January 2007 Scotland on Sunday

VANESSA Rigg has two children. Her daughter is two and her son is four. Young though he is, the boy is already too old to see his mum's latest show. Little Light has an upper age limit of three.

"When I tell people I'm creating theatre for babies, people do ask me why," she laughs in a rehearsal break at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre.

She and fellow actor Andy Manley are indeed unique in Scotland. Their Starcatchers project is a two-year experiment to see what theatre for the 0–3 age range might be. This week they open their first play, a simple tale about a day in the life of a little light who meets a moth, some birds, a dog and some fish until he encounters the moon and becomes a star. Next month, Manley appears in My House, a sensory solo show that'll culminate in a picnic. If you're still in nappies, you're their target market.

Although it's unusual for a children's company in Scotland to aim at so formative an audience, elsewhere in Europe it's become more common. Last year's Children's International Theatre Festival presented a French show called Scribble which the Scotsman described as "charming and thoughtful" and best for children "around the 18-24 month mark". Manley recently saw a show in Stockholm that lasted almost two hours yet managed to captivate an audience of between six and 12 months. "We went to a conference in Paris where they were talking about breast feeding and art," says Manley. "That was particularly bizarre."

Meanwhile, the English companies, Oily Cart and Theatre Lyngo are about to tour to Scotland with nursery-age shows and Starcatchers has organised an international symposium on the subject in February, inviting professionals and academics to discuss the issues that arise.

And there are issues. The work of Starcatchers is not unprecedented, but only when Rigg and Manley perform Little Light will they discover what, if anything, such young audiences are looking for. They've already learned a lot by visiting the local nursery in Muirhouse where they performed ten-minute extracts from the show. "We went to two different rooms, one with two-to-threes, the other with under-twos ," says Rigg. "I was most confident going into the older group and didn't know how it was going to be with the babies. So it really surprised us that the babies seemed to be mesmerised. The carers said they'd never seen them so still."



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Perhaps instead of asking why have theatre for babies, a better question is, "Why not?" Manley and Rigg have discovered such questions quickly lead on to a debate about the very purpose of creativity itself. No doubt the same discussion will emerge at their symposium.

The two actors, both of whom have extensive experience in children's theatre, are open minded about how young an audience could be. It's something they hope to find out in the coming months, but they can see no intrinsic obstacle to performing to a much younger age than convention dictates. "We don't definitely know the answer yet, but we hope the answer is yes, you can do it," says Rigg. "Supposedly even when you're pregnant, the music goes in, so why not? When they're born, when they're three months old, things will be sinking in somehow."

"Definitely a three-year-old can watch something and take a lot from it," says Manley. "So can a two-year-old? Yes, definitely. The same for 18 months. When you get down to one-year-olds, 85% of communication is not language based, but you can still do it. Six months? Yes. When you get down to three months, it's harder to say. I don't know the answer."

"It's going to be different for us as performers," admits Rigg. "There might well be some babies who are hungry and want to cry or who crawl onto the stage and touch things. We've created a space so that they can be part of the show. I find it really exciting."

But given that children already live in a world of imagination and discovery, is there any point in giving them the additional stimulation of theatre? Manley thinks there is: "Watching theatre is different to playing on your own. It's not just free play. There's a different energy and focus when you perform for a child. There's also the experience of watching something with an audience. We're allowing children and carers to share the enjoyment."

What they are certain about is their artistic standards. Performing to children should not be an easy option and, although Little Light is necessarily gentle, it steers clear of the clap-along school in favour of something more imaginative. "We've tried not to have happy-happy songs, partly to make it more interesting for us," says Rigg. "I'd enjoy the show if I was watching it, so hopefully other parents will as well. Everything has been carefully analysed and we’ve made sure the story really does make sense. We're not acting like it doesn't matter because they won't understand anyway."

Little Light, North Edinburgh Arts Centre, Jan 24–27 and Feb 22–24; My House, Feb 28–Mar 3

© Mark Fisher


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