The Art of Taking Part: Dramaturgies of Encounter in Theatre for Early Years

Sally Chance*

Abstract

An emergent feature of Australian Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and its sub-set Theatre for Early Years (TEY) is an ethos of encounter. This positions children as co-creators of and participants in professional works constructed to respond to their presence as an artistically intentional aspect of its materiality. This practitioner account describes the dramaturgical principles underpinning The Thing That Matters, by Adelaide-based TEY company Sally Chance Dance, in the context of its goal of crafting the relationship between the prepared and spontaneous aesthetic dimensions of the adult performers’ rehearsed material and the children’s participatory responses to the world of the work.

Keywords: theatre for early years, co-creation, participation, babies, young children, early childhood, family dance labs

Prologue

The audience enters the performance space. Its members—young children and their adults—are invited to place their shoes across the width of the space to create a fourth wall, temporarily delineating spectators from performers.

The performers—young children and adults—start to roll towards the audience. Twice, three times they repeat their pathways in a cycle of life, time and generations. In their midst, Stephen clasps a suitcase. He comes to a stop for a quiet game of peek-a-boo with the audience. Eyes meet across the fourth wall in a delicate intersubjective moment of playful familiarity.

The Thing That Matters. Sally Chance Dance. Director: Sally Chance. The Church of the Trinity, Adelaide. Performer: Stephen Noonan. Premiere: 23 May 2023. Photo: Sam Oster

Stephen rises to standing. He takes the suitcase towards the audience. From behind it a new character—Little Stevie—magically arrives by means of Stephen’s fingertips walking along his own arm then leaping into thin air with an excited wheeeeeee sound. Little Stevie lands securely in Stephen’s upturned hand.

Stephen repeats the fingertip walk and a child’s voice launches itself into the sonic environment from among the performers. “I can do that” he says. The child, newly three years old and very familiar with Stephen from the company’s Family Dance Labs, knowledgeably cups his own hand for Little Stevie’s landing.

Stephen responds to his initiative with another playful wheeeeeee and flying fingertips. The child catches Little Stevie securely.

The child’s expert contribution to the very top of the show arises from his enjoyment of the action and the sound so redolent of joy, release and sensation. It also comes from his confidence with the image as a co-creator and performer. The audience delights in his enjoyment. The audience children are curious, perhaps emboldened by their peer. Gently they breach the fourth wall as the work begins to fulfill its aim of becoming a meeting point between performers and very young audience.

The Thing That Matters. Sally Chance Dance. Director: Sally Chance. The Church of the Trinity, Adelaide. Performer: Stephen Noonan and Family Lab participant/child performer. Premiere: 23 May 2023. Photo: Sam Oster
Introduction

Australian Theatre for Early Years (TEY) is no longer in its infancy. Since the late 2000s the development in our region of the practice as a sub-set of the venerable and more broadly practiced field of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) has consistently demonstrated the capacity of children aged three years and younger, including babies, to “negotiate and regulate their relationship” (Fischer-Lichte 391) with performers, with each other and with their adults in theatrical worlds carefully prepared for their participation.

Some Australian TYA practitioners suggest that over the last ten years this approach has become a characteristic of practice in our region motivated by a desire to explore the nature of participation and its purpose in live performance for children (Brown) and by the socio-political act of positioning performance for young audiences beyond adult-centric definitions of theatre (Giles).

A strong feature of Australian TEY is that its practitioners attend to the relational dynamics of the work, carefully creating the conditions for theatrical encounter. In this context, the participation of young children as a potential aspect of the materiality of TEY works arises—not because young children’s pre-acculturated status as new to theatre attendance means anything goes, and not within pre-determined sections of (potentially rather simplistic) audience participation—but because their impulses are responses to the world of the work, brought about within and through intentional acts of aesthetic reciprocity with performing artists and with each other.

Geesche Wartemann notes that an essential challenge for TEY is that children “do not focus their attention on specific events on stage…because of pre-established conventions [but] are attentive and focused on certain events on stage for only as long as those events are able to capture their interest” (13). For this reason, TEY creators must attend carefully to all the factors that achieve or undermine this.

This essay provides an account of some of the dramaturgical choices made in the devising and presentation of The Thing That Matters (TTTM), a TEY work co-createdand presented by Sally Chance Dance and Adelaide-based families at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s May 2023 DreamBIG children’s festival. I describe how the dramaturgy of The Thing That Matters crafted a relationship between rehearsed and spontaneous material and unpack examples of the dramaturgical layers that helped the work become a participatory encounter between performers and audiences.

My conclusion extends these aesthetic considerations into the socio-political suggestion that young children’s participation in TEY “can help us disrupt the…structures underpinning traditional understandings of everyday childhood practices” (Thiel 72) by providing a powerful artistic representation of early childhood by young children for young children.

Participation

The term participation warrants careful definition in the TEY context. A mobile child’s participation as embodied and visible and therefore active can be readily pictured, however this can lead to the unhelpful idea that the opposite of activity is passivity. Matthew Reason considers that “spectatorship can be conceived as an act of doing and not a passive lack of doing” (172). Erika Fischer-Lichte asserts, “there is no such thing as a passive spectator” (177).

I use the term participation to represent the variable and nuanced nature of young children’s responses along a spectrum of spontaneous involvement. Their attending to the work by viewing it is positioned conceptually at one end of this spectrum, with locomotor contributions to the performance—described by me and by others (Fletcher-Watson 2013; Fischer-Lichte 2016) as doing—positioned at the other.

I have refined this in the course of my practice using the terms gaze and initiative. Matthew Reason’s neologism “audiencing” (172) describes the pleasure for young audiences of watching, gazing, witnessing and staring, and underpins his assertion that viewing is as active as doing, particularly for babies for whom the choice of where to place their gaze is one of the earliest, they can make. The baby has total control over this choice and so gazing, or withdrawing their gaze, is the baby’s first experience of agency.

My concept of initiative refers to young children’s explicit aesthetic offers, manifesting in gestural and locomotor choices such as reaching, bouncing, crawling or standing, travelling to join in with the performers and contributing original input into the performative material. Initiatives are intentional contributions to the show and involve most or all the following factors:

  1. They begin with a clear embodied impulse.
  2. They have a purposeful quality.
  3. They are co-creative.
  4. Whether short or extended they have an observable arc, or “a temporal contour or time profile as it begins, flows through, and ends” (Stern 4) in ways determined by the child.
  5. They appear to be satisfying to/have meaning for the child.

Following ideas that seek to “foreground the role of body, place, affect and atmosphere…over design, intentionality and rationality” (Hackett and Rautio 1020) in young children’s meaning-making, the show itself, its structure, the people and objects in it and the spatial environment it offers become a means of creating “the conditions in which multimodal meaning-making might emerge,” inviting the children into a process of “becoming with the world” (ibid) of the show.

In this sense performers and audiences affect each other to “co-determine the actions and behaviour of others” (Fischer-Lichte 391). The Danish Teatercentrum’s Peter Manscher and Peter Jankovic individualise the exchange still further in articulating their vision that “every child must feel—both during and after the show—that if I hadn’t been there, the show would have been different” (Reason 41).

This was the goal of The Thing That Matters, which I now introduce, before describing how the dramaturgy flowed from “recognition of the roles that very young children can play in a theatre [so that] participation becomes not an interruption of the theatrical moment but vital to its success” (Fletcher Watson 19).

The Thing That Matters

The Thing That Matters was created over an eighteen-month timeframe. The project enjoyed support from funders Arts South Australia, producers Insite Arts and presenter the Adelaide Festival Centre. The work was developed by the company (two dancers, a circus artist and a live musician) in phases of devising their own material and within participatory Family Dance Labs—weekly sixty-minute movement-based sessions for families with children aged four months to three years. Forty-two families took part in the Labs over the four stages of the project. This slow build allowed families to participate at various stages without the final season creating any undue pressure. The fourth Lab series began to anticipate the performance season, with sixteen families opting to join the ensemble for the culmination of the project—a six-show performance season.

The work was structured in six sections traversing a human lifespan. The sections were presented by the company or by the entire ensemble of company and families in an arc of images representing the vivid sensory playfulness of childhood, the powerful autonomy of young adulthood, the bitter-sweet responsibilities of adulthood and the solemnity of the end of life.

A series of circular images (the entire ensemble rolling in long repetitive pathways, a solo circling pathway and a circle of shoes of various sizes) alluded to life as a cycle rather than a linear journey and to the ontological completeness of children at every early life stage. The physical, gestural, vocal, playful and relational initiatives of the children present enabled early childhood to be represented throughout. This arose from very young audience members in both spontaneous and invited response to the world of the work and from the manifestly skilled initiatives of the children who had taken part in the Labs. The latter children’s capacity as performers relied, as for any performer, on their knowledge of and preparedness for the work.

The Labs aimed to be intrinsically motivating for adult and child participants, generating enjoyment, skills development and community and supporting parent/carer-child relationships through movement. The evaluation of the project with families revealed that activities reserved for the private context of the Labs, such as singing a welcome song, were as memorable and important as performing the show. However, the Labs were primarily designed to harness “the generative role that child collaborators and performers can have in the development of…performance practice” (Hopfinger 61) by exploring movement images with communicative clarity, performative skill and dramaturgical coherence suitable for ticketed audiences.

The project’s involvement as co-creators and performers of babies and young children from the same age range as the work’s target audience (four months to three years) functioned dramaturgically in several ways, each linked to a range of roles available to the children at various stages of the project.

Table 1 summarises the children’s roles and the function of each.

RoleSettingActivityDramaturgical Function
AudienceLabView short sections of draft performance material and the first iteration of the complete work.Extended consultation with children. Multiple trials of company’s performative material.
Artistic Co-creatorsLabTake part in workshop/devising sessions, make creative offers, devise emergent performance material, rehearse.Co-creation of performative material shared by company and families. Co-curation of all material, supporting the process of keeping, re-ordering and discarding. Testing ‘sticky’ images over time.
Performers and audiencePerformancesPresent performance material*. View performance material. *NB. Children were always at liberty to decide not to perform.Spontaneous performative initiatives. Make visible child expertise.
Table 1. Young children’s roles in TTTM

Each of these functions made visible the children’s preferences and the capacity of their adults to scaffold their movement. This informed my choices of the images/material selected to be finessed over time. Our goal was not to try to control the wide range of factors influencing the children’s responses, nonetheless, we attempted to “examine what kind of activities are enabled or even encouraged by the aesthetics and probe the mechanisms reinforcing the choice to engage in or avoid a particular activity” (Fischer-Lichte 177). The next section describes how this played out through some of the dramaturgical choices made with the art of taking part in mind; but first a brief excursion into the performers’ specialist skill set is necessary.

This can be summarised as attuned responsivity within and throughout the pre-prepared material using strategies that frame the children’s initiatives. The realisation of The Thing That Matters depended on the formidable experience of dancers Stephen Noonan and Felecia Hick, the warmth of musician Kelly Menhennett and the mature intuition of emerging circus artist Juliet McLeod, whose perceptual skills enabled them to read the nature of the experience for the children and to adjust their material spatially, or by curtailing/prolonging material and in terms of where to place their own gaze.

When the performers in a responsive performative relationship explicitly harness the children’s participation, it becomes “the means to create the performance as well as the performance itself” (Knapton 60-61) allowing the entire work to be an encounter rather than confining the children’s participation to pre-determined sections.

Probing the Mechanisms

The Thing That Matters evolved several dramaturgical features that supported the artistic aim of creating a work with a formal arc but “not fixed in a pre-composed verbal narrative, nor providing a free playing installation space” (Hovik and Pérez 101). Audiences were initially seated in a delineated zone behind a temporary fourth wall of audience members’ shoes. This allowed the audience children time and literal space to take in the objects, performers and setting from a safe distance.

As host of the show, I explained to parents/carers in a pre-show enrolment phase that their children could permeate this notional divide if they were drawn into the action.

The phrase “drawn in” was carefully chosen because it conferred the choice-making (to stay close to the parent/carer or to move into the action) on the children according to their own impulses in relation to their experience of the work, and not on their adults.

The Thing That Matters. Sally Chance Dance. Director: Sally Chance. The Church of the Trinity, Adelaide. Performers: Felecia Hick, Stephen Noonan, Juliet McLeod and Family Lab participants/child performers. Premiere: 23 May 2023. Photo: Sam Oster

An unfolding journey of distinct sections played out in a pre-determined order, contrasting sections of set performative material, which at all times was open to the close presence of children, with sections of carefully scaffolded invitations framed as play. Play windows were always optional and allowed for a slow build of participation. Furthermore, transitions to new sections allowed for the children’s personal play window to finish (or even continue) in their own time, or for the entire audience to be re-set by the host as needed.

One of the most satisfying play sections for the children in the audiences and from the ensemble arose in the section, The Dance of Childhood. This had evolved collaboratively during the Labs and provided an opportunity to reprise the inviting vocal element introduced by Stephen/Little Stevie at the very beginning.

During the Labs parents had been invited by email to share images from their own childhoods. The company’s Dance of Childhood consisted of movement phrases drawing on some of these. One referred to watching planes. We linked a long pathway with a sweeping gestural arc to Little Stevie’s wheeeeeee sound and tested with the Lab participants whether they were interested in cupping their hands as a place for the company performers to land their fingertips. The children’s cupped hands functioned as an invitation to complete the action and it was therefore entirely within the child’s control to extend the invitation, or not.

The Thing That Matters. Sally Chance Dance. Director: Sally Chance. The Church of the Trinity, Adelaide. Performer: Felecia Hick and audience child. Premiere: 23 May 2023. Photo: Sam Oster

In performance, the Lab participants modelled the game for the audience children. The children’s security within the game was supported by the far and near nature of the action. Stephen, Felecia and Juliet watched for the cupped hands from a long distance and moved closer to complete the transaction only at the explicit invitation of the child.

Child-informed Dramaturgy

TEY is an exciting field with its own critical debate. Many wonderful works showcase young children’s capacity for spectatorship, others favour the frisson of co-creative exchange. Given that “much more than a collection of skills, professional practice is intimately entangled with identity and belief” (Andersen 10), perhaps TEY practice is united by the broader philosophical implications of young children’s presence at or in live performance which are that early years cultural provision warrants a high level of ambition in its scope, content and delivery, as well as in terms of its “emotional and intellectual engagement” (Reason 39).

This essay has used The Thing That Matters to describe how underpinning children’s participationencompassing at its simplest a spectrum from viewing to doinghas deeper nuances that re-position the viewing-doing binary along a complex continuum of artistic activity. If “to dramaturg [is] to curate an experience for an audience…which relies on the clarity of what characterises that experience” (Lang 7-8), then my hope is that the visibility and expertise of young children as co-creators of TEY provide a clear artistic representation of early childhood by young children for young children.

John Dewey notes, “esthetic rhythm is a matter of perception and therefore includes whatever is contributed by the self in the active process of perceiving” (1934 169), and so, perhaps we are looking at new kinds of child-informed dramaturgies that “can help us disrupt the…structures underpinning traditional understandings of everyday childhood practices” (Thiel 72), privileging young children’s perceptions, framing them artistically and highlighting the aesthetic power of their participation.


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*Sally Chance is one of a specialist handful of Australian Theatre for Early Years practitioners. She has directed six works. Her doctoral study at the Queensland University of Technology (2020) analysed the performative contribution of young children to live performance and codified a framework of performer response-ability to their presence.

Copyright © 2023 Sally Chance
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