The audience was rather young, cosy in their mothers’ laps and solemnly taking sips from bottles, fidgeting a little or gazing cautiously at the people around them. They appeared to know they were here for a purpose and they waited.
Sarah Argent and Kevin Lewis of the acclaimed Welsh theatre company Theatr Lolo were staging their show ‘Out of The Blue’ at the Kolkata British Council Library. When Lewis knelt down in the ‘stage area’ and started intoning “pappapa”, “mumumaa” and the like, I could see a condescending smirk on the face of the baby closest to me. Two others looked on startled.
Seconds later they appeared curious to see what Lewis would do next. From the familiar to the unfamiliar, from objects of daily use to an abstract rag doll, Lewis’s little presentation was filled with all of these. The narration was continually interspersed with the sound of a doorbell. And each time the bell rang, Lewis would exclaim, “The doorbell! Again!” He would leave the stage and return with a new package that had presumably been ‘delivered’ to him. A largish bundle containing a tiny rattle, a small soft-wool toy sheep, a bit of wrapper that made a curious sound... everything seemed new and interesting.
For the 20-minute closed-door show, the room was decked in the soothing colours of blue and white. Tailored specifically for babies (six to 18 months old) and their caregivers, ‘Out of The Blue’ has played at several venues around the world, including the Sydney Opera House.
During a chat afterwards, Argent and Lewis explained how the show came into being. They had been doing theatre for young children for a while, but saw how they failed to interest the younger ones. Ten years ago, no one believed there could be a theatre for babies. But Argent began to study babies more closely, read up about them and watched baby videos on the internet. She and Lewis learnt that the colours blue and white and certain kinds of music were soothing to them. Kiddie TV programmes such as cartoons, on the other hand, end up over-stimulating them. Lewis was chosen to enact the show because in England, like elsewhere, “looking after babies is primarily seen as a woman’s job”. Seeing Lewis handling babies could send a more meaningful message, they reasoned. What ensued has proved to be a voyage of discoveries for them.
In Kolkata, the show has travelled to multiple venues in partnership with the ThinkArts group founded by Ruchira Das to create events for children and young people. ThinkArts is now helping three young Indian theatre enthusiasts create similar baby theatre shows, which will be staged in Cardiff (Wales) in spring 2018. Ahead of that, there will be presentations in a few metros in India. The effort is supported by the British Council and Wales Arts International as part of the year-long celebration UK/INDIA 2017.
For two weeks, Kevin and Sarah mentored the young directors, who had been selected through a workshop conducted by ThinkArts. Sanyukta Saha from Delhi, Pavel Paul from Kolkata and Sananda Mukhopadhyaya from Mumbai all admitted to feeling intimidated by babies. While Saha worries that babies are too fragile and might break, Mukhopadhyaya says she is afraid because babies don’t know how to pretend — “If they do not like my show they will just stop watching”.
Paul, who has worked with slightly older children for the theatre group Jhalapala, was stunned to discover that the babies sensed his tension and, in turn, felt uncomfortable. He also realised that sudden actions were not funny but scary for the tiny tots. For instance, an act that involved a metal cooking pot falling off his head had initially frightened them. But when he play-acted with the pot, treating it like a slightly disobedient child — for instance, the pot would keep spinning even when “told to sit quietly” or rolled all over the floor and made noise — the children laughed like gleeful conspirators when the “naughty” pot slipped off his head and crashed to the floor.
Mukhopadhyaya, whose work centred around different kinds of cloth, said, “I learnt they liked repetitive actions and words and also they sometimes like being left alone because they are like us — just little humans. Nowadays when I see a kid I don’t just see “cute”, I try to study what interests or offends them.”
Many parents at the show were simply happy to see their child sitting attentively for twenty minutes. In a country with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, baby theatre promises to offer yet another setting, and captive audience, for those precious tales.
Sebanti Sarkar is a Kolkata-based writer, translator and editor