Arts and Early Childhood: Theatres as microcosms of Western societies

5 May 2023

Emma Lamothe, Administrative manager at ACTA Compagnie, reflects on her recent visit to Almere, The Netherlands as part of the Erasmus Arts and Early Childhood project, and explores theatre as small- scale representation of our Western societies and the role of a spectator in collectively experiencing moments of poetry and contemplation.

ACTA Compagnie is one of Starcatchers project partners on the Erasmus: Arts and Early Childhood project, a transnational collaborative effort to explore and share best practice in early years arts and creativity across local European communities.

More than a week after our return from the Netherlands and the 2Turvenhoog+ Festival in Almere, I am becoming aware of the universality of this project and the issues it raises. Of course, the project is first and foremost a training programme. But the last seven meetings have opened a diversity of reflections and possibilities, which are still growing. We succeeded in creating strong links through the respect and attention that the participants and partners have for each other. That’s why we have built a project that goes beyond training, and which carries an almost activist commitment that reminds us of the need to continually rebuild and develop the foundations for artistic awareness. The workshops and visits have always been very useful for comparative observations and analyses between fellow learners.

This last mobility in Almere, however, proposed a different format with only performances and project presentations. After the numerous discussions and debates that occurred in the previous meetings, this mobility allowed us to put our reflections into practice by stepping into a different role: that of the spectator.  The groups of professionals in training thus became one and the same group: the audience. It is precisely at the heart of this European group, made up of many profiles with varied experiences and histories, that I saw the universality of the reflections that we defend as part of this project.

Indeed, the work we are doing to build, facilitate and defend the implementation of the young child’s artistic awakening in all the places they visit from birth, has a much wider impact.  Having been a spectator during these two days has allowed me to remember this through two very important themes for a healthy society:

  1. Theatres as a small-scale representation of our Western societies
  2. Considering every spectator as an equal, to collectively experience moments of poetry and contemplation

Theatres as a small-scale representation of our Western societies

It is possible to become aware of, or to spot certain social and societal patterns by looking at what happens during a performance or an artistic proposal. The behaviour and reactions of the audience can then be obvious representations of the inequalities, the power games, the conjunctures that play out in our contemporary contexts. It is obvious that what is played out during a performance for young and very young audiences constitutes examples for a much more general analysis of what is being played out at the scale of societies.

The behaviour observed during the performance of the sQueezz company, “Stuk is een nieuwe situatie“, “Breaking is a new situation“, is a good example. We generally observe very varied interventions and involvement among the audience during a proposal for early childhood. Some are eager to join the stage, others turn their backs on it to concentrate on the light or sound, others will seek contact with the artists. However, during this performance where children’s participation was encouraged, the notion of education and gendered behaviour was observed by the participants. The boys quickly took over the stage space, playing with the set and the sound materials provided. Some of them preferred the edge of the stage to handle the more technical elements. The first half of the performance was marked by the presence of the young boys and the absence of the girls. The latter remained seated, in silence, without taking up any space or venturing into the playing area.

We can thus understand the resonance of this observation, which goes beyond the frameworks of training for artistic awakening and early childhood but reveals even greater societal issues. Here we question the role of education in the behaviour of children who identify as boys and girls. The restraints (shyness, impulsiveness, calmness) integrated and normalised according to gender are highlighted in this theatre. In this way, this project also highlights major and universal issues to be defended, beyond artistic awakening.

Considering every spectator as an equal, to collectively experience moments of poetry and contemplation.

The presentation of the project “Thuis“, by Kathrin Gramselberg & Jurgen Gario, defended the right to and the need for contemplation to recognise the poetry that exists all around us.

With these two days of training where we were spectators, we became aware of the importance of contemplation and of these shared moments in front of an artistic proposal. Jurgen explains that if we can be inspired by what we hear, it is above all what we agree to listen to that is poetic. For him, poetry is everywhere. It is not necessary to try to provoke an emotion in the spectator because it is already present in the person who agrees to hear and listen to it. Artists must therefore work to ensure that the adults and children in front of them fully accept this state of abandonment and contemplation in order to experience moments of poetry and emotion.

A French poet, Christian Bobin, said these powerful words: “I believe that to inhabit the world poetically is to inhabit it also and first of all in contemplation. Contemplating is a way of taking care. It is to break everything in us that resembles greed, but also an expectation or a project. To look at and be moved by the absence of difference between what is in front of us and ourselves. […]. Moments of contemplation are moments of great respite for the world, for it is in these moments that reality is no longer afraid to come to us. There is no longer anything noisy in our hearts or in our heads. Things, animals, ghosts that are very real, everything that is of the order of the living comes close to us and comes to find its name, comes to beg its name. To inhabit poetically would perhaps be first to look with peace, without the intention of taking, without seeking even consolation, without looking for anything. […] I think that at this moment something of the world opens up, like an almond. One understands what it’s all about when it comes to living. One understands without words, and perhaps even without being able to say it. […] “. [1]

It is therefore necessary to reach the audience universally, and this is only possible by considering each spectator as an equal. It is important to give the same importance to the child as to the accompanying adult. As stated in a previous mobility workshop, just like the child, the adult is a spectator who, if they allow themselves, can be moved by the artistic proposal. They are as much participants as players in the relationships built during an artistic encounter. They must be invited, accompanied, and supported by the artists and early childhood professionals. This letting-go and the relationship of trust between the adults condition, in the general opinion, the child’s behaviour and interest in the proposal. Indeed, if the adult remains in the background, on their phone, taking photos, they create a distance between the artist, the artistic proposal and themselves. From then on, the child, observing this distancing, can in turn become suspicious and put a distance between them and the artists. Seeing the parent distant, the child does not get the expected signal that invites them to dive fully and confidently into the sensory artistic experience that is being presented. As parents are the primary points of reference for children, it is impossible for artists to gain the child’s trust without that of the adults accompanying them.

This question of a right to contemplation, to the imagination, is not restricted to the child alone, but to any person that interacts with the artistic proposal. In this respect, the work carried out has a universal scope.

[1] C. Bobin, « Le plâtrier siffleur », Poesis, 2018.