Interview with Ben Fletcher-Watson on theatre for the very young

Ben Fletcher-Watson is currently completing a PhD on Scottish theatre for the very young. He is the co-editor of the Scottish Journal of Performance, and his most recently published paper explored ‘how Early Years performing arts experiences are tailored to the developmental capabilities of babies and toddlers’ in Youth Theatre Journal.

Ben HeadshotHi Ben, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. I became aware of you and your work through your fantastic twitter advent calendar over Christmas. Can you explain a bit more about what you did?

More and more theatres seem to be offering shows for very young children In December alongside the traditional Christmas pantomime. I wanted to give new parents some tips to help make their family’s first visit to the theatre a real success. I’ve been researching this area for several years now, and I’ve seen a lot of shows for babies, so I hoped it would be useful. It’s quite a different experience going to a show with a baby or toddler, as opposed to ‘grown-up’ theatre – it’s shorter, but often much more hands-on, for example.

What is Theatre for Early Years?

Performances for children from birth to around age five would usually be considered to be Theatre for Early Years, although some people (including me) have tried to make theatre for unborn children!

How did you become interested in this area, and why did you decide to explore it in a PhD?

I think the first show for Early Years that I saw was called My House, made for Starcatchers in Edinburgh back in 2007. I didn’t know that you could make theatre for babies, and was amazed at the skill of its creator, Andy Manley. A few years later, when I was considering topics for research, Early Years work seemed like an area ripe for investigation. Hardly any academic papers had been written about it, and even now there are only a handful of texts. That seems to be changing as more artists discover the magic and the challenges. I’m writing a book about Andy’s plays, which will hopefully come out in 2016, so I’m trying to fill the gap.

Can you tell us more about your PhD, and what you have been up to so far?

I’m looking at practice within Scotland, where a lot of great work has emerged in recent years. Specifically, I want to see whether there could be said to be a dramaturgical foundation for Theatre for Early Years, so I’ve interviewed as many Scottish artists as I could find, then analysed the transcripts of all those interviews to tease out any commonalities. Connected to that, I’ve also been working with a fantastic app development company based near Edinburgh to turn some of these shows into apps for the iPad. It really helped my research to consider the real-world implications of my theorizing and discoveries.

Children’s theatre seems to be growing, and productions for early years are increasingly popular. Do you think we are in a ‘golden age of children’s theatre’, or do productions for young audiences still struggle for legitimacy?

There is definitely a lot of fantastic work for all ages being made at the moment. I especially like companies like Catherine Wheels in Scotland, Polyglot in Australia and Theater o.N. in Germany. However, I don’t know whether the quality of the work is being reflected in the investment that it receives in most countries. We seem to be battling our way out of the bad reputation of educational theatre from the 70s and 80s, which still dominates people’s perception. Today’s work isn’t about teaching the audience at all – if they learn something, that’s great, but the aim is to ask questions, rather than give answers.

You’ve written previously about your uncertainty regarding commercial Theatre for Early Years. How do you feel about it now?

I’ve seen a fair selection of commercial shows in the last year, and the quality is pretty high. I do fundamentally believe that scale is their biggest downfall – how can a very young child or their parent be expected to engage with a performance if they’re sitting thirty rows away from the stage? I also worry about the emphasis placed on merchandising, but I suppose if a producer pays a lot for the rights to a children’s television character, they need to make their money back somehow.

What would you say to those who argue that theatre for early years is silly or pointless?

You used to hear that argument a great deal, but I think as the movement has grown, people have begun to see its value, and more importantly, its quality. A major strand of my PhD research is about the ‘conversion’ that people undergo when they see a piece of Theatre for Early Years for the first time – if it’s good (which most of it certainly is), people walk out of the theatre having been convinced of its value. Seeing is believing.

There’s an ongoing debate about the role of narrative in theatre for early years – what are your thoughts?

It depends on the age of the audience. For children under two or three, there’s no need for a narrative at all. You can still choose to tell a traditional story, but the children don’t require it to hold their interest. For the over-threes, their inquisitiveness about cause-and-effect, as well as their sophistication in picking apart a story, means that they respond well to narrative. But I’m 34, and some of the greatest theatre I’ve seen has involved totally abstract experiences!

What makes for a good piece of early years theatre?

At its heart, it has to be about equality. A newborn baby has as much of a right to be in a theatre as I do, so the best shows acknowledge that from the beginning. Very young children can see right through a patronising or lazy piece of theatre, and aren’t shy about making their dissatisfaction felt. We should be as honest as they are. There are no rules for making Theatre for Early Years, and the best work is as varied as adult theatre, but all of it is honest, welcoming and respectful.

What are you working on next, and what are your plans for after your PhD?

I’ve just got involved with a baby theatre project down in London, and I’m hoping to stay within academia once I submit my thesis in March. Right now, I’m interested in the possible links between Early Years work and the new phenomenon of ‘relaxed’ or autism-friendly performances, so it would be great to see where that leads me.

Where can people find your work?

You can find the tips for taking your baby to the theatre here. Most of my other work is for academic journals, which you can’t read for free, sadly, but you can access an article I wrote recently about a project to turn a very successful show for young children into an iPad app. My book about children’s theatre will be published next year.

Image from ‘My House’ by Starcatchers

Follow Ben on Twitter @bfletcherwatson and check out his Theatre for Babies tumblr page.
Follow Children’s Theatre Reviews on Twitter @ctheatrereviews

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