Beth Hamilton-Cardus writes a guest blog exploring her time at the Lochgelly Expecting Something Project.
As the parent of a three-year-old, I know how it feels to take a young child into an arts setting. There’s anxiety – what if my child is the one who cries or screams or just looks at the well-meaning actors with total disgust? And there can be pure joy – watching their fascination as they see a puppet magically dash across the stage, seeing their excitement as a giant balloon stuffed with confetti bounces towards them. When performance for the very young works, it really works (you aren’t left with a massive amount of doubt when you have critics who tend not to filter). And as a storyteller, often working with primary age children, I thought I fancied taking on that challenge. Many believe that storytelling for babies may not work – how can they follow a narrative, for example? Well, given that we read picture books to kids from birth, we must think they’re capable of taking something in. Plus, maybe we should think about how to tailor that narrative to our audience’s needs, telling the story in the way that’s best for them, even if it challenges the teller.
That’s where Starcatchers and Expecting Something comes in. I’d loved Blue Block Studio at the Imaginate Festival – the fact that everything could be played with safely and without fear of breakage really appealed to the parent in me. And I’d have quite happily played in there for hours myself, despite being thirty-two. The idea of transforming a space, of being within the piece really appealed to me. I wanted to see if I could make a story into a similar, collective experience, one that allowed even very young children to participate in the telling. With the Starcatcher Expecting Something Emerging Artists Bursary, and the support of Claire, Maria and the brilliant Lochgelly group, I’ve been able to test out these ideas.
I decided to use a native American story, The Spotty Egg, as the basis of my session – it features a pair of siblings, an underwater swim and yes, a giant spotty egg. My concept of storytelling is, arguably, a bit loose for the traditionalists out there. I use puppetry (a rainbow sea serpent sock puppet in this case), games, theatre skills, even the bits and pieces I can remember from my days in student comedy – whatever I think will work for the audience. And with this group, I learnt that nothing beats a decent illustrative prop (all those hours covering that polystyrene egg in tissue paper was worth it!). Well, except bubble – bubbles provide a level of entertainment that transcends everything, and they will feature in all my future work. Props, including those all important bubbles, turned out to be a great way of getting both the parents and their children to participate – we made party bags (filled with paper fish, crepe paper reeds etc) together, and used these to create our underwater scene. I’d definitely use this idea again – it gave us all a chance to play together, as did the four metres of blue lycra that served as our river.
It may sound obvious, but I’d never really thought about creating a piece for both parents
and children – with their parents’ support, children can participate so much more in the experience, enhancing the enjoyment for both. There were some lovely moments during the session that have taught me a lot for moving forward, such as when the parents started to sing water themed songs. As it was a very relaxed session, with lots of opportunity for action, it was great that the children had a chance to be active, playing with the fabric and the bubbles, rather than just having to sit and listen. The kids who like to run (I have one of those at home myself!) can be engaged if they get a chance to do something, and I’ve concluded that by giving them the chance to “do”, all young children stand a better chance of understanding a narrative. I’ll never forget how, totally spontaneously, one wee boy tried to help me to catch fish in the blue lycra river – that moment has had a big impact on my future plans for this piece and my work in general.
So what’s next for The Spotty Egg? The key learning for me was to do more in terms of the props (which is good because I love making props), with the aim of transforming whatever space we use into a river bank that can be fully explored by the children and their caregivers. I’ll use the party bags again to get the parents and children participating together, but will work on how to have more play and less language throughout – it’s a challenge, but I like a challenge. I’m looking at how to work with other practitioners on the piece, as well as groups working with parents and children in my local community. Fundamentally, I think I’ve begun to learn how to tell stories to the very young and their caregivers, thanks to the fantastic support from Maria, Claire and everyone at the Lochgelly Expecting Something group.