Interview: Beccy Smith on motherhood, theatre-making & Twinkle Twinkle

Twinkle Twinkle, a sparkly new show for babies and toddlers, opened at the Little Angel Theatre. It’s a production infused with luscious lullabies, a lovable puppet protagonist (Marty the dog), and a genuine sense of adventure and wonder. Liat Rosenthal caught up with its Director, Beccy Smith, to natter puppetry, babies, motherhood and theatre-making.

Twinkle Twinkle – what’s it all about?

It’s about the ways love illuminates toddlers’ worlds. It’s also about patterns and melody and the security these structures can create. The show began as a desire to make something music-led for very young audiences – music has always played a massive part in the puppetry work we make and we were curious about exploring combinations of music, colour and light to create quite a synesthetic experience.  But we love stories as much as music and as the work evolved we realised that it was the emotional connection with music that was most interesting to us.

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Photo: Rosie Powell

Making a show for babies sounds both fun and challenging – what was it like?

It is a whole different language you are working in – their needs, interests and focus are radically different to older, fully verbal children – and that’s very exciting, if terrifying.  You will know if they’re not being entertained!  We brought in baby theatre director Anna Newell to share her expertise in making work for these audiences, to help us make sure we were making something that would appeal to different babies and not just our own. It’s been brilliant to bring together our puppetry and visual theatre perspective with her baby-led vision, as it’s felt like it’s opened some new doors for all of us.  Anna’s helped to us to see theatre through a small person’s eyes – the carefulness and rhythms that are needed, and the unexpected things babies find interesting in performance! Together we’ve explored how really good puppetry holds an absolute magic for the very young: there is complete buy-in to the illusion as well as total joy that the grown up puppeteer is there too. It’s baby logic and really intriguing – we’d definitely like to go further exploring work with these audiences.

Has your theatre-making practice changed since becoming a mother?

The main thing that’s changed is that I can’t work the sort of super-plus-full-time I used to anymore.  As an industry we do have some challenges to overcome in supporting working parents but I’m very lucky as a lead artist as I can devise the working model. Becoming a mum has definitely made me feel greater confidence in the work I make for children.  It’s also made me feel a lot gobbier about the sort of work I want to see being made. I think the one quality that marks out really special art for children is emotional authenticity – kids need that and have a nose for it.  Keeping it emotionally real in the moment with our puppetry means we can go to some darker places in the show – we made some very clear choices about certain ingredients in what we are making. We knew we wanted to portray a father-child experience as men are so underrepresented in early years theatre (and indeed in all early years settings), and we knew we wanted to have some moments of real sadness that Marty has to work through. These are difficult feelings, but I’m a strong believer in theatre’s power to model for young audiences.  Marty finds his way through and we hope this is something families can take-away from the show too.

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Photo: Rosie Powell

Any top tips for making baby theatre?  

  1. Keep it small – small actions and small objects can sustain huge interest and have the added bonus of not feeling intimidating. It’s baby-scale.
  2. Find the rhythm – there is a pure joy in recognition, repetition and, of course, surprises.
  3. Always keep your audience in mind.  This one’s for all theatre-making really, but in baby theatre there can never be a fourth wall. Sadly, they’ve not read Stanislavski yet, so as they’re right there in the room with you – you need to constantly include them.
  4. Be real.  The small child’s food is love, and if you make work from the heart it’ll resonate whatever your age.

What’s next?

Next up, we’ll be exploring how to tour with a toddler.  What could go wrong?!  I think we’ll make more early years work. It’s been such a challenge and such a privilege really, developing the show with artists and toddlers over the past year, and I definitely think we’ve got at least one more round of great toddler surprises in us.  Watch this space!

Beccy Smith is Co-Director of TouchedTheatre and is also a freelance dramaturg, writer and producer.

Liat Rosenthal is a Creative Producer at Tate Modern and does other stuff here: www.liatandco.com

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