Full disclosure: Ellison Tan, who co-created this immersive theatrical production for pre-walking babies, is a friend of mine – she invited me to watch this performance at the Artground on December 22.
The Artground, a new multi-disciplinary arts and play space for children under 12, opened in July this year. It's run by a new company, The Ground Co Ltd, in collaboration with the National Arts Council; The Ground is headed by Luanne Poh, formerly a producer with the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay who's been especially involved in programming for young children. The Esplanade's popular Playtime! series, for instance, caters to toddlers and children aged two to four. I remember having a long conversation with Luanne a few years ago about the need for performances that focus on narrower age ranges: 18-24 months, for instance, instead of ones targeted at, say, five to twelve-year-olds that will almost inevitably bore or elude some portion of that demographic because of their widely differing developmental milestones.
Ellison and Myra met in April to begin work on You Can Reach the Sky. They had worked on several Playtime! shows together and had wanted to create a show specifically for babies for some time. By August they had embarked on a devising phase with the cast, bringing in an early childhood development specialist as a consultant, visiting infant care centres to get a sense of their audience and test out elements of the show, and experimenting on Ellison's young nephews to see what stuck and what didn't. Then they ran a couple of test shows in November to see what worked and what didn't. Here's my (adult) take on the experience.
Gurgling babies and their sets of parents are making themselves comfortable around a large mattress in the middle of the performance space. The centre of the room is heaped high with soft textiles, from bubble wrap to a collapsible play tunnel. It feels like the magic hour in the womb of Artground's White Box, that brief dusky moment between day and night where setting sun bathes the landscape in purples and oranges. Together with about ten pairs of parents and their infants, we've ducked out of the harsh afternoon sun for a half-hour of magical, suspended time.
As each baby-in-arms enters the space, they're inducted into the experience by the three performers, all dressed and made-up uniformly in dungarees and neat braids. The performers never loom over the tiny children; they approach them on hands and knees, mimicking the body language of each child – some shyer, others vocal and gregarious. Each baby gets a one-on-one introduction to the performance team to ease them into the space and the unfamiliar people in it. There's been a recent push in Singapore for more sensory-friendly and relaxed performances for very young children or for children on the autism spectrum who may not cope well with over-stimulation, and You Can Reach the Sky's gentle pre-show feels as crucial to the experience as the performance itself. The babies who were well-acquainted with the environment and performers prior to the main event always seemed relaxed and comfortable in the space, and more willing to explore; a child whose parents arrived late, about halfway through the piece, was nervous and fussy for a few minutes before eventually settling in, lulled by the music and coloured lights.
It quickly becomes clear to me that You Can Reach the Sky focuses on building fine motor skills – reaching, grasping – as well as gaze guiding, with parents encouraging their children to follow the dramatic imagery around the studio. There's a loose arc to the six segments of the 30-minute production, starting off with gentler visual and aural stimuli – a folded accordion of rustling paper – before steeping the babies in more percussive rhythms and brighter lights. There's infectious live music courtesy of collaborative team Stan x Soap, who have also created lush soundscapes for the Esplanade's Playtime! series. The performers alternate between climactic moments of action – waving swathes of glittering cloth over the heads of their teeny audience members like a large passing cloud or ocean wave – and intimate exchanges – handing incandescent lamps wrapped in soft white cloth to their young charges to hold.
But it isn't all about holding on; parents are encouraged to let go, and let their children venture into the world of the theatre. Because the babies share the staging area with the performers, they are immediately part of the action, and eventually some of the bolder, more mobile infants begin crawling around the mattress, approaching their peers, vocalising, and observing them keenly. This participatory, social element is another cornerstone of the immersive production, with parents reminded to put their smartphones aside and be in the moment with their children.
You Can Reach the Sky heightens that sense of communality about the theatre I've always loved, when you can feel the audience member and stranger next to you stiffen, gasp, giggle or sniffle and revel in that shared experience. Too often as adult theatre spectators we modulate our responses to those around us and question the responses expected of us; there is none of that here, with the babies free to turn their gaze to whatever engages them, even if it isn't the performers but their fellow audience members. It's a beautiful, profound experience, and one that infant amnesia will chip away at but also completely preserve, uncorrupted by the process of memory recall and retrieval that contaminates all adult memory. You Can Reach the Sky is a work in progress – theatre for babies is a nascent movement here and Ellison and Myra had little local work to go on in their research and development – but it feels like a confident first step in the right direction.
- I highly recommend listening to this episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called 'The Personality Myth' that touches on infant amnesia and memory, and how the experiences and events that enter our lives before the ages of two and three are key to our development.
- Ellison and Myra are planning to bring You Can Reach the Sky to various communities and are looking at how to make the show as mobile as possible. Follow their Facebook page for more updates.