News and Reviews

Article about Up and Away written by Mary Sea for Spinoff Parents

Why we need more theatre – for babies

An article about Up and Away that appeared on Stuff.co.nz and in The Press newspaper on 1 July 2018

Theatre for Babies

 

Reviewed by Ruth Agnew for What's Up Christchurch on 3 July 2018

Cubbin Theatre Company has devised a unique multi-sensory experience for an audience often ignored in the performing arts realm: babies. Judging by the enthusiastic response from the target age group in attendance today, it appears Baby Theatre is a genre that deserves more attention.

Soft lighting, a sweet lavender scent and soothing sounds fill The Gloucester Room as the performers lead the babies and caregivers in. Seated in a circle on comfortable cushions under a tent canopy, this theatre in the round redefines intimacy, as babies crawl around, between and onto the actors.

While Christchurch theatregoers will be familiar with Hannah Wheeler and Amy Straker from their impressive work at The Court Theatre, they both have extensive backgrounds teaching and performing music and drama for the very young. This is evident in the ease with which they interact with the babies, capturing their attention with expert voice work, expressive faces and sustained eye contact. The infants in attendance probably weren’t impressed by the stunning harmonising Wheeler and Straker brought to their rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle, but the adults definitely appreciated their beautiful voices.

Cubbin Theatre Company is in its infancy as well, created by well known director Melanie Luckman in response to the lack of Baby Theatre on offer in New Zealand. Overseas there are many companies producing shows for under twos, but the trend has been slow to reach our shores. The overwhelming positive response from babies and parents alike at the show I attended, and the fact that Up and Away sold out their entire season before opening suggests Cubbin Theatre Company has got it right.

Up and Away is a gentle, heart-warming show. Wheeler and Straker start from a sleeping position, before unfurling with smiles and stretches. Instead of dialogue, they communicate with vocal sounds and noises produced by hand movements or simple props. Throughout the devising process Luckman, Wheeler and Straker worked with child language experts, and the influence of Speech Language Therapist Mary Cronin is evident here. As the actors began speaking with a series of plosive “bah” sounds, baby Lennox (my young companion) immediately replied with an identical noise.

The reactions from the ten babies present ranged from awestruck silence to excited shouting. They may not be old enough to speak yet, but they expressed their appreciation of the infant-friendly entertainment clearly.

My advice for parents of crawling babies would have been to book tickets to Up and Away immediately, but the season sold out well before opening. There have been extra shows added, but at the time of writing only a few spots remained for the weekend shows. If you missed out though, head over to the Cubbin Theatre Company Facebook page and follow them, as there are tentative plans to take Up and Away on tour in the future.

After such successful first steps onto the public stage, I’m eagerly anticipating the growth and development of Cubbin Theatre Company.

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Reviewed by Erin Harrington for Theatreview.org.nz on 3 July 2018

Cubbin Theatre Company's first production, Up and Away, is aimed at the youngest and most under-served of theatre audiences: babies. The show is set within a large play tent within the Gloucester Room at the Isaac Theatre Royal, with cushions and seats available for caregivers and observers, and lots of space for the infants to crawl, roll around and tug at one another's booties.

Throughout the intimate 30-minute show, performers Amy Straker and Hannah Wheeler, who are seated in the centre of the mat, move us gently and calmly from morning to night. This very loose narrative scaffold offers up moments that provide opportunities for play, music, vocalisation, movement and shifts in sound and light. These range from the splashing sound of raindrops and the hum of bumble bees, to the introduction of twinkling stars and, finally, the appearance of a glowing yellow moon, which is passed from child to child. The capacity is limited, so that the performers are able to engage with the babies individually, and the result is that the action feels particularly tailored to each audience member.

The company, led by Melanie Luckman, has worked with a speech and language therapist to find the best ways to communicate with and engage the young audience. As such, the beats of the performance are constructed around the careful establishment of a pattern, be it vocal, movement-based, or percussive, and then the introduction of some sort of surprise. It's all very slow, kind and gentle – whimsical without being twee or condescending. I come away feeling far more relaxed than I have in weeks.

From an observer's point of view, much of the show's joy is in watching the infants engage not only with the performers and their caregivers but with one another, as they become cute, squishy, occasionally unruly participants in the activities. The production design itself is also well-considered, and clearly a great deal of thought has gone into the performers' simple costumes and the gentle shifts in light and sound.

The adults are completely delighted – I eavesdrop on their gushing after the show - and the babies are entranced throughout. There is clearly a community-building aspect to the creation of the work, too. So many public and artistic spaces are hostile to parents and children, so being in a theatre environment where unpredictable babies, armoured prams, and breast-feeding are welcomed is a huge step in ensuring the accessibility of art and entertainment to caregivers as well as to the youngest of audiences.

I'm neither an infant nor a parent, but you'd have to be a baby-hating grinch with a lump of coal for a heart not to see that this is a pretty special experience for big and little people alike. It's delightful. Did I say it's delightful? It's delightful. Borrow a baby if you don't have one, for the show's a treat.