If you had visited the Young People’s Theatre website on February 4, 2019, you’d have found nine different shows on offer. YPT suggests an appropriate age or grade range for each show: The Code, for example, is recommended for “Grades 8–12 | Ages 13 & up”; The 26 Letter Dance is appropriate for “JK–Grade 5 | Ages 4–8”; and One Thing Leads to Another is “for ages 3–12 months.” Months.
And this isn’t a one-time thing. One Thing Leads to Another premiered at YPT in 2016 and this year, after a YPT remount, toured four Ontario cities, Montreal and Vancouver.
One Thing Leads to Another is credited as “A Collective Collaboration by Maja Ardal, Audrey Dwyer, Mary Francis Moore and Julia Tribe.” Maja is a friend and colleague, and a very talented theatre artist with a long history of significant contribution to theatre. Also, I should admit that I haven’t seen One Thing Leads to Another. But I’ve read a bunch of reviews, all very positive. According to Toronto’s Now magazine,
The room’s floor is covered with carpet, blankets, cushions and toys; the actors first greet the parents, grandparents and infants with hellos, smiles and peek-a-boo games. The show itself, about 20 minutes long, starts in black and white, with sounds and visual cues passed between actors and audience. Dancing, hand-holding and some simple three-note, wordless melodies are also part of the production, which moves into colour with the appearance of silk flags and ribbons, bubbles, bells, hoops and different sized balls. Pattern and play are key to the staging. A large piece of long blue silk envelops the audience and later becomes water, flowers grow and kitchen implements become a mini orchestra.1
Theatre for babies is not unique to Canada. An article in the April 20, 2016, issue of the New Yorker described a Northern Irish production, “billed as an ‘immersive theatre experience for babies,’” presented by New Victory Theatre in New York City:
Eight infants attended the 10 a.m. performance of “Babble,” which was staged within a blue geodesic dome … The audience, young and old, entered the dome, which was lit inside in a soothing twilight blue … Then four young women in white lace dresses – they looked like maidens from an Irish meadow – stood up: “‘Babble’ is an adventure that’s been made especially for your babies, and so however they want to experience it is absolutely fine.” The show lasted twenty minutes. For the finale, the dome was lit up like a twinkling galaxy of stars. “Fly, fly, fish, fly, fly, high!” the performers sang. The babies lay on their backs, blissing out. The adults seemed just as placid.2
According to Rob Weinert-Kendt in a 2010 American Theatre article, shows for babies “have been a staple of European and Australian theatre for two decades.”3 Linda Hartzell, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, says she saw “a stunning piece in Denmark in 1990. It was for 35 toddlers who came in in their little snowsuits; it was magical.” Tony Mack, an Australian artist, suggests, “Theatre for the very young may well be on the cutting edge of theatre practice, as it asks such basic questions as, ‘What is theatre?’ and ‘What is a human being?’” Kim Peter Kovac, director of youth and family programs at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, asks, “Can we create a dramaturgy for babies?”
It seems to me that baby theatre is in its infancy. Thus far, it’s been theatre for babies. What about theatre by babies? And most baby theatre is about nothing. According to the Toronto Star, actors in One Thing Leads to Another “blew bubbles, hummed, played peek-a-boo, waved colourful silks, and banged on pots and pans.”4 Next it’ll be baby talk. Why not scripts with a little muscle? Why not My Battle with the Bottle? Or Travelling down the Birth Canal: The Musical? Or I Nearly Got Aborted! Based on a True Story. Another thing: why aren’t babies writing the reviews? None of the reviews even quoted babies – everything was through the eyes of adults. “He loved it so much he pooped his pants,” said one mother.5 That’s just demeaning. I’ve had the same reaction to several plays, and not because I loved them.
In early 2018 Talk Is Free Theatre, based in Barrie, Ontario, promoted a show called The Curious Voyage:
Talk Is Free Theatre (TIFT) presents Canada’s largest ever, intercontinental immersive theatre experience with The Curious Voyage, running Oct. 23 to Nov. 10, 2018 in Barrie, Canada and London, England. Taking place over three days, the theatrical adventure will provide a unique, personal experience for every audience member, surprising them with curious artistic encounters as they inhabit new worlds in Barrie, Canada and London, England. The experience culminates in a site-specific mystery musical (a well-known Tony Award–winning work), a story that extends and reflects the journey of the previous three days. $1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals.6
I repeat: $1,950 each, not including flights and meals; $3,600 for two.
The Curious Voyage is the brainchild of Arkady Spivak, artistic director of TIFT. There were eight separate three-day performances, each with a capacity of 36. The play attracted a fair bit of coverage: two articles in the Toronto Star, CBC’s Q, a three-part review in a blog called The Slotkin Letter, businessinsider.com, the National Post, Time Out London. In an interview with Lori Wolf-Heffner, Mitchell Cushman, the Canadian who directed the mystery musical, explained the point of the exercise:
“I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says. “There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.7
According to Karen Fricker in the Toronto Star, the production cost $650,000, which came “almost entirely from government grants, and private and corporate fundraising; only 4 per cent comes from ticket sales.”8 The expenses included “some 52 flights” for the producers, creative team and performers.
In case you missed it the first time, the TIFT website informs us that The Curious Voyage will return:
On the heels of a triumphant premiere in London, UK, Talk Is Free Theatre’s The Curious Voyage, the innovative audience-specific immersive theatrical experience, will transfer to Toronto in spring 2020. The upcoming version of The Curious Voyage will offer two-day and one-day experience options created especially and uniquely for each individual patron, whereby who they are or what they each bring to the journey will influence the artistic outcome.9
We’re told that The Curious Voyage is made possible with the “generous support” of a few private sources and several government and quasi-government sources, including the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund, Bruce Grey Simcoe, Downtown Barrie, the City of Barrie, Tourism Simcoe County, County of Simcoe and the Ontario Arts Council.
But apparently there will be no remount of “Canada’s largest ever, intercontinental immersive theatre experience,” as this iteration of The Curious Voyage will be confined to this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Another item of interest: TIFT’s website informs us that this past January the company hosted the YPT production of One Thing Leads to Another.10
Back to the real question: Can we create a dramaturgy for babies?
I think we already have. In American Theatre, Weinert-Kendt tells us:
A few clear best practices have developed: Shows are staged in non-traditional spaces with cushions or blankets rather than proper theatre seats … Shows invariably begin with the performers already moving around the space and welcoming the audience. Official running times almost never exceed 45 minutes, though there’s often some time for unstructured play built in post-show, and cast sizes tend to be very small, not only for reasons of dollars-and-cents economy but because small children can only follow so many people at once. There are no sudden lighting changes.11
But can we create a dramaturgy for the 1 per cent?
I’m not sure. More experimentation is in order. Maybe Paris instead of London.
This is how some very bright and very talented professional theatre artists spend their time. And my peers on arts juries – i.e., other professional theatre artists – award them money for doing plays for babies and the superrich.
We artists like to claim that we are truth-tellers – “canaries in the coal mine.” Maybe that was true at one time. Today, artists might be ostriches in the coal mine; or maybe we’re not in the coal mine at all.
1 Jon Kaplan, One Thing Leads to Another: A fascinating show for infants demonstrates that theatre can appeal to the youngest audiences, Now, February 15, 2016.
2 Michael Schulman, Theatre for Babies, New Yorker, April 20, 2016.
3 Rob Weinert-Kendt, Baby Theatre Comes of Age, American Theatre, September 2010.
4 May Warren, Baby Theatre Delights Tiny Toronto Audience, Toronto Star, February 11, 2016.
6 Talk Is Free Theatre Presents The Curious Voyage – Oct 23–Nov 10, Toronto Now website.
7 Lori Wolf-Heffner, Mitchell Cushman is on a Curious Voyage, June 1, 2018.
8 Karen Fricker, On The Curious Voyage, Theatregoers Cross Continents for an Experience Without Boundary, Toronto Star, November 7, 2018.
9 Michele Newton, TIFT’s Immersive Theatrical Experience, The Curious Voyage, to Open in Toronto, Talk Is Free Theatre website, November 8, 2018.
10 One Thing Leads to Another, Talk Is Free Theatre website.
11 Weinert-Kendt, Baby Theatre Comes of Age.