some pieces where, in order for the bear to get warm, the audience needs to put the blanket over the bear, rather than other actors,” he explains, emphasizing how often in this work, the story can’t continue without the audience’s help.

TVY can also have real cognitive benefits. “Young people are growing more in those first five years of life than they ever will again,” Flood says. “Every moment when you’re 2 is a moment of discovery. If the brain is the most alive at that point, then we want to engage creatively with that young mind and open a world of possibilities to that young person at the moment when they’re the most receptive to it.”

TVY artists also identify community building as another reason their work is important to young audiences. “You can convey so much without language, and so are able to communicate to a larger audience,” reflects Bosworth. “Our show The Lizard and El Sol is entirely in Spanish. Thousands of kids come through that show understanding the entire piece and learning a little bit of Spanish without needing any background or knowledge of that language.”

Kilpatrick also emphasizes the shared family experience that these productions initiate. “This work provides families and teachers a chance to engage with their kids in elemental ways,” he says. “It surprises them as theatregoers, but they’re also surprised to see their 9-month-old engage with this art form.”

Devised and immersive theatre have also been having their own moments in the “grown-up” theatre world for a while, and it’s exciting to think of the potential artistic crossover between artists. “With Arts on the Horizon, we’ve had a lot of local artists see the work, mostly to support the artists who created it,” says Kilpatrick. “But they walk away with ideas of how they’re going to create work for their adult audiences in the future.”

One thought on “Start ’Em Early: Theatre for the Very Young Brings in New Audiences”

  1. Thanks for a wonderful article about TVY! To clarify, Carol North was experimenting with TVY before I came on the Metro Theater Company scene, so this is not our first venture, just the first for me.

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