Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance | Theatre for (Very) Young Audiences

In an Edinburgh theatre, a small audience sits entranced while a young man juggles with balls. The audience watch transfixed and laugh. Some reach out as if wanting to touch the spheres that spin through the air, rising and falling in streams.

This is Little Top, a show made by the renowned Scottish company Starcatchers, and what is unusual about it is that the majority of its audience is made up of babies. Unlike a traditional adult theatre audience, some of whom regularly nod off almost as soon as the curtain rises, not a single baby falls asleep during the show, which has been carefully made – with rigorous testing of its dramaturgy – for an audience aged between 0 and 18 months.

The babies, accompanied by parents and carers, are settled within the miniature, magical, fairy-lit version of a traditional big top. It’s fascinating to watch how their attention is held by the 40-minute show, the way they respond to it and each other, and the pleasure they take in the opportunity to play with the equipment alongside the performers for 20 minutes afterwards.

Theatre-makers often talk about theatre as being a form of playing (a play is called a play for good reason). The genuinely creative way that these tiny human beings engage with the performers makes you understand where that idea comes from. They follow, they mimic, and they create for themselves.

Some may frown at the concept of theatre made specially for an audience of babies – some barely out of the womb – but it is a growing part of British theatre for children, and in Scandinavia it is commonplace. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention Rights of the Child supports the right of all children to participate in cultural and artistic life, and nowhere does it say that applies only to the over-fives and not every child, whatever their age.

Neuroscience has demonstrated that the things that happen to us in the first three years of life change the brain and its pathways, for good or ill. Visual and aural stimulation, and cultural and aesthetic experiences in general, can have as positive an effect on babies as a great night out at the theatre can have on an adult audience. Last year a group of 27 NHS organisations in Cheshire and Merseyside committed to offering the arts on prescription, with a particular emphasis on new mothers and babies.

Starcatchers’ Little Top, a first circus experience for babies, is but one of an increasing number of superb quality shows made for the very young. They range from Sarah Argent’s Baby Show to Scottish Opera’s BambinO, an opera for babies directed by Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre, who is as happy creating for six-month-olds as he is directing Philip Glass at the ENO and New York Metropolitan Opera for adult audiences. He is not alone. War Horse co-director Tom Morris made Oogly Boogly, an improvised piece for babies. Artists are starting to realise that they can learn and stretch their creative muscles by working for the very young.

Making theatre for a non-verbal audience who also experience narrative in a different way and who may not want to sit still for very long (and who have absolutely no idea what a fourth wall is) can be both liberating and challenging for theatre-makers. It is no surprise that some of the most ground-breaking British theatre practice of the last 20 years has come from companies such as Theatre-Rites and Oily Cart, working with the very young and – in the case of the latter – also with children with complex disabilities.

The resulting theatre is often boundary-breaking and multi-sensory. Oily Cart was creating shows with immersive environments long before Punchdrunk came along. Oily Cart audiences have never been passive spectators; they have always been full participants. Shows for babies demand that theatre-makers rethink the boundaries between watching and doing, and really think about and take care of their audience.

That’s true of Starcatchers’ Little Top, and work by Anna Newell, whose shows include I AM BABA for the Northern Irish company Replay, which has toured to South Africa and the US, and Lullabub with Theatre Hullabaloo. These companies and theatre-makers are posing questions around theatrical form; about how the rules of spectatorial engagement can be bent and transformed; how the work can be truly audience-centred, and how narrative is or isn’t used. These shows may not often have traditional plots, but the best always have very rigorous dramaturgy. They also tend to have a distinct aesthetic and include sensory elements.

Of course, this work is not cheap to make or to distribute (not least because audiences tend to be kept small for greater interaction and engagement, and tickets need to be affordable). But it is important because it stakes a claim for the very young’s entitlement to have the very best theatre available to them right from the very start of their lives.

Childhood is not a waiting room where you exist before you become an adult and can claim a cultural life for yourself. Children are often left out of theatre’s debate about diversity and how it can open up to serve a wider audience. Children need access to high-quality theatre at all stages of their development. A theatre culture which recognises that is one that is willing to serve all, whatever their age.