Theatre for the Very, Very Young

I’ve come to Toronto this fall to work with Theatre Direct Canada as an Associate Artist on Special Initiatives. It’s a position made possible through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program, funded by the Ontario Arts Council. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some professional development and be mentored by Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct. Theatre Direct has been developing new and engaging theatre for children and youth for 37 years. They are leaders in the field of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and their award winning work has influenced the development of TYA in Canada.

Theatre DirectFive years ago, Theatre Direct entered into an exciting new phase of their existence, partnering with Artscape to work out of the Wychwood Barns (St. Clair West and Christie). http://torontoartscape.org/artscape-wychwood-barns The Artscape Wychwood Barns is an exciting project in and of itself. Formerly a repair facility for streetcars, the Barns have been renovated to house various artists and arts groups. The Stop, a food centre that works with the community to provide garden spaces and food education, uses one side of the Barns as a greenhouse.

Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree
Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree

There’s also a fabulous market at the Barns every Saturday.

Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns
Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns. Even cloudy days are wonderful food adventures

Theatre Direct has an office, studio and a 100-seat theatre in the Barns. In the five years that they’ve been in this space they have actively worked with the neighbourhood to bring thousands of children to their theatre. They also run projects throughout the city, engaging children of all ages in a variety of drama activities and working with artist/educators to bring drama into schools.

I’ve arrived at Theatre Direct just in time to help welcome visiting artist Rhona Matheson, from Scotland. Rhona is the head of Starcatchers, an Edinburgh based organization that specializes in theatre for children 0 – 5 years old. http://www.starcatchers.org.uk

Yes, that’s right. Theatre for infants and toddlers.

“Early Years” is defined in Ontario as birth to six, and in Scotland as pre-birth to seven years old. 90% of a child’s brain is developed in the first three years, and with this in mind, Starcatchers focuses on theatre for the very, very young. Actually, they start with pre-birth theatre projects, working with expectant mothers on creative engagement. “If a mother is creatively involved she will be less stressed. That means the baby in her womb will be less stressed. So already the baby is benefitting from the arts,” says Rhona with her broad smile.

The Scottish government has stated an aim to be the “best place to grow up. A nation which values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all of our children and young people…” The Play Strategy for Scotland is based on cutting edge research on the importance of play for the developing brain.

“Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.” (from “Play for a Change” by Stuart Lester & Wendy Russel, 2008)

“Play” is considered a basic human right, as is the right to enjoy art. Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states:

Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

Starcatchers works from that basic right, the right to play and to enjoy artistic activities. In fact, who better than artists to create inspiring works that use play? And with 700 new neural connections being built per second in the first year of life, offering artistic experiences for babies has become a mission for Rhona.

Theatre for babies and toddlers is not just for the children. Early Years theatre is, by its very nature, holistic – babies, caregivers, grandparents, teachers, childcare professionals, family and friends enjoy it all at the same time. Starcatchers has done extensive documentation of their innovative performances, showing that these experiences strengthen the bond between caregivers and children, encourage social development and enhance the quality of peer and sibling relationships. So when Rhona’s artists create a piece, it has to be something that appeals, quite literally, to all ages.

The Starcatchers work exhibits a stunning level of artistry. During her visit, Rhona showed us videos of work that included The Incredible Swimming Choir, who sang in a swimming pool as they moved amongst infants and toddlers held in the water by caregivers. In Baby Chill, babies, toddlers and carers moved in a soft pillowy world, their eyes following hanging shapes and gentle movements. In Oopsa Daisy, three ballerinas danced and sang their love of their daisies, surrounded by wide-eyed toddlers. It is inspiring work. http://vimeo.com/user6724872/videos

It is exciting for me to be at Theatre Direct during this time as they are working on developing their own work for this age group. Next year, Theatre Direct is hosting the first festival of work for the very young in English Canada, The Wee Festival. It promises to be a joyful and playful time for all.

Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns
Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her new book, The Pact, (Red Deer Press) was released in the fall of 2016. It has been listed on the 2017 USBBY OUTSTANDING INTERNATIONAL BOOKS LIST; selected for the 2017 ILA YOUNG ADULTS’ READERS CHOICES LIST; Nominated for 2017 SNOW WILLOW AWARD; and listed in the CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS & TEENS, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/

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