24 Aug 2022

A report on the creation process of a Hong Kong local baby theatre — from an observer’s perspective: how children development psychology helps in artistic creation

Written by Cicily Chen
Translated by Demi Lau
The article takes the baby drama “Funny Scary Things” as an example, from the perspective of a baby drama observer with a preschool education background, the article presents the creative practice process of local baby theatre in Hong Kong. In this article, “study on baby theatre, preparation for a baby theatre and feedback from the audience” are discussed.
In recent years, the “baby theatre” has gradually emerged in the international TYA world, but it is still under development in Asia. Its targets are infants under two or three years old or even a few months old. It combines cross-media production concepts such as drama, body, dance, music, installation art, etc., bringing a new perspective to the aesthetics and artistry of children’s theatre. As infants are immature, not only they cannot express their likes and dislikes in words, but also because of the differences in growth stage, physical needs and “personal temperament”, the reaction to the theatre is very different, and it is difficult for ordinary parents to grasp the relationship between infants and the theatre. But at the same time, parents are decision-makers and caregivers, and the targets of “Baby Theatre” should have been extended to both infants and adults. Therefore, providing parent audiences with better understanding of the impact of theatre on their children will help this new type of performance to grow and better develop. For art groups, theatres and artists who choose to work with infants and young audiences from this perspective, how to effectively understand the relationship between infants and young audience, parents and theatres is an effective entry point for creation.
1. Preparation to let the artist know more about the audience:
In the preparatory stage of creation, the observer and the artists discussed which characteristics of the psychological development of infants and young children before the age of two are reflected in the theatre and what are acceptable to them: such as physical, interpersonal relations, language development and Information receiving ability, etc.
Through experiments, explore the capabilities, needs and interests of infants and young children at this stage of development, and find out how to do creations for infants and young children who cannot directly express themselves in words.
The baby four weeks after birth has already begun to learn to understand the environment. Their senses have begun to react to light and shadow, brightness and darkness, and moving objects. One-year-old children have initially possessed the basic human abilities: vision, hearing, large and small body movements, emotional recognition of facial expressions, and distinguishing their mother’s voice. They like to raise their arms to grab objects hanging from a high place. They prefer small objects over large ones. They like to crawl on the stage and play with toys of bright colours. They like to lie down on the stage or lie in their mother’s arms.
These infants and young children who do not know how to express their feelings and meanings in words are already working hard to express themselves using facial expressions and body movements. Dr. Arnold Gesell, an authority on child development, once stated that infants and young children between 1 and 12 months of age will “show their minds with actions.” That is, what they think will be manifested through actions, such as crawling, touching, eating, laughing, crying and yelling, therefore observing children’s every move is equivalent to understanding what they are thinking.
Research over the past few decades has found that babies respond to the expressions of the people they interact with in a coordinated and purposeful way (Bateson, 1971; Stern, 1985; Locke, 1993; Beebe and Lachmann, 2002). Babies also show that they are aware that they are the “attention centre,” in other words, they are the focus of their communicative behaviour. They are also very sensitive to the changing emotional state behind these communicative behaviours. They have the ability to express their motivations and emotions. They are good at communication, can communicate with others, and build social interactions with others.
Lise Hovs, an associate professor and researcher of the Early Childhood Education of Queen Maud University and the director of Teater Fot, found out in the research in 2004  What are the needs of one-year-olds? What are they interested in? that in the theatre, one-year-old infants are not interested in language or plot, but “music and communication methods”. This conclusion led them to discover the “new language” for communicating with infants and young children – “modern dance, light and shadow, and rhythm” that are currently the most selected art forms of infant theatre.
Babies are not only passively accepting the communication and expression of others, nor are they just reflexive reactions, but are actively promoting equal sharing and “co-constructed” communication. The social interaction of infants and young children is not only in the interaction with the family, but also in the interaction with the companions and different art forms. Before the age of three is the time when infants’ imagination is most active, the influence of art appreciation on infants and young children of this age is very beneficial and extremely critical. In view of the developmental characteristics of children at this age, the performance is generally 20-30 minutes. Depending on the form of interaction or immersive art installation space, it may be 50 minutes or longer, decided by the participants.
Infants and young children’s judgments on external things are a response to the positive influences around them. Psychologist Dr Nathalia Gjersoe invited 9 babies under 12 months of age to watch a special puppet show to observe whether babies would judge good or bad behaviour. There are “bad guy” and “good guy” in this performance: the red round puppet wants to climb the mountain, but the nasty blue square will always push it down, and the helpful yellow triangle puppet helps him climb up. When the puppet show is over, the babies are asked to choose one between the good puppet and the bad puppet. All babies selected puppets whose behaviours were approved very accurately and quickly. Even a 7-month-old baby chooses the helpful yellow puppet without hesitation. It can be seen that babies not only observe shapes and colours, but when these features do constitute a story, babies do distinguish good from bad and choose their own preferences. Dr. Nathalia Gjersoe believes that this responsible social skill starts with a certain feeling, and it is more likely that this behaviour is affected by positive and negative emotions than “they know what happened.” When we see someone being helped, we feel happy, and when we help others, we also feel happy. Since 7 months old, we have understood: we will be happier with good people. This is the starting point for learning to trust others and the foundation of a healthy society.
2. Preparation for collecting more information-baby drama parent-child workshop
In order to better help artists and infants make artistic creations, examine and collect more information, Ming Ri has launched a parent-child experimental workshop. The workshop chooses content and format that are in line with the development of infants and young children, leads parent-child interaction and mask drawing, as well as friendly friends and unfriendly friends themed short drama experience, etc.
Before the activity, in addition to making full preparations for infants and young children, parents as the decision-makers in baby art participation and caregivers were provided with some content about understanding the impact of the theatre on the children, so that parents could be clearer about their role as companions, participants and observers in the activities. In addition, the observer with preschool education background and who have studied baby theatre with the artists is invited to make detailed observations and records of large audiences, small audiences and artists in the whole event, and share the observation content after. When we know that infants and young children meet the needs and interests of the learning world by establishing contact with the people around them, we should understand which content plays a positive role in the development of intersubjective communication among infants and young children, and from what perspective we should observe is vital.
The Oily Cart Theatre in the United Kingdom, whose serving targets are infants and children with complex disabilities, conducted a small-scale baby drama study from 2003 to 2004 trying to see the “positive” characteristics of theatre activities that make babies participative. The conclusion of the study is that, within the loosely structured framework of the work, the actor can react sensitively and have a dialogue with the babies, which is the key to the success of the work. The role of parents or parenting practitioners in supporting child interaction is at the core of understanding theatre pieces at this age.
And the following five conditions are derived from the experiment:
1. Changes in physiological state. Observe the children’s excitement and alertness.
2. Infant and caregiver’s motivation for seeking. These are the “coupled impulses” of infants and caregivers, which enable them to adjust to each other by organising their movements, focusing and guiding their attention.
3. Inspire the interests of babies. This is necessary when learning new ways of communication.
4. The 4 attachment emotions of infants and adults. These express deep concern for happiness or a state of happiness or pain.
5. An additional motivation for companionship. This encourages babies and caregivers to share interests and have fun in the current world’s activities around objects and events.
Through observation and sharing, it helps parents gain a more detailed understanding of what happened in baby theatres and the impact of the theatres on their children, and bring them out from the “Baby theatre” questions “Do I understand? Does my child understand?” and so on. It also enables the artists to verify whether the content and feelings expressed in their works are different from the feelings seen by the third party.
Baby theatre is to use the “language” of babies to understand the world from their perspective and their way to perceive the world. Artists are trying to use different ways to learn more of their communication methods from infants and young children. In order to learn more , baby theatres are not to teach infants and toddlers knowledge and skills, but a journey where adults solemnly ask them for advice.
A total of three baby theatre parent-child workshops were held, and the ages of the baby participants were 7-11 months, 18-21 months, and 14-22 months respectively. In the interactive session, children “interactively participate” in the performance space. This kind of participation is characterised by more voice communication and more actions. Children interacted with artists and props. They imitated the actions of creative artists, observed how they used props, and then tried them out for themselves. Children moved more freely in the space, spoke or chatted with their parents, asked questions, showed and pointed at different things to their parents. These children sometimes smiled because of novel objects or sounds. The children’s reaction to this aspect of the creative process shows, to some extent, their attachment type. In fact, entering the performance space is similar to the different situations used to measure attachment types. During the observation, children who enjoyed the game interaction with their parents very much showed the characteristic of emotional stability; there were also babies who was hid in their mother’s arms at first, and walked out after adapting; not to mention babies who changed a little and were uneasy, crying after being put down by their family, immersed in their own worlds, and had to be slow to blend in; and babies who are more sensitive to sounds and are anxious because of more indoor sounds; and those who expressed their dissatisfaction with the body, using words, movements, dialogues, and making noises to attract attention; last but not least the curious babies who always give toys to others, like to look at other people’s faces, and like to find the source of the sound.
When the plot begins, the children are more “dedicated” with main manifestations being emotional stubbornness and body stillness. The direction of the gaze and the direction of their bodies are fixed on the dramatic movements. In dedicated participation, children sometimes move their bodies rhythmically with the rhythm of the music, but their eyes and directions are still fixed on the performance. When they see the actors’ toys being thrown everywhere and the newspapers are torn, they will empathise with the actors and feel uncomfortable. They don’t know how to deal with their anxiety and cry.
At the end of the activity, the parents were very interested in the observer sharing what she observed. They can see the behaviour of the babies, some of them were normal, some of them were not. In connection with the scene, the parents clearly saw and felt the reasons for the baby’s actions, the parents would also wonder whether it is good or bad in doing so. Parents’ questions are mainly focused on “How is my baby’s performance? Is this good?” It seems that most of the parents who participated in the theatre activities observed that their babies behaved similarly in the theatre. When it meets expectations, parents are more inclined to seek affirmation of their own behaviour. When the babies’ behaviour is beyond their expectations, parents are more likely to question themselves and the babies’ conditions. Parents and children are eager for a “bridge of understanding” that helps  translate and facilitate communication with each other.
3. Observation Report of Baby Theatre “Funny Scary Things”
In the study of baby theatre, I feel that the goal is not what adults can teach the babies, but what we can learn from the babies as adults.
Most baby theatres or TYA have a slow rhythm, stretched limbs, and rhythmic pattern. When we decrease the amplitude of the movements of the limbs, reduce the frequency of fluctuations, walking through the process of development and learning “from unconscious body movements to conscious body movements” is like experiencing countless imitations and attempts like babies and young children.
So I try to zero out my own experience and experience the range and state of infants and young children’s physical activities. Adults seem to be entering babies and young children in this way, feeling very perceptually that the physical and psychological characteristics of this age determine that “the way of communicating with people” is the most interesting element and the most interesting element in the journey of babies and young children to explore the world, the most meaningful thing to do.
Baby theatre is a place where adults and children communicate. Lise Hoviks, director of the Preschool Education Theatre Company of Maud University in Norway, mentioned that “it must be a closed work, not interactive for the sake of interaction.” Baby theatres use its scientific methods and great artistic charm to create a safe and comfortable environment, giving babies the courage to explore independently in an unfamiliar environment. From the moment the babies leave their mother’s arms and walk to an unfamiliar environment, they complete the establishment of independence in public in the company of the drama, a live broadcast of growth.
While fully learning about baby theatre knowledge from other countries and regions, we should think about how to interact in our own baby theatre on our land, and learn how we can interact and communicate with our local infants and toddlers in the theatre. Then The more experimental materials we have, the more ways we will discover, and the more we can learn from babies and young children. Director of Ming Ri Institute for Arts Education, Mr Simon Wong, who is also the director of the baby theatre performances “Funny Scary Things”, seems to have chosen one of the themes he wants to communicate with babies and young children the most: “emotions” and the way artists like and are good at “body rhythm”, hoping to get feedback from parents, children and artists.
The following is the five observation records of “Funny Scary Things”, in Tsuen Wan Town Hall
Observation 1: 5th January, audience age: 5-24 months,
Observation 2: On 7th January, audience age: k1-k2, 3-4 years old, Po Leung Kuk Kindergarten
Observation 3: On 7th January, audience age: N1: 2-3 years old, Po Leung Kuk Kindergarten, 40 babies, 40 parents
Observation 4: On 8th January, audience age: 3-4 years old, from 4 kindergartens, 60 children, and 18 teachers
Observation 5: 9th January, audience age: 2-3 years old, kindergarten, 50 children, 13 teachers
What can be seen from the 5 observations:
The audience for the performances for younger age is mainly babies aged 5-24 months, and each baby is accompanied by a parent. Before the performance opened, the children started to point and walk around in the performance venue to familiarise themselves with the environment. During the 50 minutes of watching the performance, the babies reacted most obviously to the actors’ actions and the sound effects. Every time the sound effect “Dee Doo” matches the actor’s actions can best mobilise the babies’ hearing and vision, and the babies can respond accordingly. But as babies’ attention is very short, it’s difficult for them to pay attention to the actors for a long time, so when the plot is of interpersonal relationships between actors, or when the actors only do movements or interact with other reasons, babies don’t pay much attention. It is also related to the large room for development of interpersonal relationships in babies before 3 years old. In some performances, the method of “repeating the same action multiple times” is often used to regain babies’ attention.
Babies before the age of 3 are more sensitive to the actor’s voice and movement. In addition to the actors’ response to sound effects and music, their reactions also have more different expressions. Some children looked at the people around them and laughed together to express this kind of small catering behaviour to show their need for acceptance. When actors had large body movements, they would attract the attention of children. They looked at others, as if they were at ease to make sure that they and others had seen the same scene.
When 2-4 year old babies watch the show, they are more interested in the interaction between actors. They will imitate the physical movements of actors, the physical interactions between actors, and the swinging movements of the body; they will look at the story on the stage, then look at the parents behind them, sometimes to confirm their sense of security around them, sometimes to take them to imitate the actions of the people in the play. This kind of interaction with other audiences triggered by plot and performance is more natural, and will continue until the end of the performance or even in life. They will slowly learn from the actors in the play and sway their feet and legs rhythmically with the narrator. Even when the actors are high-fiving, they will also find their parents or friends to clap their hands.
In the play “Funny Scary Things”, the children follow the actor’s interpretation and the development of the plot, So whenever the phone rings, babies less than 2 years old will usually laugh noticing the emergence of new elements, babies over 3 years old will look for the source of the sound. With the development of the plot, they gradually adopt the setting of “ringtone = scary”. Then whenever the “ring ring” sound appeared, some children even want the actors to find the source of the terrible sound, and some children will cover their ears; older children, with the advancement of the plot, will change from fear to understanding the terrifying ringtones, Some stood up and jumped and clapped with the actors, some recalled their real life experience and in order to help the actors overcome the fear, they yelled “Pick up the phone!” Due to the actor’s exploration of the environment and the rules found, the audience’s natural response to the development of the story after acceptance, I think it is the most natural and best interaction.
In 5 observations, there is something in common among babies over 3 years old: children who sit in different positions will react consistently differently. The children facing the stage were significantly more excited during the performance while those on the left and right side mainly focused. There was one baby who particularly drew my attention. She furrowed her brows all the way but was extremely focused that her eyes were always locked on the actors, sometimes in a daze. Her attention was interesting, whenever an actor performed, she looked at the other actor with expectations. When the two actors interacted happily, she smiled in satisfaction, like saying “See, I knew it.”
Although the adults knew clearly that the scary “ring ring” sound was just a phone ringtone, no one knows what changes the ringtone would bring in the story, and there was no language barrier. When the unknown plot appears, the emotions of the parents and the children are closely linked. A parent of a 14-month-old baby said, “Unexpectedly, he can be very relaxed in a place with so many people. He is very interested in sound effects. I can clearly feel that he will always stare at the actors when he is nervous. , And clenched my fingers hard, he leaned on me when he relaxed.” They are constantly struggling with “trying to stay away from the fear of the unknown and appease their fearful emotions” and “cannot give up on the unknown.” I think that the establishment of a parent-child relationship requires not only closeness, but also understanding.
Interview with the actors after the show:
1. What preparations are useful to you?
2. Is there any change in the original idea?
3. What is the biggest difference working with children? What changes have been made? What are the challenges and gains?
In the interactive part of “Funny Scary Things”, the interaction of 0-3 year old babies is not very direct and visible. It is more about the actors’ observation of the audience, paying attention to the children’s reactions, and giving feedback on the rhythm of the performance based on the children’s reactions. The whole is still focused on following the script to perform interpretation.
Another actor, Nico, said that as one of the two actors, how the other actor thinks about children had a great influence on her performance and herself. If the two actors have very different views on the child, the effect of the performance will not be good. As for the interaction with children in the play, there will be a lot of interaction as an activity teacher in the classroom. That interaction is purposeful, expectant, and appraised. The purpose of the interaction is to see whether the children have reached the goal set by the teacher, but the performance is not set for this, and there is no requirement to say that the interaction requires the audience to behave in order to meet the standard. In a play, the points that affect children may be different for everyone, so the interaction does not require children to meet a certain standard. So some actors like to have no “setup” interaction. Because of this, there are often many unexpected surprises during the performance.
In the development of baby theatre, we are just infants and toddlers. From the perspective of educators, it is inevitable to ask the eternal question-“What is the visible effect of baby theatre on the reality of infants?” The future research directions presented by Norwegian baby theatre tutor Lisa at the end of the workshop seemed to have answered this question. “How to develop baby theatre based on philosophical, emotional and material inspiration? Which improvisation methods will have an effect in the creative process of investigating emotional influence? How does theatre affect young audiences? How do the materials we use affect our works and are the children involved?”
While studying which method is more suitable for the creation of baby theatres, it also involves studying the method of creation, the material of the work and the effect on the audience. The baby drama is not about teaching small audiences, but a journey to learn from infants and toddlers for advice, and the problem Lisa is doing research on is putting this task on our shoulders. I think in addition to these issues, the development of infants and young children based on Asian culture is also a topic we need to think about. How to make use of the characteristics of baby drama to make it better affect the relationship between children and parents? How does our culture affect our work and children’s participation? These are all issues that need to be studied urgently. Although our baby drama has just started, we stand on the shoulders of giants and look at the thorn bushes with expectations and strength.