Last week, we conducted an experiment: we brought four kids under the age of 5 into the rehearsal room for a 4 hour rehearsal.
Would it be possible to work as both artists and parents? Would allowing children into the room make it easier for the parent artists? For those artists who weren't parents, would the process be fulfilling or frustrating? Could the presence of children inform the work itself? What would we generate or discover together?
Here are the journal entries of some of our collaborators as we attempted to answer some of those questions. I'll be filling in some details with my director hat on throughout the post.
As director/facilitator, I had decided to make most of the activities child-centered, meaning that they could participate just as fully as adults. The intention was to try and remove some of the tension that might arise between keeping the kids engaged and getting our work done.
It's always fun to watch children at play (especially when I have no direct responsibility for their safety, cleanliness, or what they may break), and is indeed a mode we're trying to emulate whenever we're working on stage. When playing group games it was amazing to watch the kids realize they had some level of control over the action of the adults (or "adults" as the case may be) in the room. It was equally fascinating, if slightly disappointing, to watch them gather around the monitor of the video camera to see the live action via video.
Although I had previously worked with two children (aged 3-5) in a production of Medea, rehearsing with children in a devising process was a new experience for me. In Medea it was a very different wherein the kids were, not forced to grow up exactly, but were expected to behave like adults. Yesterday's experience allow the children to be children, to influence scheduling, to participate or sit out, or to do their own thing entirely. It was beautiful in so many ways but also created some new difficulties. I found myself and the entire room very distracted. I became more childish and indicative when perhaps I should have been moving more towards being child-like? (semantics maybe but it feels like an important distinction). This didn’t happen in Medea, I think because the adults were connected to the high stakes of the play. Yesterday for some reason, be it distraction, a sense of being overwhelmed, or that somehow we needed to “lighten” it for the kids we were not connected to the high stakes of the situation. My favorite moment was when after we had created our composition and sat down to discuss behind us Lila began to recreate it with full investment.
Part of our work entailed small group activities. There were three stations: map making, puppet making and noisemakers/rain sticks.
We had our first session with kids, which was very uncommon for me to work with. I found that interaction with kids requires a lot of energy for me, that was a bit frustrating . For example, one should always be aware of child's reaction, in order not to loose that momentum of communication or bonding. I find kids unpredictable in their actions and responses, as they got so easily distracted by a tiny detail in a game, atmosphere, setting. You have to genuinely enjoy that communication in order it to get the best experience out it. We all are kids, but for some reason we choose to forget about it!
Irina, in blue, at the mapmaking station with Isaac (13 months) and Isabel (19 months)
Midway through rehearsal, the parents took an extended break with the kids to give them lunch and take them for a walk outside. Meanwhile, the "child free" artists created a short composition about "Leaving and Returning" (I'm using the term "child free" as a temporary state here just to designate adults who did not bring a child with them to rehearsal). After one showing, we asked the children what they saw - Lila (age 4.5) seemed to pick up a great deal of the plot line, which was really encouraging to know how much had been communicated and will help us as we consider the age range for the show. I then invited the group to play "trading places" but only Lila took me up on the offer and she took over for one of the performers. Here's Michael's reflection about the experience of having a child be in the scene:
I think the most important thing we can learn in any work is truth. As we were returning to the island I wondered if the child had lost their adult. Then I felt I might have become her adult and maybe my physical movements weren't as truthful as they could have been. A real parent would've picked her up or offered.
Thinking about this moment more, as a mom and a director, it actually had raised the stakes of the scene quite a bit, where there was a lost little person in the middle of a frenzy of activity. Michael did, ultimately, become her guide through the scene.
Here are some great observations on how the children helped us tap into larger themes:
I'm still fascinated at how parents physically carry their children. It's so simple and practical that it really never needs to be further developed. I'm thinking specifically about Isreal carrying Isabel on his back and Mariah carrying Issac under her arm (football style). Even sitting on shoulders... this reminds me of being in swimming pools with my mom as a kid. It really got me thinking about how people have travelled / migrated / taken a journey with children in the past.
I love this photo of Lynde watching Sarah's puppet show with Lila (red dress) and Nora.
From Isreal (parent to Isabel, 19 months):
The rehearsal venue was beautiful and clean and I enjoyed the natural light. Though the window was covered by a translucent curtain, it was interesting to see the outside street and observe how Isabel and another young baby, Isaac, were drawn to looking out the window. It reminded me of how Island inhabitants may be fine with their isolated way of life but -in time- desire to know what lies beyond the eye's gaze. We began with musical dance/freeze game authored by Lila, which seem to get everyone's blood going and I saw that Isabel likes to run things in my house and in group settings. After seeing that the power was in a smartphone pushing out music, Isabel thought herself to be the DJ, often stopping and starting the selections and dancing the whole time. It was also interesting to see little Isaac stand still and observe in the middle of the circular pattern in which we found ourselves dancing. It was comical to see each child's reaction when the game shifted to a sort of follow the leader's movement. It spoke to how people react to receiving and KNOWING when they wield the power in a room or life. Much like Island culture when an inhabitant has a precious good or tool like a boat or a sea plane or building materials that withstands water. It brought me back to my own experience with Hurricane Katrina where people who has a surplus of gas charged $5 per gallon to refugees who were trying to flee. Some of the kids were very gracious with power.
Isreal and daughter with Brianna during the puppet show
The rehearsal did offer discoveries about what young children may or may not find captivating. Here's some of our young audience members helping out Sarah's puppets with paper boats:
I had all intents to keep a diary during the day. I managed one entry:
"9:07 AM: This is the moment when I think this is a terrible idea. The train is packed (end of rush hour); my stroller is laden with bags (snacks, props, misc). Nora is suddenly ultra-sensitive and must be near Lila at all times. I'm paranoid that someone's going to have to pee mid-trip."
Logistically, bringing my daughters to rehearsal did not make things easier for me. It made rehearsal possible, because I did not have a babysitter that day. But taking two kids and a stroller laden with rehearsal materials and kid stuff and snacks from Washington Heights to Brooklyn (1 hour and 2 trains each way) was pretty exhausting and unrealistic in terms of a frequent practice. But, it was fun to bring them into the process and for them to see firsthand what I do at rehearsal. It did feel nice to at least temporarily dissolve the wall between WORK and FAMILY.
As a director, I definitely found it challenging. My focus was going entirely to everyone else in the room to make sure that needs were being met and that everyone - children and artists - was feeling comfortable. As much as I wanted to dive into the composition that had been created and to start shaping it, by that point I was exhausted and also felt that the rehearsal room was lagging in energy. While we avoided kid and adult meltdowns (that's huge!) I did, in retrospect, acutely feel the lack of rigor in the rehearsal room. We placed the priority on the kids and artists having fun together; I do wonder if it's possible to cultivate more focus in the future. It was encouraging at the end of rehearsal, to gather in a circle as adults and have a de-brief conversation while the kids all for the most part played independently.
Overall, I think that the rehearsal was a success. We tested out different ways of being in rehearsal with children, we got some great indicators about what was engaging to the under 5 set and we started to articulate what we did and didn't want in the play. Oh, and one final thought:
From Lila (age 4.5):