At the beginning of OTOYOTOY, an opera for babies which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2017, children and their parents enter an empty space, outlined by a circular pool of light on the floor. The children automatically enter the space and play in it. There are a couple of props and bits of fabric on the floor, which immediately become their toys. The event has begun, because the babies have arrived.
One of the challenges of creating a work for the youngest children is making space for them in the work itself. You cannot predict whether any given group of babies will be vocal or quiet, active or sleepy, jazzed or unfazed by what they encounter. It is different every time. If you create traditional singalong moments, you cannot rely on babies to join in the way older kids would. In short, you cannot predict what interactions might look like. So how do you prepare? How do you design a piece that creates the space for children to contribute but does not rely on them for specific outcomes?
Here are some things we have found. Pay attention to the arc of theatrical experience. Story and linear thinking can be part of what you do, but it is not necessary in creating a piece for this age group. But even if you deemphasize story, pay attention to the shape of the experience. It needs to be strong and clear. Does it follow the shape of day from sunup to sundown? Does it follow the shape of a journey from one place to another? Does it follow the experience of a dream? (In OTOYOTOY we do have a kind of a story about a group of imaginary birds who encounter a human who is the spirit of play. But it's a very loosely told tale, more emphasis on the encounter than on traditional dramatic conflict.)
Create opportunities for the audience to do things. In OTOYOTOY, at the climax of the event, our title character opens a bag and scatters hundreds of ping pong balls on the floor. It's a simple but powerful moment which makes an impressive sound and presents the audience with a question: what now? First, we take a moment to register the drama of what has just happened. Then we wait to see what the babies might do. Do they pick up a ball? Do they throw one? Do they watch to see what their mother does? Do they just watch the balls roll away? Then we pick up some empty cloth sacks and open them. And we wait. Invariably, the babies know exactly what to do. They begin to put the balls back into the sack. We do not tell them to; we do not make an announcement that we need help picking up the balls. In fact, as this is going on we do what you always do in an opera - we sing. Sometimes it happens right away and sometimes it takes longer, but it always happens. Along the way, the performers get to negotiate the ball clearing process with the children, and they can bring their characters into contact with the babies in unplanned, improvisational ways. Our imaginary bird characters are determined to clean up the space, and the spirit of play just wants to - you guessed it - play!
Design the experience with play styles in mind. Our librettist, Zoe Palmer, draws on the work of Colwyn Trevarthen (watch him here), a child psychologist, to design the arc of the event experience according to play schema. Some children love to throw things (trajectory), others love to wrap themselves in cloth (envelopment), others - as I do - love to spin (rotation). Zoe creates an architecture of play schema to ensure that children with different orientations to play will see themselves in the piece. They might enter into the piece by playing a game of catch with a ping pong ball or lie down under a swath of fabric. Or they might just watch. But the invitations are part of the design.
More findings in the next post.