Sarah Argent’s Luna was the second show I ever reviewed, and it set the tone for my expectations of children’s theatre. Every element was so carefully considered, and it displayed such a deep knowledge of its audience and what would engage and delight them: “effortless and gentle” I wrote, “this is children’s theatre at it’s very, very best.” I’ve followed Sarah’s work ever since: she is a prolific theatre maker, with her shows staged all over the world – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, India, Jordan, and South Korea.
Currently, two of Sarah’s productions are at the Unicorn Theatre in London Bridge: the long-running Baby Show, a sensory theatrical experience for very young audiences about getting ready to go outside, and Not Now, Bernard, an adaptation of David McKee’s iconic picturebook about a monster, a boy, and preoccupied parents…
Not Now, Bernard is one of my absolute favourite picturebooks and I am fascinated to hear what your creative process has been for bringing it to the stage.
Natalie Pryce, the designer, and I set ourselves the challenge of turning David McKee’s iconic images into a three-dimensional world inhabited by Bernard, his mother, his father, and – of course – the monster. Within the play, we recreate all of the images in the book bar one, albeit possibly some are seen from a different angle. We also decided to use every word in the book and only the words in the book. I am very conscious that many children in the audience can recite the text by heart, so I wanted us to remain true to that. We have, however, fleshed out some of the moments before and after the images in the book, and we have given life and focus to some of the toys and objects that you only see if you look very closely at the illustrations. Sound designer, Owen Crouch, introduced the idea of the monster having a penchant for classical music and we have had great fun together selecting tracks that he (and the audience) might enjoy. There is a retro feel to the music to which Bernard’s parents listen, and Owen has composed some original music that reflects Bernard’s emotional state, so I feel it’s a very interesting sonic world in which our version of the story takes place.
The thing I loved best about Not Now, Bernard when I was reading it as a child was its slightly dark, deliciously unsettling quality – I have seen it described as a cautionary tale of parental neglect and an exploration of childhood isolation. Like many of the best pieces of art for children, it holds the potential to entertain young people, and speak to their experience, whilst simultaneously making some of their grown-ups feel uncomfortable. Is this something you’ve been thinking about at all while making the production, particularly as it will play to both adults and children, and adults (as ticket buyers) are the ultimate gatekeepers to the experience?
Absolutely. I requested that the words “sometimes melancholic” were included in the copy as I wanted to explore the darker side of this story. We have tried not to shy away from Bernard’s sense of frustration at his parents’ lack of attention, we certainly haven’t shied away from the fact that Bernard is eaten by the monster and doesn’t return. A friend came to see it yesterday with her children – her daughter didn’t know the book and was rather shocked that the leading character gets eaten so early in the story … this did lead to much conversation later in the day about whether or not Bernard was actually eaten or consumed by monstrous feelings, she favoured the latter theory while her younger brother favoured a more literal interpretation – we’ve tried to be deliberately ambiguous about this point.
Having sold out several runs, your hugely successful production Baby Show is also playing at the Unicorn Theatre, returning throughout 2018/19. It’s an original, gentle, interactive piece, created for babies aged 6 – 18 months. Can you talk about what makes an engaging theatre experience for babies?
Baby Show – and the other work that I’ve made for babies (Out of the Blue, Scrunch, and Shake, Rattle and Roll) – is slightly different from some other work for babies in that it is what we describe as “A very small play for very small people”. Much theatre for babies is immersive and interactive (and much of this work is extremely beautiful), whereas the pieces I have made have all required the babies (and their grown-ups) to sit and watch a performer beyond a fourth wall – albeit a thin veneer of a fourth wall – which the performer breaches regularly throughout the performance with eye-contact, with “gifts” that are distributed to the audience, and (occasionally) a small, fast and very determined little one will breach the fourth wall in reverse and end up on stage!
What we’ve learnt engage audiences of babies are: the warm and direct engagement between performer and audience; a sensory landscape of sights and sounds; repetition; a demonstration of various concepts such as auditory responses (i.e. pressing or pulling something and it makes a sound), contingent responses (i.e the call and response/turn-taking that you observe between a parent and a baby) and the vestibular system (we’ve discovered that dropping paper and dropping baby wipes with an accompanying sound is comedy gold for babies!)
In the past I’ve experienced people questioning why you would take children, and particularly very young children who might not be able to remember or verbally respond, to the theatre. With all your research and experience, I’m really interested to hear your response to this.
Even pre-verbal audiences indicate their engagement with a piece of theatre through their wide and focused and mesmerised eyes, through their open mouths and their giggles and belly-laughs, through the waving of their hands and the bouncing of their bodies. We have no real way of knowing how much they will remember nor for how long, but we can readily observe their delight in the moment and, surely, this is a gift in and of itself.
You are one of the leading specialists in theatre for the very young. Where did your interest in early years theatre begin, and what is it about this area of work that you love so much?
At university (I studied Drama in Hull, graduating in 1988), I specialised in directing but I ended up getting ill at around the time of my finals and was diagnosed with glandular fever two days after graduation. After a period of recuperation, I got a job as Administrator of a new-writing company. I was then appointed Director of SNAYT, the Scottish National Association of Youth Theatres and this lead to me becoming the first Director of the Children’s Theatre Association (CTA) and the British Centre of ASSITEJ. I spent 6 1/2 years working for (and merging) the two organisations and, during that time, travelled extensively in the UK and beyond, seeing amazing and inspiring work for early years and setting up several events focusing on Theatre for the Very Young.
After years of supporting other people’s creativity, I returned to my great love, directing in 2001, and developed my first piece of work for early years for Theatr Iolo in 2002. This piece, Are We There Yet? toured to Imaginate and to festivals in Austria, Belgium, and Finland.
Jo Belloli, Associate Producer Early Years, awakened my interest in theatre for the very young. She has been an incredible colleague and mentor, supporting and challenging me in my work and encouraging me to research and then create Theatre for Babies.
It was only after I’d been specialising in theatre for the very young for a number of years that I recognised that I had become a complete hybrid of my dad (who was an actor, director, and then lecturer and subsequently head of various accredited drama schools) and my mum (who was a playgroup leader and then worked in a children’s home). Sadly, Mum died before she got an opportunity to see how I had managed to combine their individual interests and passions.
What I love about this work is the immediacy and the honesty of the response you get from your audience – from observing them and from the unfiltered comments they make during a performance. It is also a privilege and a responsibility knowing that you are often providing a child with their first-ever theatre experience. I also love the frequency with which a parent will comment that they have never seen their child sit so still for so long or a child will ask to see the performance again … and again. One little girl returned 5 times to see Seesaw at the Unicorn earlier this year – that’s the equivalent of a five-star review.
Do you have any advice for theatre makers looking to create theatre for young audiences?
Spend as much time as possible with those of the age of your audience: observing them, playing with them, talking with them – and then testing your material during the development of a production. In this way, you’ll know that you’re not making assumptions about what they can and can’t understand and what does and doesn’t engage them. They are a glorious audience and will let you know immediately through their body-language and observable level of engagement (even if they’re too young to tell you verbally) what they think of what you’re creating.
What are you working on next?
I’m spending July in Derby creating a new devised show for the under fives called Holiday about two characters who can’t go on holiday, but stay at home and travel beyond their four walls in their imaginations. It’s a verbatim-piece using quirky, surreal stories told to us by small children about beaches and crabs and mermaids and ice-creams. I’m really excited to be working at the wonderful Derby Theatre for the first time. Later in the year I will be reviving Luna which will be the Christmas show at The Hullabaloo in Darlington after a short tour, and back at the Unicorn as dramaturg on Filskit Theatre’s Huddle.
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