(Above, the ball collecting moment from OTOYOTOY; photo credit: Deborah Cabaniss)
More findings, continued from Part I:
Include a mix of fixed and improvised musical structures. To allow for children's vocal contributions, you need moments when there is "space" or silence. You also need structures that will allow the performers to improvise based on what is happening in the room. In a recent performance, a young girl came into the circle with a series of non-verbal yelps and riffs, and Nick Demeris, who plays OTOYOTOY, entered into a call and response game with her. He had a musical and dramatic continuity he was trying to fulfill, but he was able to let it go and allow her to take center stage. I loved that moment. At the same time, we want moments where the music can take over and entrance. Here is FIREFLY from the end of the show. Give and take musical "room" in equal portions, keeping it relational all the time.
Let the sensory experience be your guide. Last year I was lucky enough to work on an opera for babies in Norway. The piece is called LULLA and is created and produced by dybwikdans, based in Stavanger. When I first arrived there in June of 2017, I was astonished to find that the set was complete. There was no libretto, no score, not even a sense of how the piece would unfold. But there was a very beautiful transparent tent and various tactile and sonic objects. There was already lighting and elements of the sound design. Siri Dybwik and Nils Fossdaal invested in the environment for the children first and trusted that the story and the music would follow. They were right, and you can see the fruits of their labors here.
Cool it with the jazz hands and find your zen. As entertainers and performers, we are used to investing in a role and using our considerable energies to engage our audiences. I attended a play (for adults) this week, and afterwards an actor talked about how hard he was trying to connect with an audience member who was clearly bored or sleepy. When performing with (not for) babies, it is the opposite. To create room for them, to achieve a platonic incompleteness, we have found we need to create an intentional mix of performance stances. Sometimes you can be eye to eye with a child, but too much is inhibiting. Children need their own space, too, so as performers we acknowledge it is not about how much they are paying attention to what we are doing. It is how much they are paying attention to what they are doing. That is a bigger shift than it might appear - much easier to say than to pull off.
As artists, we are generally trained to create "whole grain, organic" works that stand alone and fulfill an audience's expectations. In creating operas for babies, we aspire to the beauty of incompleteness.