Inclusive and accessible theatre for children has a long way to go...Part One: Equating high spend with high quality
,As any early years practitioner or parent/carer will know, when you build something yourself from the very little you have, you make sure it's the best it can possibly be because it has to stand up to rigorous use by little hands, mouths and bodies, and because you can't afford to replace it! We use low cost/no cost and recycled materials to inspire the settings and families we work with. We show what high quality and robust resources we can create from materials our audiences may already have at their disposal in the hope that they will go away and make their own, and they do! For example, we created our egret puppets for 'Little Meerkat's Big Panic' with less than £2-worth of bin bags, wire and sticky tape; these have been handled by over 2000 children to date and are still going strong! They have been built with children in mind and can cope with rough handling, though we always offer a learning opportunity about 'gentle hands' and social skills i.e. being careful with other people's property, letting go when asked, being led in play with items that are unfamiliar or 'special', and so on. Settings have gone on to make their own birds...but also butterflies, caves, lizards, and more! This is an affordable creative activity with a high-impact visual and tactile outcome that has robustness and play potential built in.
Is that low quality?
So, this low cost/ no cost approach is an artistic value for us, but it also supports our sustainability and enables us to keep our work as not-for-profit, which means we can continue to offer settings with very little spare budget affordable high-impact performance experiences, and opportunities for extension work afterwards too.
Is that low quality? If so, for who?
In addition, when we recycle things, often we end up with very high quality materials for free. We couldn't afford to buy them new, but by asking for donations we end up with exceptional materials that, if money was no object, we would have loved to have commissioned for ourselves.
Recently, for example, high street retailer Next had big sequin panels in their window displays for Christmas; these sequin panels fluttered in the breeze creating a beautiful visual effect, as well as a lovely rustling noise. Each of these sequin tiles costs approximately £10 new. I asked my local branch of Next if I could have some of the tiles when their window display was dismantled and they agreed. So, just after Christmas, I was invited to the store by the manager and he had put aside 80 sequin tiles - enough to cover two stage flats, plus spares for repair - for me! So, £800 of tiles for nothing. They're good as new.
Is that low quality? If so for who? Is this not high-value 'Support in Kind' for my company and our audience? Would this not score well on an ACE funding application?
Just to add, the Next store in question told me they have previously donated window display items to local preschools and nurseries who've asked them for them; for example, their summer display using hundreds of artificial flowers went to a local nursery in a disadvantaged area to enable them to create a 'Secret Garden' outdoor role play area. Is that low quality for that setting?
Even with the most expensive set in the world, there is no guarantee that what takes place in and around it is any good theatrically, or in terms of accessibility and relevance for children. The only 'good' is perhaps that an expensive set is impressive, and may look better in production shots and PR exercises. Early years children and those with complex needs don't look for the financial investment in a production's visual images; they most usually find magic, curiosity, and stimulation through the least expensive, least technologically advanced, and least obvious things. But, to see what the priorities are for children regarding the visual aspects of a production, you need to see the world through their eyes, understand their developmental stage, and be sensitive to their needs.
Joanna Grace, leading academic and activist in sensory approaches for people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), presents an activity in her training sessions where participants are invited to create high-impact sensory resources from a single piece of plain white paper. And they do! Joanna has so many wonderful 'Mannequin Challenge' style videos on her social media feeds showcasing practitioners' responses to this exercise: see www.twitter.com/jo3grace, search Joanna Grace on Facebook or www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/
Imagination from the practitioner is the only limit, and the only true assessment of quality can come from the effect the resource has for the person it is being shared with. An expensive and clever set is something that is only truly an essential quality mark for some grown-ups, and you do have to wonder what the agenda is because, if it truly was about ensuring quality for children, the amount of money spent on the design and build would come very, very low down the long list of things that do ensure high quality theatrical experiences for the target audience.
So, who owns this low quality? Do commissioners feel they are advocating for the children in their audiences by equating high spend on resources with high quality? Are they advocating for the grown-ups who buy tickets for these experiences and want to see how high ticket prices are justified?
It is very unclear, though it's probably something to do with the conflation of cost with value: my sets may cost less than £500, but the value they yield for children is priceless, and I need no more and no less than I have to be able to tell stories effectively. A £4,000 set may cost more, but does it yield higher value for audiences? Does the audience feel 'more' has been put into a production, and therefore it will be better, if funding (from the public purse) has been lavished in the creation of an experience? Is there a real artistic and 'quality' difference between the vintage step ladder I use in my set that's been in my family since I was a child, and the one bought for £300 from a reclamation yard?
I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts....
In Part Two, I will look at the tension between creating theatre for art's sake, and creating theatre that's truly accessible, relevant and inclusive for children. Quality is also being linked by commissioners with commitment to conventional artistic processes and the employment of traditionally trained performers; I will explore what this means for early years children and those with complex needs, and why there's another way.