On different types and styles of children’s theatre, and the aesthetics of theatrical interactions – a study report of the theatre festival for children in early years in Spain
On different types and styles of children’s theatre, and the aesthetics of theatrical interactions
– a study report of the theatre festival for children in early years in Spain
(translated to English by Christiana Choi)
El Més Petit de Tots, an international art festival that began 14 years ago, continued its endeavour between November 9 and 24 in 2019. During these 16 days, 25 theatrical plays and activities were staged and conducted in collaboration with 13 theatres across 12 different cities in Spain for children aged 0-5 as well as their families. In addition to its appeal to local parents and small children, the festival also provided workshops for professional artists, festival directors and theatre professionals. This article will focus on the theatrical performances for children in early years aged between 0-5 in the form of modern dance, as well as acoustic, vocal and multimedia performances, introducing the festival in the following four sections: small theatre, big theatre, free activities and theatres with different kinds of participation.
- Small Shows with up to 100 spectators — modern dance and acoustic musical theatre
Modern dance and acoustic original music: “And the idea soar” (aged 2-5), 25 min. Catalonia, Spain
It is a children’s play that blends modern dance with live music. The stage design is very special: In the space filled with pitch blackness, a ring of ground light is lit to mark the boundary between the stage and the auditorium, with both children and adults sitting in circles on the floor. This programme requires the audience to sit on the ground to create an atmosphere where everyone sits around a campfire by the sea under the dark night sky. Holding fishing poles in their hands, the dancers use microphones to quietly “record” the sound as it is being carried through the audience. With the first greeting being recorded, the remix of live music starts to play.
The integration of modern dance and acrobatics, the blend of strength and freedom, attracts an applaud from the child audience. From silence to live music, the environment welcomes the changes in lighting. Dancers start to add “clapping” to their dance moves. As the rhythm changes with clapping, the lighting in the venue follows. Dancers start to invite children to clap, while the lighting changes with every clap. Gradually, the children start clap along, and the lighting blinks with every clap to give series of flashes just like the sparks of life. Slowly, dancers have developed a natural tacit understanding with the audience where the latter can let themselves be absorbed into the setting without the need to use any language and instruction.
At the end of the show, actors hold the fishing pole high to release the flowing starlight, letting the sparkling spots that look sometimes like butterflies and sometimes fireworks spread among the auditorium. The ring of light that separates the stage from the auditorium disappears. At this moment, an actor stretches out a finger to reach a little girl. As their fingertips meet, the lighting in the venue starts to blink once again. The actor invites the girl to the centre of the stage and waits quietly as the girl hesitates, until the girl slowly takes the first step and calmly walks up to the stage. The audience in the theatre and the girl feel the wake of feelings about life, the feelings that are planted in everyone’s heart as the seeds of life. The entire performance does not rely on any verbal language, but the realization of life it wants to convey has reached the audience, which is what defines the unique charm of this show.
The troupe consists of three young artists who used to do acrobatic theatre. They later extended their endeavor to form another troupe called Animal Religion (Quim Giron) to perform for audiences of all ages. In this festival, they explore, for the first time, the performance for infants and toddlers aged above 2 and will seek to promote this play to children with autism as a soothing drama by further collaboration with the art festival.
2. Modern dance and vocal acoustics: “Stemestammen”, aged 0-3, Norway
As an avant-garde children’s play with dance and acoustic music, it has the audience sitting on three sides of the stage on the left, right and front. At the back side of the stage is a background screen for the projection of lighting to bring out the atmosphere for actors to dive into their various roles. Bamboo sticks and soft lights are hung above the stage to create a bird cage-like decoration. At a zero distance, three male actors sing and dance through rows of seats among the audience. Back on the stage, the actors “self-indulgently” deliver their singing and dancing, while the children also indulge in the performance themselves or immerse in their own thoughts.
Audience: Kindergarten toddlers aged 2-3 years are brought to the show by their teachers, with 2-3 children forming a small group accompanied by a teacher. On a stage full of freedom, children need to remain seated as they watch the performance, which apparently is a challenge for kids their age. What adds to the challenge is the abstract artistic stage design and the powerful husky vocals of the male actors, a combination that requires a rather long time to reach the state of concentration, but this does not come off as a good match with children who tend to have a relatively short attention span.
The organizer considers it an “experimental performance” on the theme of cross-dressing queen. The aim is to include it as part of the festival and project to invite thoughts and feedback from the audience and visitors. I like this idea and approach, for the audience of children’s theatre are the least restricted—they are perceptual, intuitive and will not fake reactions to cater to anyone. This is why modern art welcomes the participation of children in the performance: the intuitive feelings and feedback from the audience. Moreover, as a long-standing art festival with 15 years of history, it strives to bring new value-adding contents to the new generation of artists and children every year. This is one of the reasons why artists and directors all over the world are passionate about taking part in the art festivals: to learn something new and to discover things that are still happening and yet to be concluded.
In this theatre, not only are children’s plays(with admission by ticket) performed, but it also has assigned a venue for art activities in the atrium for children—a must-have in a festival for small children.
3. Modern dance and acrobatics: “Klank”, aged 2-5, The Netherlands
“Klank” is a children’s play that explores the strength and sound of modern dance. It is performed in a small and cozy venue with fully carpeted floor; a tall, blue, balance-looking rack is placed in the middle, on one side is a big speaker and on the other side a conch-shaped counterweight.
The story starts with actors playing and exploring with each other, and continues by extending the interactions to interpersonal as well as between human and nature. Scenes of children playing and learning in their everyday life are integrated into the plot and presented on the stage.
As the performance starts, two actors play music scores with trumpet while using their bodies to play games; their bodies move along the sound of the instrument to play with each other on the stage: One catches the sounds the other throws out, and passes on the beat caught in hand out again. Later, the two actors dance up and down the large prop in the middle of the stage.
It is amazing and mesmerizing to look at the beauty of strength from such a close distance. Every physical move of the actors can invite resonance and feedback from the audience, who can receive it as a kind of surprise, exploration and satisfaction.
4. Modern dance and acoustic scenes: “Tumble in the jungle”, aged 2-5, Norway
It is a play with modern dance, live vocal and music; the stage is designed to look like a tropical rainforest surrounded by tall forest plants. The audience sit under the trees on three sides on the stage, being part of the set. On the left of the stage is an electric keyboard and a keyboardist. Two dancers start to play following the flow of the music, like two kids fighting for toys and playing in the big paradise of forest, later joint by all kinds of animals. It is a very relaxing play.
5. No language: “The Odyssey of Latung La La”, aged 0-5, Spain
Another children’s play from Spain, “L’Odissea de Latung La La” presents to us a group of engaged actors. This is a very special play—I feel as if it had created an orange dream.
A huge ship is placed in the middle of the living room, on one end is the home where the story takes place, on another end is the control panel of the musician. The bright floats on both sides separate the stage from the areas where the audience sit. As the floats gradually move apart, artists begin their game on the ship.
As we interact with the writers and actors, they tell us they will not worry too much about the audience as they perform, nor will they think about whether anyone is watching them. They are mostly doing what they want to do and nothing else.
II. Big Shows with over 100 spectators
1. World Classic Musical Orchestra: Musical per als mes menuts, aged 0-3, Spain
Acoustic world classic musical family play has its stage set up in a circus shed, with an audience of over 200 people. It is a play suitable for both parents and children; the entire performance is filled with classic scenes of musicals where every piece demonstrates a different form of performance with the use of different instruments and presentation. There is a live band, dancing singer, as well as light and shadow of marquee. All of the up to one-minute-long musical excerpts are live performances; the quick switch between scenes keeps the children’s attention fixated on the stage, one to two children could not hold themselves from vibing along the music throughout the performance and even running up onto the stage when they are hyped up.
The vocalist is a Spaniard of South African descent who is warm and cheerful. Having taken the preferences of children into account, the director says he makes respective arrangement for children based on their attention span so that they will not feel bored. If you are looking for a classic musical that you can watch with the entire family, this is definitely the right choice for you.
2. Non-verbal body [language]: “Tatarrattat”, aged 3-5, Belgium
This is a non-verbal play that relies on body languages. Set in a huge circus shed, the stage is made up of four pieces of luminous square boards, alongside wood blocks in all shapes and sizes placed randomly on the four sides of the stage as if it was a carpenter’s workshop.
Acting as if they were children, the four actors play with the wood blocks in different ways—and they take the playing “seriously”: from building blocks to playing dominoes with their companions. They even use their body languages to debate about “how to build blocks”.
Engaged and amused, the audience cannot help wondering why these “children” do not understand the rules of the game and how they could complete the game if they keep changing the place where they start building the blocks; on the other hand, they find it interesting how the “kids” could end up fighting out of those little games.
The play helps us envision our own childhood and understand why children tend to be so “calculating” when it comes to playing. More importantly, we come to realize that it is the serious attitude of the actors towards playing that touch the hearts of the audience.
In fact, the encounter of artists and children is more like a double-choice question, especially in the case of small children and modern art. Children need art in their growth and development, while art also needs children.
Before turning two years old, infants tend to use their bodies and sensual organs to explore the world; while art, especially theatre, is about making use of the different senses— visual, hearing and touching— to demonstrate the interactions between human and the world.
III. Free, waiting and rest zones
There are a lot more programmes and activities in the art festival, such as “playscapes” in the outdoor activity zone of the main interaction venue, which always attracts flocks of children. The big bouncy ball made of rolled up woolen net looks like a giant snake stuffed with food.
“Light and Shadow House” is a house for toddlers under two years of age. Adults are admitted into the house with their babies on a one-adult-plus-one-baby basis. The soothing music, the gorgeous but gentle and low-key light and shadow, and the many props in different shapes allow adults and babies to use their bodies and shadows to tell stories of their own.
“Wooden toys” is another big space in the main venue where all the toys are handmade with wood and audible instruments that children can trigger sounds from. There is a hemispheric wooden slide for them to climb up and down, hit and beat to find some fun. The third free activity zone is also filled with games of all kinds, most of which can be played by visitors on their own, but there are also volunteers or artists to offer guidance and tours.
“Theatre box” is a lovely mini outdoor theatre. It takes place every ten minutes, with dozens of chairs and ear-microphones, one storyteller and one story box. Overlooking a blue sky and a tree full of yellow gingko leaves, a group of children listen to a narrator telling a story—each and everything outlines the stunning autumn afternoon in Spain.
According to the results of the Scottish study “See Theatre See Play” on theatre for children aged 3 years or under, there are two means of participation, namely “receptive participation” and “interactive participation”. The pieces in this article can be divided into three categories for observation: receptive participation, receptive and interactive participation and interactive participation. In other words, watching play, watching and taking part in the play and taking part in the play.
First, receptive participation means watching the play. Receptive participation is defined as “not having the settings that would require the audience to take part in or contribute to the performance”.
The modern dance and acoustic vocal piece “Stemestammen” (aged 0-3) is a receptive participation kind of performance mainly for the audience to “watch”. Seats are placed at the three sides of the stage and there is no obvious barrier between the actors and the spectators. The actor will also walk back and forth among the spectators to create a sense of involvement that allows the spectators to feel an illusion of being “invited to explore”.
Actors are only performing among the crowd without giving any immediate reactions to the response and actions of the audience. Despite the close distance between the performers and the spectators, there is no real interaction. However, to small children aged 0-3 years, the sight of intriguing objects from such a close distance will naturally tempt them to touch and inspect. Under such a circumstance, even with the presence of several teachers, it remains difficult to keep it a form of “concentrated receptive participation”. This aligns with the findings of study on small children’s theatre conducted by Oily Cart Theatre (which specializes in productions for small and disabled children). Its success lies in actors giving sensitive response and having dialogues with children within a rather loose structure of the play.
World classic musical “Musical per als mes menuts” (aged 0-3) is another play written mostly for “watching”. The circus shed venue marks a clear separation between the performers and spectators, while there are some family-friendly seats around the stage specially designed for babies under 2 years of age. Whenever there is any switch of lighting, instrument or props during the performance, babies sitting around the stage would naturally move their bodies along the music; some may even run up onto the stage to “take a closer look”. At these moments, their parents will tell them to come back down, or the actors will give some spontaneous moves or interactions in between the vocal or instrumental performance. Even when they are no pre-determined interactive elements, they come off as icing on the cake: the audience will be amused out of contentment by the obsession of the little ones, while the interactions between the actors and the babies also serve as some ad hoc episodes in the performance.
Both as shows for “watching” for those aged between 0 and 3, the stage and spectators seating set-up as well as the response of actors to spectators will make a big difference in the effect for the spectators as they engage in receptive participation of the show.
Second, “watching and taking part in the show”. By “taking part in the show”, we mean the set-up of the show intends to invite the spectators to actively explore and contribute to the performance.
There are more children’s theatre that belong to this category, such as “And the idea soar” from Spain (aged 2-5) mentioned earlier in this article. As a show that integrates modern dance and acrobatics, the audience can take part by engaging in the process of watching and participating in the performance alternately. At first, there is a clear border between the spectators and the stage, and the actors use bamboo sticks to break this border and record sounds from the audience. Since the target audience of the show are aged 2-3 years, when they just arrive at the venue and are trying to adapt to it, they do not quite understand how to speak in front of the “microphone” and do not quite understand what is going on. This comes off as if the audience were learners who have just entered into a new games whose rules they are unfamiliar with. That is why the process of “watching and taking part in the show” starts rather slow—it takes quite a while until the expected effect of the actors can be achieved: a child says “hola” (hello in Spanish).
As for receptive participation, that is, the part about “watching the show”, there is an obvious separation between the stage and the spectacle. Actors try to explore themselves on the stage, making use of their bodies, light and shadow and beats, and invite the audience to experience it with them. After that, they break through the borders of the stage and bring the spectators up to explore the “relationship between beats, light and shadow” as well as “the relationship between bodies and space”. The interactions in this show are carefully designed, taking advantage of an adequate prologue in laying out the space and rules—the interpretation and exploration of the actors serves as a demonstration of game instructions. When the audience are brought up to the stage, they are clear about what reactions they can get with the respective actions they perform—it feels like a continuation of the story.
Another show that belongs to the category “watching and taking part in it” is “Klank” from The Netherlands (aged 2-5), another performance that blends modern dance with acrobatics and sound theatre. The stage is similarly close to the audience; actors stream through the auditorium during the performance, but the huge prop in the middle of the stage is made in a height and size that do not allow small children to explore, thereby making a clear separation between the roles of actors and spectators. As for receptive participation as they “watch the show”, the interactions between the actors are realized through the discovery of the relationship between props, space, sound and themselves. In this regard, when the spectators become “a part of the show”, they have already learnt what to experience. Given how the plot extends itself through a circle game, actors can easily manage the scenes.
Third, “taking part in the play” stands for letting children enter the “interactive art scenes that have performative elements”; such scenes will contain different artistic elements and features that are suitable for children at a certain age. Actors will deliver their performance, but the free exploration of children and the performance of actors do not contradict with one another. Since small children have a short attention span and strong curiosity to discover the world, more elements and space for exploration will be provided. Such theatre tends to have lower requirements on the spectators at the venue but higher requirements for the design of stage and plot elements.
“Garden of spiritual consciousness”, Sweden, aged 0-12 months Art installation participatory theatre
It provides babies and adults with immersive and multisensory artistic experience. The art installations are inspired by “organic objects”—art installations in high density, together with the gentle light and music offers children in early years an extraordinary aesthetic experience. The exercise and dance of actors mingle with music, visual and tactile stimulants and natural scents. The many and various forms and their respective position in the space trigger the sense of curiosity of the audience—not only does it arouse the passion for exploration, but it also create a space that is peaceful, intimate and relaxing. Spectators can check out the installations based on their own needs at a time suitable for themselves for up to six hours.
The concept of “garden of spirit and heart” starts with “the reciprocal emotional relationship between the body, mind and environment”. Adults are invited to support and follow their children as well as share their own experiences. A safe and exciting environment is seen as a reciprocal ecology that provides a special place for exchange of all sorts at the parent-children, physical and mental and environmental levels. The writer hopes to make the audience “reorganize their reactions based on what is happening” to provide various emotional experiences for children as well as their caregivers.