Child's play: Melbourne Fringe goes gaga over theatre for babies

Published by The Guardian, September 2017

The audience is invited to chew the scenery at this Fringe festival show. But attention spans might be a problem

Some theatre-goers dress to the nines; others prefer to keep it casual and comfortable. Sartorial choices in the crowd at Only a Year are no different. At the high fashion end, we have carefully coordinated outfits in trendy geometric prints; at the other, stripey onesies and swaddles.

We’re waiting for the theatre doors to open when one ticket holder spits up on his date’s leg, while her head is turned.

Theatre for babies – it’s a thing. Working from the theory that sensory stimulation promotes neural development, the interactive performances use sound, light and touch to capture the tiny audience’s attention and delight their senses.

The concept is still young in Australia – Only a Year is the only show at Melbourne Fringe festival’s comprehensive children’s program that’s specifically for infants – but it’s been gaining traction around the world for more than a decade. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre staged its first show for babies, Open House, in 2005; Irish performance maker Anna Newell, meanwhile, has been producing children’s theatre since 1989 and her Adventures for Babies has toured Australia, off-Broadway and South Africa, and Welsh company Theatr Iolo recently took its show, Out of the Blue, to babies and toddlers in Kolkata.

The first show for babies produced in Australia was This [Baby] Life in 2011-12, a dance work created by Adelaide performance maker Sally Chance. Another hugely popular show, Rain, was developed by The Seam and Drop Bear Theatre at ArtPlay in 2013, and was one of two shows specifically for babies at this year’s DreamBIG Children’s festival in Adelaide in May.

Plots tend to be simple and sets tactile, with lots of objects to grab and hold. And shows often sell out, proving parents are keen to give their offspring a first taste of theatre at an early age.

When it’s time to enter the space at Chunky Move studios, we follow a path lined with clothes pegs to a grassy circle beneath a washing line festooned with fairy lights. Nappy bags, harnesses and other parental accoutrements are thrown into laundry baskets, as mums and their bubs find seats on the floor. Two chime bars – single xylophone keys made of plastic – are waiting for each pair of chubby hands to grab and play with. Some little ones test them out with a plastic mallet, while one maestro gets far more pleasing results by simply mashing the instruments together.

After a pre-show spiel from director Sarah Austin granting the babies carte blanche to do whatever they want (short of gnawing on electrical cables), I’m hoping for a little bit of on-stage chaos – the audience has literally been invited to chew the scenery, after all. Instead, I’m surprised to watch the babies sit quietly and take everything in with rapt attention as the half-hour show unfolds.

In the middle of the circle, a forest sprite in a leotard begins to emerge from a white cocoon. An active crawler by the name of Gene assists, pulling the sheet away. One mum boops her baby’s nose to draw her attention to the action.

The sprite starts removing pegs from his clothing and pinning them to socks, hats and tops worn by the audience. It almost goes without saying that these pegs are a source of extreme fascination.

The show is structured loosely around the four seasons, representing the first year of a child’s life. The wind kicks up, blowing laundry on to tiny heads. Next, wide-eyed faces show surprise at being lightly sprinkled with rain. When the sprite starts banging a drum, one child cries for approximately one second and then abruptly stops.

Gene and his next door neighbour are by far the most active, wandering everywhere and banging on laundry baskets while their parents sheepishly scoop them up from centre stage. Directly opposite, two little tackers sit up in their mums’ laps, staring intently at the sprite’s every move. One has the yellow plastic mallet dangling from his mouth like a lollipop, completely forgotten. Voiceovers from grandparents telling tales of what raising a child was like in the old days elicit a few chuckles from parents.

A wave of restlessness washes over the room after about 25 minutes as the sprite gallops a peg horse around the circle. We’ve hit the baby-attention barrier. Not long after, the sprite grows wings and flies away, and those of us with hand-eye coordination applaud.

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