25 May 2019

Lasting a Lifetime: The Effects of Theatre for the Very Young

One of the main purposes of theatre for the very young is education, in establishing a discourse from which the young audience can learn, it is education through art.

Actor and child at Nashville Children's Teathre

Even as a young adult, my first memory of theatre is very vivid in my imagination. I was around three years old. I sat in my preschool classroom at a dressing table, pretending to be someone else; a princess preparing for her day. I applied the fake plastic lipstick, touched up my cheeks with a bare blush brush, and adjusted my tiara in the mirror.

Now, this is obviously not theatre in the traditional sense. I was not sat down in a dark auditorium to watch players perform scenes with language that I couldn’t yet fully understand. It was a theatrical experience nonetheless, though. Engaging with my surroundings under imaginary circumstances, willingly suspending my own disbelief about my character. This is what theatre for the very young, like NCT’s Snuggery seeks to do; to “blur the line between actor and audience,” as the London children’s theater Oily Cart attempts to do with each production.

Actors Kelsie Craig and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby in a workshop production of TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Actors Kelsie Craig and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby in a workshop production of TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR.

Gerd Taube, in her essay “Aesthetic peculiarities of the ‘Theatre for Early Years,’” raises a poignant question about the 0-3-year-old audience of children’s theaters. “Are they ‘human beings’ or ‘human becoming’s’?” Stripped of basic comprehension skills which adults often take for granted, skills like language and sensory-motor capabilities, it can seem redundant to push art towards the less-developed mind. However, children of ages 2-4 months demonstrate of the earliest periods of synaptic growth and development, and by age 3, the brain is twice as active as that of a developed adult and 80% of synaptic connections are already made. A flux of environmental stimuli is thus necessary in defining an infant’s brain.

“Baby-theatre,” a term which refers to theatre created for ages 0-3, utilizes a structured format of creating to implement performance into a learning platform from which the very young can benefit. For years, theatre companies and practitioners have sought to define the means by which this tactic is achieved. Taube, in her essay, notes several aesthetic necessities in imagining proper baby theatre. Commonalities throughout research on the topic arise in these defined necessities.

Participation is key. In using subverted forms, such as call and response or physical actions which guide the movement of the plot, infants are intrinsically taught new skills of communication. As the developing infant may also lack verbal skills, they must learn from different kind of language, from a physical language. The very young interact with the world from a sensory-motor basis, using their senses to engage with their surroundings rather than on a linguistic basis. Creating an atmosphere from which the children can learn and allowing for them to physically interact with whatever story is being told in necessary in ensure that the players communicate with the same language as the audience.

Another aesthetic necessity of theatre for the very young is a simple plot. Now simple does not mean easy. It can often be very difficult for writers and practitioners to break down seemingly simple situations into layman’s terms. Similarly, every audience member sees a different story. When watching the Three Little Pigs, one child may question why the wolf is trying to blow the house down in the first place while another may be wondering where the little piggy’s parents are. While it’s impossible for playwrights to be able to predict and adequately serve every audience member’s perspective, a simple story line is necessary in conveying meaning to each child who interacts with the story.

Finally, communication is necessary in creating baby theatre. One of the main purposes of theatre for the very young is education, in establishing a discourse from which the young audience can learn, it is education through art. The players, the writers, the designers, the directors must be communicating with their audience. Theatre, to the very young, doesn’t just help build skills and entertain. It creates something with emotional longevity, something that has the ability to change a child forever.

Carlos Herans, a Spanish theatre artist, describes in his essay “Why Theatre for Early Years?” one of his earliest memories. An old countrywoman speaks to a prince and a panel on her house falls to the ground. The prince pushes it back up and gives the woman money to help fix her house. Herans states that he remembers nothing else from this scene, but the intense fascination he felt from the magic which the scene produced. It was not the action or the scene itself that created such a long-lasting memory, but what it made Herans feel. This what theatre for the very young strives to create for children, memories and feelings that will last them a lifetime.

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Denee Stewart Freeman

For summer camp interns, each week brings something new: a new teaching artist with a new teaching style, a new age group, a new story to tell onstage, or different creative drama play to engage in.
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