Ensuring theatre for families is reflective of society

What do we need to put in place to ensure theatre for children, young people and families is reflective of the society we live in today? Bhavik Parmer, Education Officer at Birmingham Repertory Theatre and TYE Bursary Artist, shares his experience of three theatre performances for babies and their families during his visit to ASSITEJ (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) Cradle of Creativity 2017 in Cape Town.

As one of 6 research artists attending Cradle of Creativity 2017, I wanted to find work that focused on parental participation in theatre, and was able to attend three pieces that involved physical participation from babies and their family members. Taking your child to the theatre at any age will of course bring different experiences, but it was only during my trip that I realised that one of the most meaningful times for a child to experience theatre is as a baby.

Sparrow by Teatre Fot directed by Lise Hovik
Sparrow by Teatre Fot directed by Lise Hovik

How often do we pull faces in front of babies to calm them, to make them laugh, to stop them from crying, to interact with them? If a baby has the ability to react and respond to characters we put on, then theatre is surely something they can enjoy, process, and respond to. The first piece, Teatre Fot’s Sparrow, provoked the following response from a parent who watched the performance with her baby:

“I loved it, this is what the magic of childhood is about, you know they are just so saturated with the same Disney shows and technology, – this is what the magic of childhood is about, I loved how it was about curiosity and music, sounds and movement, my child was entranced”

Being born into a traditional Indian family, I was raised with the expectation of becoming a doctor, lawyer, engineer or businessman. My parents only saw theatre as a hobby at best, they failed to see how it allows children and young people to communicate, share ideas, create, build confidence, perform and more. Sparrow was a great example of how through actively taking part in performances with your child you are more likely to see how theatre can entertain, educate and empower. It is this deeper understanding of the power of the arts that will mean parents and carers are likely to encourage and enable their child’s future participation.

Connecting as a family

When can going to the theatre with your child have the most impact? When they grow you are able to have conversations about what you have just watched on stage, but being able to see your child non-verbally communicate the journey they are going on is just as valid. Parents attending Sparrow, Scoop and Sensescapes commented on how they saw their children interact and behave in ways they had not seen before – captivated with the use of song, sound, instruments, performance, traditional singing and more. They were just as curious to listen and be attentive to the performance as they were to play with the objects used.

Scoop - Kitchen Play for Carers and Babies performed by Magnet Theatre, directed by Koleka Putuma
Scoop – Kitchen Play for Carers and Babies performed by Magnet Theatre, directed by Koleka Putuma

Whilst in Cape Town I conducted interviews with parents before and after each show, many of whom had not attended a theatre show with their child before. Many found the shows very experiential, commenting about how they felt connected to their children in a new way. Each sensory aspect of performance contributed towards allowing children to be stimulated with emotions and thoughts, interacting with objects and the space in a creative and playful manner. The music created an atmosphere where the children felt safe, the moment the lights turned slightly darker or the music changed, the children would notice and react in different ways. The performances let children experience risk, fear, interaction and play.

Parental participation in BAME led performances

The performance that did the most for me was Magnet Theatre’s Scoop. Using everyday household objects Scoop used traditional African folk songs, live music, sounds made using the body and sensory props to take babies through the evening journey of having dinner and going to bed after a long day of playing. Once the performance was over the actors spent time letting children play with all the props that were used in the performance. For me this use of traditional instruments and songs really connected with the parents but also with the babies. Their eyes were fixated on what was going on, the singing was so melodic and set the audience in a peaceful trance. You walked out feeling happy and smiling, and the children loved it. It was the perfect bedtime story.

Seeing these shows made me realise ‘Scoop’ really connected with its audience because of the value culture and tradition played in their performance.  From my experience, parents often want to teach their children about their heritage and culture and theatre is a pathway for that.

Sensescapes - An installation for babies Choreographed by Dalija Acin Thelander
Sensescapes – An installation for babies Choreographed by Dalija Acin Thelander

The downfall of my research during the festival was the lack of diversity in the people I spoke to in terms of theatre background, with the majority of my interviewees being with people within the theatre industry who already thought about the early theatre experiences that their children had. I currently work as an Education Officer fro the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in which I travel to schools, deliver drama projects and direct youth theatre productions. When I returned to the UK, I decided to ask one question to three of my Year 6 classes at Nansen Primary School, which is a school in Alum Rock where majority of the children are from an Islamic faith and of Pakistani heritage. I asked my three classes, totalling just fewer than 90 children, how many of them had visited the theatre with their parents; of which only 8 kids said yes. I believe that the reason for this is because the parents in those communities were like my parents; they don’t see the importance of theatre and its value.

The society we live in today is rich with families from various backgrounds. If we want our theatre’s to be reflective of them, we need to be recruiting staff and actors from those backgrounds. We are already working on performances and projects that tell stories from those cultures, and using visual and audial aesthetics that relate to those cultures. But so much more can and should be done to enable all families to connect with theatre.


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22 August 2017