Interview with Lead Artist Katy Wilson

25 April 2017

Katy Wilson

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Katy Wilson is lead artist on the Expecting Something project in Westerhailes. Katy has been collaborating with Starcatchers for about 10 years. Together they have made many performances and installations for very young children and their adults. Recently Katy was interviewed by Sophie Kurylowicz who is doing a masters project on ‘Designing Theatre for the Very Young’ at Charles Sturt University in Australia

Can you tell me about you most recent theatre for the very young (under 3’s) project?

Blue Block Studio is maybe not my most recent project but others are in development so I think it’s probably the best one to look at. I wanted to make a beautiful space for parents and children – a positive space they could relax in and play in – in their own way – where they could touch everything, roam free and there would be an arc in the music and lighting – a journey but not a narrative. I wanted to make a white space and one where you could peek in before committing to go in. I wanted to make something that inspired people and connected them…. Rhona at Starcatchers loved this idea so Starcatchers took it on and together we made an application for it to be part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 Cultural Programme – and it toured until last year – and will do again. It received such warm and generous feedback – it felt like people really needed it in their lives. We also wanted to make a space which went to communities – a self-contained haven seemingly plonked randomly in a non-space. One of my favourite locations was a shopping centre in an area of deprivation- people would put down their supermarket bags and walk in spontaneously. It also toured to beautiful cultural venues in Scotland – the sort I can’t quite believe my work is in – and we were thrilled that this work for the very young children was presented there with pride.

Can you tell me about your design process when creating theatre for the very young (TVY)? Do you start with an age group/an idea/a material/a story? How do you research and explore? How are other people involved in this process? What are the steps you take from beginning to end?

I work instinctively, it’s not always easy for me to work out why I have done it, but I am up for trying! I sometimes just have a vision for a space – if I keep thinking about it, the idea keeps popping up, I keep seeing it in my sketchbooks, or on little scraps of paper then I know it’s worth pursuing. If it is my own concept – like Blue Block Studio – it has often come from feeling a lack of something I sense we need. I want to create some magic for a certain audience. Often it starts with meeting a person – a kid or a mum or a grandad or whoever, and thinking about what they would love. I once made a show called Peep with Frozen Charlotte theatre company and musician Greg Sinclair – we all had a three year old child called Evan in mind …and then the day his nursery came to see the show he was off! Blue Block studio was created with my first son in mind – he was crawling, it was winter in Scotland and I felt a real lack of indoor places to put him down and let him roam freely – they all seemed dirty or unsafe or that he just wasn’t welcome there. I felt this age was about hurrying up and getting to walking rather than anything being catered for appreciating where they were at in their lives right then – ‘they are living now, not waiting till they walk in a straight line to be able to behave properly in beautiful spaces’. My son like others had the most curious little brain and we had to stop him doing so many things – I didn’t like it- it was a ‘no’ phase. In an attempt to offer him something more I found us at a sensory (part of a franchise) workshop – it was lit horribly and an attack on the ears and eyes. So I chose a little dream team of like-minded people with different skills but who were on the same page, and we started sharing ideas for a beautiful ‘yes’ space. Starcatchers are amazing.. they make these projects and dreams a possibility and I feel very supported by them – and lucky to be part of what they do.

Other starting points are locations – I am most excited about making the art for people who don’t go to theatre and who don’t necessarily even view the work as theatre.

And other times ages are dictated to me by funding or who I am working with.

I love colour and I get excited by certain combinations and patterns. My style is kind of graphic. Sometimes I just want to work with a specific colour or pattern.

I’m really interested in what differentiates TVY from “conventional” (scripted, traditional theatre space) theatre. It seems to me TVY takes on many different forms from more traditional narrative story telling through to play spaces. I’ve pin pointed some elements that I think are key to making TVY unique and I’m wondering if you have some ideas about what you think makes TVY unique and different to conventional theatre.

I think you are constantly thinking of the audience when you make TVY, you always want the children and adults to enjoy the experience – it must be a positive one – relaxation , hope , inspiration is generally at the heart of it all – which is not true of conventional theatre.

I think you need to respond to your audience as some of them won’t just sit on one spot and soak it all up – you often need to look them in the eye. It feels very honest and upfront. You can gain a lot of feedback just by looking at their faces, their noises, their body language – I don’t think that happens so much in adult theatre – I know I’ve gone to many performances with friends and not had a clue how they feel about it until after the show. Sometimes you can tell by the vigour of their clap at the end, or if they cry, but other than that adults don’t often show so much in their faces. In conventional theatre it often feels like you are sharing something without thinking about the individuals, their lives, their feelings.

I don’t have a conventional theatre making process – I went to art school and have found that theatre makers making work for very young were attracted to the art school background and organic process (aka making it up as we go along). We are all equal and chip in to each other’s process.

I have a number of collaborators I have a short hand with –I find artists whose work I really like and, almost more importantly, we have a good chemistry and enthusiasm together, listen to each other and start to make something we are excited about. I was so inspired by the theatre company Catherine Wheels when I first left college and shadowed their process – it was the first time I realised that getting on with people and having a good time was a valid way to choose who to work with. It seems obvious now – as it is all I do.

I think making work for a certain age that is different to your own also comes with challenges. For example my two year son is so aware of sounds that I am not – he hears things differently to me – he will always notice a plane or a distant siren, which has become background buzz to me. The busyness of sound for little people. You really have to try and put yourselves in their shoes and also try things with them as you go.

I’ve noticed a tension between different designers I’ve interviewed between creating a world that is real and re-creatable for carers (oh look what fun we’re having with a roll of paper and some masking tape!) versus a world that is very beautiful and magical -that perhaps transports them into a different place to just be. I’m interested in your thoughts on that idea and if you place more importance on the realism or the magic in your work? Or if you think about something different entirely!

I’m way more interested in the magic, I think even if something is a one off it can last a long time in your mind. I remember the theatrical atmosphere of shows I went to as a little kid … but I appreciate the desire and the value of re-creating something too – and my work is often pretty DIY and low tech. So it is often a mix of the two – for example simply drawing on a huge long roll of paper, but in a shaft of theatrical lighting with a live musician playing electric guitar. I want to create magical art experiences for adults and kids together – an escape and a surprise for both to share together in that moment in time. I think art can offer these unique experiences which are nothing like classroom or home experiences.

I have had this feedback – ‘but how would they bring this home?’ – like it’s a negative on my work ( Multi Coloured Blocks from Space). I think that de-values the theatrical experience, that would never be said after an adult show–it almost puts all things for kids into a workshop or education category.

From my exploration of your work lighting seems to be a really integral part of creating atmosphere and bringing that magic into your designs. Can you tell me more about the significance of lighting in your designs?

I feel the significance of lighting everywhere I go. I always want to take photos when the sun is streaming through windows.I like to make things cosy. I always want to create work in natural light- even if the end product is lit theatrically. Blue Block had a bit of inspiration from well-known artists who work with light like James Turrell and Carlos Cruz-Diez.

I think light and interesting refractions and sparkle in materials has so much potential for tiny babies –I feel like they get most from light and sound – when I am imagining what tiny babies see, I often see a giant sparkly hanging mobile.

I’ve also seen children’s theatre that is very wary of turning the lights down too low and that seems to be applying an assumed set of rules to how TVY should be created (“they can’t be in the dark, they’ll be scared” “It can’t be longer than 40mins” or “before the show starts we need to explain that Im an actor” etc.). I’m wondering if there are any “rules” or guidelines you find yourself applying to your work for the very young? Are there any elements you view as being integral to the design of TVY (this can be as simple as pram parking or something like “I try to include multiple sensory elements”)?

I used to make dark spaces and accept that a few kids wouldn’t like it … until I had my own kid who really didn’t like the dark space, and I then understood the knock on effect … so now I try to ease people gradually into a space, helping them to feel like they have a choice. I didn’t realise how much stress parents are under- that experience, and whether it worked or not can make or break your day.

I definitely want the experience to be made as easy as possible – from the moment they enter the building I would like them to be welcomed and guided. I say something at start about feeling free to feed,leave to change, if the children cry it’s ok – mention all the things they might be tense about to get them all out in the open.

Capacity – I quite often want to keep it intimate – so we feel like we know the audience.

I personally wouldn’t explain that someone is an actor, but I would give kids time to suss the person out – let them look at their face for a while. I would probably not get them to jump out. They wouldn’t wear masks.

I probably wouldn’t make it more than an hour- but I’d always give time for arriving and leaving and ideally you can arrive late and still be involved. (you’ve got to factor in the challenges they have faced to get out of the house)

I love to try to let the mums of little ones lie down – as they so often have tense, sore backs from carrying and feeding , and sometimes from giving birth too. I wish I could work in a yoga session or a massage to every performance.

I like to work with charismatic performers just being themselves or a somewhere close to themselves – it feels more honest, no scripts, you can trust them.

We generally use our real names.

I want to make it inclusive and I try to keep the cost inexpensive.

Finally, I’m wondering how you approach the duality of a TVY audience, because the very young can’t take themselves to the show it has to be made for carers too. Research has shown children are much more likely to engage if their parents are engaged – is this something you consider in your design process? And if so how do you address it?

Totally! I think of the adults just as much as the kids. If they relax and are on board their children are likely to feel good too. I think the visuals I create are just as interesting for adults as they are for children. When I did an 18-month residency at Tramway in Glasgow with Starcatchers we had some seriously shocked dads – some had been dragged there, or felt a sense of duty to their children, and thought it would be something ‘twee’, and then suddenly they are immersed and almost forgetting they have a baby in tow. My favourite audiences are people who wouldn’t usually go to the theatre.

I make things for me as much as anyone. and am confident if I like it so will the audience.

Visit Katy’s website here!