I’ve got half an hour with Kate Cross, Director of the egg theatre in Bath. At first, thirty minutes seems long enough for a quick introduction to the venue and her work, but Kate’s thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, business-savvy but instinct-driven approach to theatre for young audiences is compelling, and I wish we had more time. As if reading my mind, Kate invites me to join her for the rest of the day’s activities. I originally came to the egg for a brief chat and to watch new play One Item Only: by the end of the day, I’ve also attended a picnic with Year 5 students, experienced Moonfish Theatre’s Pop Up Worlds, listened to Kate deliver a fascinating talk on audience participation and passivity, and taken part in a discussion with teachers and practitioners involved in the School Without Walls scheme. Though it’s only a small slice of the creative and artistic activity happening at the egg, it’s as satisfying as the homemade cakes in the theatre’s family-friendly café.
the egg’s name refers to the venue’s intimate, egg-shaped auditorium. Converted from an old cinema and church hall, the theatre was designed by Howarth Tompkins, who incorporated the input of local consultants aged 8-18, and opened in 2005; remarkably, it is the only purpose-built professional theatre for children outside of London. It is under the umbrella of, and mostly funded by, the Theatre Royal Bath, one of the oldest working theatres in the country. Kate was the Theatre Royal Bath’s Head of Education, before seguing into her directorship of the egg project towards the end of the 1990s.
Kate’s overview of the egg begins with School Without Walls: she explains that a cohort of children and their teachers from a local primary school have taken up a five week residency at the theatre. It is an “amazing creative learning project, which is all about being child-led and doing school differently… The children come here every day on the coach and they do all their learning under this roof, but also all across the city. We don’t know what that’s going to be from one day to the next, so we just completely break down the curriculum, put lots of provocations in their way, give them all sorts of stimuli, and have them working alongside adults who are at work rather than adults who are teachers.’ This radical experiment in education was originally a collaboration between the egg, Theatre Royal Bath, arts-based research organisation 5x5x5=creativity, and one local school back in 2012; it’s success meant further funding for following years, and in 2017 it has grown even more, to include schools and arts organisations across the county, and interest from around the UK. This scheme is why I spend my lunch break with a class of 10 year olds, eating pitta bread and vegetables whilst exploring some of the props from the show we’ve all just seen. With me for this are some of the other participants taking part in the project – head teachers, theatre makers, artists – who have gathered here from across the country to observe, reflect, and discuss the process.
It’s unsurprising that the egg was an initiator of this residency; compact but ambitious, the theatre isn’t afraid to test and trial new ideas, with much of this led by Kate herself. Take, for example, the Incubator, which was set up in 2013 as an in-house solution to the demand for high-quality work. “We’re not actually a producing house, we program work throughout the year so that there is a show on every week. But the supply of that product is fraught with difficulty – because children’s theatre is under-resourced, and sometimes it doesn’t attract the right kind of artist – and it’s an ongoing struggle. My aim is to make the work as absolutely brilliant as it possibly can be, and unless I can get my hands on the producing process then it might not be. So we set up the Incubator… we thought, let’s incubate some ideas, let’s work with artists, let’s create an ecology where artists want to come here to make work, where they love our building, but they also love the possibility that we have on a more national scale.”
The theatre has gone on to produce some of the work created as part of the Incubator, and though all these shows are very different, they are all innovative, original and ambitious. “We produced 16 Singers” – a theatre performance for very young children aged 0-18 months – “with Kitty Morley [theatremaker and doctoral candidate], which was a beautiful thing, though it nearly killed me. When you call a show 16 Singers, there’s a certain amount of hubris – it’s a big cast for a baby show – and I just couldn’t find a community choir for love nor money. But we got there.” The egg also produced a Kid Carpet show – “he’s a sort of punk rock musician theatre maker who makes what you might call anti-theatre; silly but with heart and integrity and his own style” – and a production with live artist Lucy Cassidy called Can You See Me, featuring two completely unscripted 7 year olds and one adult performer: “you never really knew what was going to happen, so we had that sense of collective possibility between the kids in the audience and the children on stage, and a sense of real danger too – not physical danger, but anticipation about what was going to happen next.” At the moment, Kate’s working with the Bureau of Silly Ideas, “which is a crazy, outdoor, provocative theatre company”. Strollercoaster, their new piece of “absolutely bonkers street theatre” for babies, is just about to start touring outdoor festivals and theatre foyers. “What you do is, you wheel your baby in their stroller into this box, and there’s all these beautiful graphic images that appear all around them, and all this beautiful music, and you can watch their expressions on a live feed screen that’s above it. Meanwhile, the parent has a massage and an alcoholic cocktail.”
Strollercoaster isn’t your average baby show: “often early years stuff is all very gentle and nice, but Strollercoaster is the complete opposite of that.” Kate Cross is not interested in children’s shows with “painted rosy cheeks… cracking fart jokes” – she is the antithesis to the stereotype of saccharine, silly and superficial children’s theatre. She’s not looking for plays that the audience will enjoy: “What does that mean? You’d enjoy a piece of chocolate cake at half the price, so I’m not altogether sure that ‘enjoy’ is what we’re setting out to do.” Her work, and the work she is interested in, is rigorously executed, unpatronising, unobvious, and experimental, pushing the boundaries rather than toeing the line; one of her biggest influences is “the European aesthetic, so I’m always interested in how we can emulate it.”
Another result of Kate’s persuasive and productive powers is the egg’s relationship with Bath Spa University: “I spent years cajoling them to set up an MA in Theatre for Young Audiences, and in the end they did.” Part of this financial and creative agreement is that MA students pitch their thesis pieces to be included in the egg’s annual showcase, performed to a crowd that includes venue programmers and artistic directors; only a maximum of two spots are up for grabs. It is this process that produced the play I see, One Item Only. Student Margarita Sidirokastriti had originally pitched a very different thesis project to the lecturers and to Kate, “and then the EU referendum happened. Margarita is Greek – she’s lived in England for about 17 years, but she’s Greek – and she woke up on that morning and just had a complete brainwave. She said to us, ‘this is what I want to do: I want to do a suitcase piece that can just go anywhere with me, and I want it to be about human migration, because this morning I’ve woken up and I’m Greek and I live in Bristol, but I don’t know what my home is, or where my home is’”. Encouraged by Kate and the MA team to pursue this concept for her thesis instead (“it just had such authenticity…such integrity”), Margarita “went and hid in a front room for three months and created One Item Only…We went and saw her do it and we just couldn’t believe what we’d seen, she’d gone and magic-ed up this nearly perfect little idea”. Needless to say, it was selected for the showcase, and the egg decided to produce it not long after. So far there have only been a handful of performances, “so it’s early days and we’re still tweaking it, but I think it’s a very special little piece.”
One Item Only is told using the small collection of objects one girl takes with her as she leaves her home to travel across deserts, mountains and seas, in the hope of finding refuge. With images of over-loaded boats, barbed border walls, and crowded refugee camps, One Item Only calls to mind recent events, whilst still managing a level of non-specificity and metaphor to make this a universal story that could apply to any number of periods in history – one boy asked after the show whether it was about World War II or Syria. It gives context to the current ‘crisis’; Kate is right, it reminds audiences that “human migration is something that happens, it’s always happened, and it will always happen”. With captivating storytelling, it depicts the tragedy that can surround these journeys, but focuses on the determination, decisiveness, resilience and bravery it takes to make them. Despite everything the girl encounters, the most repeated line is a gentle, hopeful battle-cry: ‘And she carried on walking’.
The day has been peppered with insights into Kate’s – and therefore the egg’s – clear, collaborative and considered ethos and vision. the egg supports artists’ learning but shies away from the word ‘training’ which “suggests that I’ve got a skill and I’m going to share it with you and that’s not the way we think here”. the egg draws inspiration from everywhere, not just from theatre specialists: a recent Incubator retreat involved pottery, paper costume-making, and an army assault course. the egg looks to researchers and academics to inform creative process and practice (Kitty Morley’s concept of the ‘golden thread’ of audience attention is mentioned several times). the egg tests unconventional ideas – Kate tells me about Drop and Shop, a scheme early on in the egg’s life which looked to alter children’s experience of theatre by removing adult intervention. Ultimately, the egg keeps asking questions, about what could be done differently, what could be tried next. An afternoon at the egg is a tantalising taster of a venue and a leader with a serious and sophisticated approach to theatre for young audiences, and I’m greedy for more. Kate mentioned a few times that she wants to write a book on children’s theatre: let’s hope she does.
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