As we in the UK embrace the autumnal colours and look towards Christmas, more often than not that means preparations for the annual festive show. The family extravaganza drawing in families from across our cities and communities is a staple of many venues across the Western globe. A moment of connection, of imagination and abstraction, an experience shared with our loved ones and those we don’t yet know. But what about at other times of the year, do our youngest audiences have this shared experience outside of the holiday season? Imagine if it was Christmas every day?
It’s widely recognised that exposure to the performing arts is important for the development of children and young people. Arts and cultural activities help children make sense of their place in the world and positively impact their cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual and language development. It fosters their curiosity and imagination, developing critical faculties and offers opportunities to view the world from different perspectives. To develop empathy and observe society in all its multiple manifestations.
In July of this year, the UK government published a report highlighting its findings on the impact of Covid on children in early years settings. The report noted delays in babies' and children’s speech and language development, limited vocabulary or lack of confidence to speak, and even some babies struggling to respond to basic facial expressions – likely the result of reduced contact and interaction with other children and adults during lockdown periods.
The report follows others published over the last 12 months, including one in which it was noted “Children have missed out on hearing stories, singing and having conversations” (https://bit. ly/3Coj7fs). Delays in children’s speech and language development have led to them not socialising as readily as expected. Childcare providers reported that babies were particularly anxious and not used to seeing different faces. Children’s social and friendship-building skills have been affected (https://bit.ly/3CNN8qj).
I strongly believe that experiencing high-quality professional art and culture helps the very youngest in society to develop those skills that have been hampered during the pandemic and might just have the potential to help remedy these social challenges. But in order for this to happen, we need to properly invest in performance for children and young people and develop an infrastructure that encourages work to be created and shared with audiences, both in and outside our standard theatrical settings.
As part of my role as Executive Producer with Second Hand Dance and as Artistic Advisor to Sadler’s Wells, I regularly travel across Europe to festivals specialising in work for young audiences. It’s invigorating to immerse myself in innovative work that is both taking risks and challenging accepted notions of the form (when speech is not the main method of communication we draw on the other senses to tell our tales). It is also an opportunity to engage in dialogue with my global colleagues from Assitej International and other similar networks, all professionals committed to the advocacy and development of work for young audiences. Geographical specialisms emerge - Dance features strongly at Krokus Festival, Belgium - not surprisingly considering the country’s vibrant and risk-taking dance sector and El Petit Festival in Sabadell, Spain is one of the handfuls of festivities exclusively presenting work for early years audiences.
There is a wide and broadly celebrated sector of international performing arts festivals across the globe – and audiences recognise and identify with the Edinburgh International Festival or Holland Festival, but how many will many recognise the name of Edinburgh International Children’s Festival or De Betovering in The Hague?
In 1989 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was agreed. Article 31 states: “Every child has the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts, that the State Parties will promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and provide equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”.
Worldwide, over 25% of the population is aged under 15 (https://bit.ly/3EOA1H5) but we are not dedicating anywhere like an equal proportion of cultural resources to work made especially for those ages. Traditional funding patterns and a history of participation projects, as opposed to professional performance, have meant resources for the creation of professional cultural experiences for the very youngest in society are limited, the work is marginalised and often sits within very rigid programming (and financial) models.
The lack of resources isn’t just about money – there is a clear shortage of new talent, unsurprisingly perhaps. If as a student you don’t learn about making work for young audiences why would you consider making a career out of it? While Rose Bruford College has introduced an MA in Theatre Making for Young Audiences in recent years, currently none of our leading dance conservatories includes a module on creating work for children and/or babies within their BA programmes and potential progression routes are relatively unidentifiable.
As world media tells us stories of the courage of Iranian women, and of the Russian men fleeing conscription, of economic crisis and climate emergency I think about our connection to the world and to each other.
I think about the isolation we have all experienced as a result of the global pandemic and see how the changes in the minutiae of daily life have magnified into globally significant events.
I think about how a generation has been born with masks hiding the facial expressions of family, friends, teachers and those we meet in the street and I hope that through connection we can take a path towards change.
Claire Summerfield is an Independent producer, the Director of Tandem Works and Executive Producer at Second Hand Dance (SHD). Established in 2013 SHD creates what it calls “beautiful, sensory dance experiences” for children and adults (both live and digital) that are accessible and welcoming to all bodies, working locally, nationally and internationally from their base in Surrey. SHD is also an Artistic Advisor to Sadler’s Wells and sits on the Access Committee for Assitej (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People). Claire also sits on the Performance for Young Audiences (PYA) England Steering Committee and chairs its Lobby Group.
Tandem Works supports companies and artists developing and presenting performance-based work; from one-person shows to site-specific multi-disciplinary productions and international tours. Its aim is to “give a voice to those who are rarely heard within our mainstream cultural ecology”.
The company has supported artists to create and present dance at some of the leading international festivals and venues including Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, Lincoln Centre, Education (New York), Sadler’s Wells (London), Belfast International Children’s Festival, Tanzmesse (Germany), IPAY, Salto! (Sweden), Krokus (Belgium) and Xintiandi Festival (Shanghai). Its current portfolio includes Second Hand Dance, Rachel Mars, New Art Club and Anatomical.
This article originally appeared in Volume 18, Issue 16 of International Arts Manager, available at https://internationalartsmanager.com/