Play is a serious business

4th April 2008 at 01:00
It is not often a cardboard box has three-year-olds rolling in the aisles. But this is no ordinary box, as Emma Seith finds out

One audience member refuses to watch and spends the duration of the performance with her head buried in her mum's shoulder. Rudy prefers standing on her mum's legs to sitting. Ben is very specific about where he wants to sit: on the red cushion. And Louise keeps everybody up-to-date with the action: "He's gone!" and "House!" being among the gems she chooses to share.

Performing for three to five-year-olds is like performing in front of a room full of drunks - albeit very, very small drunks, says Tony Reekie, director of the Edinburgh children's festival, Imaginate. But this - performing for under-3s - he says, is like performing for people on an acid trip. But, he adds, they are getting better at it: "When our festival started in 1990, work for very young children wasn't something there was a lot of.

"Travelling about, I started to see more and I was very sceptical: was it theatre or just a couple of people mucking about with sand? Then I saw some pieces that really worked."

Now, according to Mr Reekie, theatre for toddlers is getting a Scottish flavour, thanks to Starcatchers, based at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre. Set up in October 2006, and funded by NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Scottish Arts Council, Starcatchers develops theatre work and "all sorts of creativity" across different art forms for babies and young children.

The company began by engaging creative artists Andy Manley and Vanessa Rigg. Together they developed its first piece of theatre: Little Light, a mix of song, movement, shadow puppetry, fragrance and musical instruments.

Mr Manley, who has been working in young people's theatre or "taking play seriously" for the past 17 years, also developed My House, the half-hour performance the children are watching today. Suitable for children aged 18 months to three years, it took Mr Manley two months to create. From the outset, he knew he wanted to "do something with boxes", and after lying on the floor and drawing around himself, and wandering around the North Edinburgh Arts Centre with a melon pretending it was his friend, he came up with My House.

The play is billed as "experimenting with textures and sound". The set is simple - a cardboard box decorated with scribbles - and the script, which consists of two words: "my" and "house". But the box has hidden depths (flaps are lifted to expose different textures and unexpected layers), as does the action on stage.

The most popular part comes when Mr Manley discovers a curious small plastic knob on the wall of his house. After scrutinising it from a variety of angles, he plucks up the courage to give it a tug and discovers it is attached to a seemingly never-ending piece of string.

This is the point in the show when the hilarity frequently becomes too much for the young audience. "A few times they have belly-laughed beyond belief," he says. "I don't know what it is about it - it really doesn't matter - but it's the funniest thing they've seen."

Essentially, My House is a touching tale of friendship between a man and a melon. And the key to it is Mr Manley, his facial expressions and his interaction with the audience. It ends with him sharing a plate of melon slices with his friend, the melon.

Mr Reekie is a fan of the show, but this part he finds "deeply weird". The toddlers, however, are au fait with the concept of feeding melon to a melon and when they are invited on stage to share the meal, they dig in with gusto. Here the official play ends and the children's opportunity to play on the set with the melon and Mr Manley begins.

Now Italian tots have also experienced My House, or Mia Casa, when Starcatchers visited Bologna last month for the Visioni di Futuro, Visioni di Teatro Festival.

Mr Manley is working on a new performance - working title "The Floor" - with Rosie Gibson, who sculpts in cardboard. And creative artist Heather Fulton, who joined the company in October, is working in Edinburgh nurseries with a dancer, cellist and visual artist to create another performance, to launch in July.

In the autumn, Susan Young, of Exeter University, will publish her research into the project which is trying to understand the nature of under-3s engagement with theatre.

She says: "Theatre does seem to engage the babies, they really seem to be paying attention to what's happening. And it could have real benefits, giving them the ability to read emotion, to engage and communicate - the bedrock of all their other learning."

Dr Young warns, however, that theatre for young children must be available to all, not just middle-class families with the means and know-how to access it. "A challenge will be to make this theatre accessible to the full range of children," she says.

Maggie Kinloch, director of the school of drama at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama, also has concerns about the number of artists being taught the skills needed to put on theatre for babies. "What Andy does is rooted in play and that's why it's so beautiful, but the vast majority of actor training doesn't go into the world of the clown," says Professor Kinloch. "They are trained to put a wall between them and the audience and never relate. A clown knows there's an audience there."

However, the main concern for Starcatchers, according to project manager Rhona Matheson, is securing funding beyond the summer. Initially, they were funded as a two-year pilot, but she feels the demand is there to make Starcatchers a more permanent fixture. "We could work on a bigger scale, develop the model we have got and pilot new areas," she says.


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