Dirliebane Theatre: Creating a Performance for Babies

27 March 2023

Fiona Ferrier, Co- artistic Director of Dirliebane Theatre Company, reflects on the past few months developing Sit, Stand, Lie, a performance for babies aged birth-12 months.

I’m Fiona Ferrier, co-Artistic Director of Dirliebane Theatre Company with Rachel Colles, and we have been developing a new performance piece for babies over the last three months with Starcatchers.

Our working title remains ‘Sit, Stand, Lie’ and our premise was exploring the transitions babies make from lying to sitting to standing, within the context of clown. We wanted to create a piece of theatre that not only reflected their movements, but also celebrated that not all babies develop at the same speed.

Thanks to the Play Fund, we had a short development period in April and May 2022, where we spent time with two baby groups watching and imitating the babies, using our extensive experience as clowns to make connections with them and to have ‘conversation’. In all our productions we start from a place that children and young people recognise, beginning with what they know (in this case their bodies) and then taking that on a clown journey, and our show for babies was not going to be different.

With our learning from last year, we began in January 2023 working with Feldenkrais Practitioner Tim Licata, exploring how babies’ bodies move. Our bodies definitely don’t quite move in the same way! We copied their moves, but we also focused a lot on the intention of the babies – why do they roll? Which part of the body leads the way? There is a video of Rachel and I trying desperately to do some baby moves while shouting about our newfound respect for babies. No wonder they sleep so much!

Through the following weeks we worked with musician Sue Appelbe. Our original development period included some strong dance music, and we wanted to continue with this. Sue has composed and recorded music and sounds to surprise and intrigue babies, switching between pre-recorded and live music.

We also worked with designer Katie Innes. Our memories of taking our own children to baby theatre included the discomfort of sitting on the floor, and we wanted to create a space where parents and carers could lean back on something soft while watching with their babies. Plus, our characters are almost alien like in their language and costume and so the beginnings of ideas centring around a space pod/nest fed into the design.

Clown director Suzie Ferguson worked with us over several days to develop our character and help put the clown into the piece. Who were we? Clowns? Aliens? People? Did it matter? As the flow of the performance came into being, we explored the body movements, the character differences, the vocalisations and purpose of these two beings.

Choreographer Jade Adamson (who was meant to be with us three days, but only managed two as her baby clearly wanted to come out early and be a part of it all!) worked with us on movement development. Rachel and I hadn’t worked with a choreographer before, and it was delightful to have her in the space exploring the moves and playfulness of them.

Our first work-in-progress performance included an audience of 11 babies and we learnt so much. This is why development periods are necessary and a joy. Those babies completely informed of us of what they did and didn’t like by their focus, movement and vocalisations. Some sections were too long, some we could have stretched longer, parts needed to be taken out, and we needed to work on what we were doing from the second the babies and carers entered the space.

By the second work-in-progress performance with 7 babies, we were able to focus on our characters and our interactions more clearly. Our costumes hit the mark – big silver puffer jackets and red boiler suits, red noses and mop slippers – lots of lovely textures and focal points. The music drew them in. The first time Sue played live cello, the focus of the babies noticeably went up a gear as they watched my character try to roll over to lie on my stomach. The characters were better established – the only words we were using were their names and our movements mirrored theirs.

Having the time and space to develop ‘Sit, Stand, Lie’ has been joyous. Each of the artists we have worked with has allowed time for ideas to percolate and grow, intertwining with each other to create this piece of theatre.