Peter Wynne-Willson urges settings to bring live theatre to their children.

Over the last few years, I have been asked more and more to work with early years, to the extent that now it occupies most of my time. This seems to reflect an increasing amount of work being done in this field. I work with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 90 days a year, developing their early years work, often working in settings, with parents present, in the context of family learning, ‘doing drama’ with children – making up stories, acting out, playing together creatively.

Many theatre companies are now producing new plays aimed at under-fives; the Rep hosts a growing number of performances for under-fives, and each year develops its own touring piece, which goes into settings.

You may be wary of going to the theatre; theatres don’t all have a great track-record of welcoming young children with open arms. But things are changing, and it is important that the increasing opportunities are grabbed, so that they properly become a valued and expected part of a theatre’s provision. If you are considering a brush with the theatre, there are some questions you may want to ask, and some possible answers…

Why theatre?

There is a unique quality in really good theatre, because it is live, and works on all the senses at once. Many of us remember plays long after we have forgotten other parts of our childhood. A visit to the theatre, or a visit by a theatre company, should not be thought of just as an entertainment – it can be an opportunity for all kinds of further activities, because it is an experience that we have all shared. Often it is an opportunity for positive involvement of parents in a setting. Often we find out things about individual children, because responses to theatre can be surprising.

What is available?

This will obviously vary widely, and wherever you are there is an element of luck involved. There is not a constant stream of high-quality theatre available to tour early years settings. But it is worth looking beyond the obvious. There are many puppeteers, children’s entertainers, and children’s theatre companies who are presenting shows of a pretty familiar type. But the plays that just have a little more about them are rarer. Look for adaptations of ‘new’ books, or specially written new plays – there is absolutely no need for the play to be a story your children know already. Often an established subsidised theatre (like Birmingham Rep) or a specialist Theatre-in-Education company will be offering something more interesting than a Christmas entertainment. There is no special trick to finding out what is available in your area – the library, the local arts council, local media would be the sources of information.

Is it suitable?

This is sometimes a very hard judgement to make, and there is no substitute for seeing the play yourself first. Usually touring companies offer a teachers preview, or will provide the opportunity to see the play if you ask them. At the very least, get as much information as you can about it. If you develop a relationship with a theatre company over time you will build up your trust in them.

Age recommendations are subjective -some two-year olds will sit happily though a play for an hour without understanding the story, some four-year-olds will wriggle after ten minutes even though the poster said three to four. Ask how the play involves the children – the best work for early years involves the audience in a deeper way than just performing at them, or asking them to shout out.

It is a good indication of suitability if the company is providing you with information and support, and answers your questions sensibly. Ultimately, knowing your children, and knowing as much as you can about the play, you will make your own judgement.

How do we prepare?

Many practitioners worry about how their children will behave, but it is important not to make the theatre visit a test of behaviour. Nobody has a magic wand to make a two-year-old sit still and listen. Good theatre will grab their attention. The best approach is to encourage staff and parents to relax, and allow the children to respond naturally. Of course, if a child is very frightened, or crying at a volume that is affecting the performance for others, they may need to withdraw, but this is something that everyone involved will expect, and no one, especially the child, should be allowed to feel bad about it. If you are having the company visit you, it would be as well to think in advance about a withdrawing area, preferably where a child can still keep an eye on the performance from a safe distance. (The Egg in Bath, one of the most recently built specialist children’s theatres, has a special sound-proofed viewing booth for this purpose.)

Sometimes, a company will suggest some specific preparation for seeing a play, but generally it is best to concentrate on practical preparations; the experience of travelling to the theatre, or seeing their familiar space transformed may be more overwhelming for some children than the play itself.

What is the role of staff during a performance?

The best thing that the staff can do is share the experience fully. Ask any company about their pet hates in performing in schools or nurseries, and they will all tell you about the practitioners who use it as an opportunity to clear the stock cupboard, or sit and chat. This is really missing an opportunity. Going through the experience the children are having puts you in a strong position to follow it up; any play which is worth your children experiencing will be worth you watching too.

There is no better feeling than watching a group of very young children gripped and moved by a piece of theatre. The fact that there is an increasing amount of work being done, with serious, thoughtful, beautiful, wonderful plays involving under fives is something that we should be welcoming, and using. If your local theatre is not part of this movement, then let them know loud and clear that you would like them to join it.

Peter Wynne-Willson is a freelance writer and drama worker, and early years arts worker at Birmingham Rep. Details of his work are on his website at www.peterww.co.uk

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