Baby science: Making a theatrical debut

AddymanCasparDr. Caspar Addyman is a Psychology Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his research is with babies. He has investigated how we acquire our first concepts, the statistical processes that help us get started with learning language and where our sense of time comes from. Before moving to Goldsmiths, he spent 10 years working in Birkbeck Babylab. Here he talks about a recent collaboration with the Polka Theatre. 

Imagine for a moment that you wanted create a piece of theatre to entertain babies or a scientific experiment to test their understanding, how would you go about it? In this article I will give you a handy six step recipe that will help you get started in either situation. And along the way I hope to persuade you why these are both such worthwhile and important undertakings. The surprising thing is that the process is very similar. Despite 10 years of experience running experiments with babies I only discovered this myself very recently.

Over last few months myself and colleagues from Birkbeck Babylab  have been collaborating with the creative team at Polka Theatre. The goal has been to make a piece of theatre for 6 to 18 month old infants based on our research as part of Polka’s upcoming Brain Waves festival (21 Sept – 2 Oct 2016). Brain Waves is a two week long festival of science and theatre that matches artists and neuroscientists to create new theatre productions for children. Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award the festival features four original works for a range of audiences between 6 months and 16 years old.

To create a show for babies, Polka turned to Sarah Argent, a very experienced theatre director, who in recent years has specialised in creating works for babies and toddlers. In February, Sarah came to Birkbeck Babylab and after speaking to a range of our colleagues she honed in me and my fellow baby scientists Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey. Rosy studies how we read the social movements of others. Sinead investigates rhythm and dance in babies and I study what makes babies laugh. Dancing babies, social babies, laughing babies. We could see how that makes a good start for a show. Sinead and I have also spent several years studying babies’ sense of time. We were curious how Sarah and her team would work with that.

In fact, at that first meeting, we were very curious about everything…

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Step zero: Why are we at the theatre?

Let’s take a step back, why would you want to create theatre for babies or try to run a psychology study with infant participants? Wouldn’t theatre for babies be limited? Wouldn’t experiments with adults give you clearer answers?

One important first principle that seems to be shared by baby psychologists and baby theatre makers is that we both treat babies as full citizens. Theatre for babies is not theatre for adults but smaller. And science for babies is not science for adults but simpler. Baby psychologists are not simply cataloguing when various abilities come online. For us, babyhood is not merely a way-station to something better. We care about what it is like to be a baby. We try to understand babies from the inside. In theatre for babies, the ambitions seem to be the same.

 

Step one: Why are we at the theatre, today?

Our lofty ambitions and elaborate theory won’t mean a thing to the babies.  To communicate with them we have to be concrete and we have to be focused. We must always start with a very specific question. To get answers from them we must present them with just one thing at a time.

Sarah’s previous show for babies, Scrunch, is a great example of this. It’s set at Christmas and it features just one actor (Sarah’s husband Kevin Lewis). It builds slowly and smoothly, transitioning from event to event at a pace that is often determined by the babies in the audience. Parents coming to our lab are often surprised by how short the actual experiments are. Their baby may spend as little as 3 or 4 minutes doing the task we set them. To get that exactly right, you need to deeply about your goals before you set off. You must consider lots of possible options to find the best way to ask your question.

I think this is somewhere that baby science can learn from baby theatre. In my experience people in science are impatient problem solvers. You start telling them about something and they leap ahead of you second guessing outcomes and jumping to conclusions  The tempo seems very different in theatre. Our first full day of collaboration at Polka, the whole creative team assembled with Rosy, Sinead and I to discuss our work and there was no rush. People work in theatre are a good audience. They really do listen. They absorb, then they ask great questions.

 

Step two: Who is our audience?

A six month old is a very different person from a sixteen month old. A hungry baby is different person from the same baby after a good meal. An overtired toddler can have a lot of angry energy. We have to work with this not against it.

We never expect any given baby to “pass or fail” and results are based on the group not the individual because we might not get a baby at their best. For similar reasons, we rarely attempt to track the development of babies over time, preferring to test a group of 6 month olds and compare them to different groups of 4 or 8 month olds.

We try to make our tasks work with a wide age range. But often babies have other ideas. Sinead and I tried to teach babies about time by playing a game. Seven times in a row, Sinead would lift the babies’ hands every 4 seconds. On the eight time, she’d sit there and see if they babies anticipated. Four, 6 & 8 month olds played the game happily. You can see a video of this here .  But from 10 months and up, babies refused to even let us hold their hands. For them a different game would be required. In baby theatre, there isn’t the luxury of having a narrow age range. The show must have broad appeal.

Babies are fantastic participants for psychological studies because they are both open-minded and honest. They will consider anything we present them with but they won’t hold back their opinions. Translating this to theatre this makes them challenge but rewarding audience.  

 

Step three: The story

I read somewhere that good storytelling is about being simple, truthful, emotional, real and relevant. This would make for a good infant experiment too. An ideal for infant scientists would be to observe babies solving problems in their everyday lives. We can rarely do this but our lab must recreate as much of a natural situation as possible.

And it must be engaging. Infant attention is a precious commodity. After a few minutes in one situation their attention will wander. Everything is interesting to a baby. I’ve lost count of the number of times a baby has found his or her socks more interesting than my experiment. I am very envious when I see Sarah’s shows keeping babies entranced for 20 minutes or more. If I can learn some of her tricks this collaboration will have been invaluable to me.

The final rule is “show, don’t tell.” With preverbal infants, this goes without saying.

 

Step four: Rehearsal

Despite all the handy rules of step three, the mantra for step four is “Easier said than done.” Nothing will work quite as you expect and solving problems is the order of the day. Early rehearsals (or piloting as we call it) are where the real creativity happens

Sarah very wisely invites some babies to those early meetings because as we know well from our babylab, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In one experiment we had a ball on a stick that swung round for the babies to grab. They greatly enjoyed it. The trouble was they wouldn’t let go. It took a great deal of practice to learn how to distract the babies in just the right way it that wouldn’t provoke a rebellion.

When you get to the actual performance so much is happening at once that you need to have had extensive practice. Technical and dress rehearsal are invaluable in baby science too. In our studies there is often someone hiding behind a curtain jingling bells to get babies looking in the right direction madly pressing buttons to make teddy bears pop up on screen at just the right time and to ensure all the data gets recorded.

 

Step five: Showtime

In a recent ‘manifesto’ on theatre for children   Purni Morrell declared that “Art has to start from a shared position of ignorance.” This holds true for science too. You can’t make up your mind in advance. Or what would be the point?

And this all goes double when you are working with babies. Babies are enigmatic. If you think you know what baby is thinking you are probably wrong. Until we are there on the day with the babies we can’t know what will happen.

I do know that I am really looking forward to the premiere of Shake, Rattle and Roll .


The Festival is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.

Brain Waves: Shake, Rattle and Roll, A Polka Theatre Production, runs at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon. Times vary. Tickets: £12.50 / Concessions and previews £9.00.

Tickets are available from the Polka Theatre website and by calling 020 8543 4888.

Caspar Addyman takes further baby steps on Twitter: @czzpr.

 

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