“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Sue Buckmaster, Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites, quoting the African proverb to explain her latest production. Beasty Baby, a play for 3-6 year olds at Polka Theatre, shows three people embarking on one of life’s biggest adventures: bringing up a child. The unconventional family dynamic was a way “to re-define what family can be, and it can be many things to many people… I didn’t just want to talk to parents, I wanted to talk to everyone who has a responsibility for raising children – be they parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers.” But if it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to create a piece of children’s theatre?
Theatre-Rites has a pretty interesting way of bringing its work into the world. Sue ‘listens’ to objects and puppets using her Puppet Whispering technique, and this offers the first spark of life for a new show: “Objects hold their own stories and we, as observers, bestow our memories and project our emotions onto them.” The objects can be any number of things; previous shows have begun with “a feather, a pillow and a drum”. Beasty Baby was slightly different: it “began with a Scandinavian folk tale about a Troll Child”, and some time for research and development. “Out of this process Beasty Baby was born”.
With the arrival of Beasty Baby, “focus shifted to the baby as the object and a whole new idea emerged for a younger audience.” The natural next step was to find the baby’s family: “Once I’ve discovered the object, the next part of the process is to select the creative team on the basis of who I think will best respond to that object. For example, if it has musical qualities I’ll invite musicians, if it’s a soft object, I might invite artists with sewing skills.” With the right team in place, they set up home in “a promising and secure playspace” to continue exploring the object and gradually developing the show. The finished product is a play full of music and humour “with children at its heart”.
Sue’s real family are no strangers to show business – her great-grandfather was a music hall entertainer who could juggle while riding a unicycle on a revolving table. Her grandmother and grandfather belonged to a clown-like group called The Musical Elliotts, and her mother and father played the variety circuit as The Buckmaster Puppets. Sue’s first taste of the industry was being strapped into a giant puppet setting off thousands of fireworks – with a start like that, it’s no surprise that she became an actress, before deciding to create theatre instead. She became a specialist puppetry director, working with companies and venues like Complicite, the RSC, and the National Theatre.
It was through this work that she met Penny Bernand and began working with Theatre-Rites. Since 1995, the company ‘has transformed the face of children’s theatre in Britain’ (Lyn Gardner), creating consistently groundbreaking and beautiful work whilst constantly adapting. That’s a big reason for Theatre-Rites’ longevity: “We’ve never been afraid to reinvent ourselves by collaborating with diverse groups of artists, commissioners and funders. I think our work stays new because we’re more interested in the space between the artforms than in the known.” It’s impossible to pin down their style or predict their work: “We can create an intimate show like Beasty Baby, reinterpet our touring production Rubbish to reach schools directly, or create a large scale extravanganza of a site-specific for a German Opera Festival.” A quick glimpse at their upcoming projects shows the breadth of creative output: a collaboration with Akram Khan Company on a new version of Desh for ages 7+, a hip-hop and puppetry show for ages 13+ with fellow theatre company 20 Stories High, and a new play supported by the Wellcome Trust “exploring brain development and discovering the parallel tools of investigation, manipulation and communication used by Neuroscientists and Puppeteers.”
It takes a village to raise a child, a creative family to make a play, but what does it take to create a theatre audience? “Community,” suggests Sue. This is what theatre can offer children that computers and TVs and tablets can’t. “It’s live, in the moment. There’s a very particular joy of being in an audience of adults and young people, sharing the same experience.” Beasty Baby has only one requirement of its audiences; the play “reflects on the first three years of life and therefore you need to have experienced that in order to enjoy it.” If they pass that test, “audiences can expect to see their own experiences reflected on stage; whether they are a child, have a child or have been a child. It will ignite memories of those formative years when you feel nurtured and protected and when life can be full of joy and chaos. Audiences will feel like they’ve had time to play, had a lovely cuddle and will leave feeling warm and wrapped up for the winter season.”
Beasty Baby is showing at Polka Theatre 14th Oct – 3rd Jan.