Filled with Wonder: 5 Attributes of Quality Theatre for the Very Young

Posted by Lynne Kingsley, Mar 19, 2013 2 comments

Lynne Kingsley Lynne Kingsley

Picture it: you bring Tyler, a nine-month-old infant, to sit through a high-quality production of “James and the Giant Peach.” To expect the same deliciously wide-eyed and captivated response as his seven-year-old sister is nonsensical.

Would we say, then, that baby Tyler, in his most formative years, is not entitled to the same level of quality artistic experiences (and benefits that go along with them) as other members of his family simply because his intake mechanisms are less developed therefore more reliant on senses than words and linear thought?

It was only in the last 10 years did Theatre for the Very Young (TVY or Baby Theatre, or Theatre for Early Years) become a popular practice in the United States. Our comrades in Europe began researching and practicing this work roughly 25 years ago. And, I was surprised to learn from Manon van de Water’s book, Theatre, Youth and Culture: a Critical and Historical Exploration, that part of it was a response to a different perception of the very young as “human beings” and not “human becomings” who had the right to art and leisure as stipulated in the UNESCO Convention on the Rights of a Child.

Not only is experiencing arts a human right, but also it’s incredibly beneficial to them. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, dramatic play is important in helping young children express themselves and gain understanding of different societal roles.

Lev Vygotsky (1978), an educational and developmental psychologist, theorized that imaginative play and creative activities allowed very young children to stretch their capabilities and learn to further their understanding of the world. Specifically, sensory and tactile experiences are beneficial to young children and babies in helping them develop understanding of the world around them and of relationships with other human beings.

So, Tyler, this is not your older sister’s theatre.

Cutting edge TVY has some unique attributes, which clearly indicate that this work is targeted to the age and developmental capacities of its audience.

Here are five attributes you may find in quality Theatre for the Very Young:

  •  There will be no seats

Why would there be seats? Tyler doesn’t sit; he moves. Let him move. There’s no clear division between the actors and the audience. Oh, there probably won’t be a stage either.

  • There is no linear story

Why would there be? The audience can’t spell “cat,” why would they understand logical plots, linear thinking and timelines? Simple plots and minimal words will be the norm. It may be “an egg hatches,” or “girl loses dog and finds him.” That’s it. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them.

  • There will be lots of sensory stimulation

Interesting lighting to see, sounds and music to hear, objects and textures to touch and move. The tempo of the piece will meet the energy of the audience. You might draw similarities to visual theatre. Movements will seem to be amplified.

  • Young children will be serious, intense, focused

Sure, they’ll smile and enjoy themselves, but this play is serious to them. They will be bursting with wonder in their expressions. You might see Tyler (your fictional nine-month old) watching intently every second of the 30-minute show and freak out if someone comes in the way of his sight line and blocks his view of the action.

  • It will be participatory

Be prepared to move onto the performance space if you are accompanying a very young person (because they will). You might see them experimenting with various props and elements provided. It’s about addressing feelings in certain situations and seeing things in different ways.

Despite it’s young age (get it?), TVY has some serious trailblazers worth mentioning. Bethesda, MD’s Imagination Stage does incredible work with ages 1–5, as does Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis and the New Victory in Times Square brings in breathtaking TVY such as the UK’s Oily Cart. Check out this video with Oily Cart’s fabulous artistic director, Tim Webb:

Who else is doing cutting edge TVY? What other attributes might we expect? It’s moving so fast, where is this art form going?

2 responses for Filled with Wonder: 5 Attributes of Quality Theatre for the Very Young


March 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Thanks Cathlyn. Yes, I agree. The issue, of course, is presenting TVY requires a small audience (in terms of butts in seats) so many theaters cannot make the investment. It's really the cutting edge theaters that see the long term value in introducing live theatre to the very young that are making strides in this art form. Yes, I'm not surprised, Emerald City is dynamite!

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March 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm

It's surprising that in a culture where our kids are raised on interactive tv shows like Sesame Street, Dora, and Yo Gabba Gabba, that's it's taken this long for TVY. Here in Chicago, Emerald City Children's Theatre is renovating a space to specifically serve kids 0-4. Little ones can benefit from theatre just as much as their school-age counterparts, and it's great to see TVY profiled here. Thanks!

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