Imagine creating theatre for an audience that has never seen a play before; that responds freely and fully to the unfolding story, sounds, and images; that hops, spins, and jumps on stage when invited to join in; that takes in the world with total wonder.
Welcome to Theatre for the Very Young, a genre of plays for babies through preschoolers. Luckily, the DC area has two TFVY specialists– Bethesda’s Imagination Stage and Alexandria’s Arts on the Horizon. As the curator of TFVY at DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, I have presented both companies’ work since 2012 and been fascinated by this deeply responsive audience. So this season, I decided to write, direct, and produce a TFVY piece myself. After all, I’ve been creating plays for intergenerational audiences for years.
How different could it be to shift the target audience down a few years? Very! And I’m having the time of my life.
My colleagues in Europe and Australia have been creating extraordinary work for the very young for over 40 years. Driven by political beliefs that toddlers have the same right as anyone to experience powerful art, they’ve excelled in exploring the aesthetic innovations that the genre inspires.
I’ve seen plays where the children literally power the play, turning gears and pumping pedals to animate small figures on a revolve. I once floated in a boat in Denmark with twenty toddlers as a story was spun. In the U.S., the form is catching on, with companies across the country experimenting with “baby theatre,” notably Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre. Eager for advice, I turned to my two local colleagues and, typical of our theatre community, long-time friends.
Kate Bryer, Imagination Stage’s Associate Artistic Director, excited me: “What I love the most about early childhood is the ability to explore the tiniest details of the world around you and to be fascinated by them. A whole 40-minute play could be simply about a walk to the mailbox! Think of all the things you might encounter along the way–a leaf, a rock, a barking dog, a truck!” Got it. Simple story with wonderment possibilities. I can do that.
Point A to Point B
October 9 – 18, 2015
Workhouse Arts Center
9601 Ox Road
November 11 – 15, 2015
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and tickets
¡Ratón en Movimiento!
November 10 – 29, 2015
4908 Auburn Ave
Details and tickets
Then Michelle Kozlak, Producing Artistic Director of Arts on the Horizon, advised, “Don’t underestimate the young audience members – they are very intelligent.” So, simple yet deep. This gets harder.
Kate and Michelle also advocate inviting young children into the play through multiple modalities of perception. Michelle’s productions “always try to engage the young audience through sight, sound, touch and even smell.” Kate reminded me to “find ways to communicate other than spoken language as much of your audience are not speaking yet.” I’ve always created work with multiple vocabularies – music, movement, striking visuals, but smells? Clearly, I’m in new territory. That is the thrill: trying to imagine all the possible entry points into an experience – engaging all aspects of perception and thought across age levels while specifically targeting the youngest in the room. I had no idea when I began this project how it would encourage me to explore how I can enrich all my theatrical work.
A TFVY key appears to be giving the audience a role in the play – both in the development (test driving your scenario and form early on in workshops with children) and in performance (asking them to enter the action of the play – literally.) For Michelle, “Young audience members become so integral to the play that they almost become an additional character.” At Imagination Stage, Kate says, “We love to create a moment at the end our pieces in which the entire audience comes together to create a beautiful image.” How can I make this level of participation authentic—essential to the action? And once you invite the audience up, how to you invite them back down?
Happily, I can report that after hours of playing with preschoolers, two summer workshops, and now a first week of rehearsal, Stay Awake is unfolding beautifully. The audience will be treated to a mobile of stars, fish, clouds, and a big red ball. They will swim through underwater caves and dance in the sky. They will hear wise words from an interstellar mouse: “The world is very big. I am very small. But I am very brave.”
When I share this text with adults, the response is, “I feel that way, too.” Here’s hoping this play offers the wee ones and their grown ups an equally engaging artistic experience. Now if I can just figure out a smell…
Mary Hall Surface’s plays have been produced at major professional theaters, museums, universities, and festivals throughout the US and in Germany, Canada, Japan, Ireland, England and Taiwan, as well as at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, Folger Theatre, Round House Theatre and fifteen productions with the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences. She has been nominated for nine Helen Hayes Awards (receiving the award in 2002 for Outstanding Director of a Musical), and has published twelve plays, two monologue & scene collections for middle school students, and three award-winning original cast albums of her musicals with composer David Maddox. Mary Hall is the founding Artistic Director of the INTERSECTIONS Festival at DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center where she programmed over 500 multi-disciplinary performances and championed innovative audience and community engagement. www.maryhallsurface.com