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Poetic becomings in scenic art for young children

Maybritt Jensen

A starting

For the last decade, performing arts for children age 0-3 has emerged in Norway. The number of performances all over the country has increased due to political and financial support from the Cultural Department and Norwegian Art Council (NAC). Two major art projects initiated and funded by NAC Klangfugl (2000-2002) and EU, Glitterbird-—Art for the Very Young (2003-2006) have enacted a starting point for the development of new kinds of scenic art produced for the youngest children. An evaluation from the Norwegian Art Council of the national project Kumtloftet (2008-2015) states that the intention has been to create art for young children that is productive from an artistic point of view as well as being relevant to the everyday lives of children. A further interest of the project has been to gain more knowledge on art for children through increasing the number of productions as well as research in the field (Haugsevje et ah, 2016).

For decades, institutional theatre has played the main role in promoting theatre for children. Productions often based on popular literature for children have been a part of the established repertoire on traditional stages and in that way have served as classical cultural, as well as commercial, offerings. Scenic art for children is often regarded as educational or entertaining and focus remains on subjective audience experiences based on cognition and emotional development.

However, artists working with performances for young children are in a perfect position to investigate further how to perform for the youngest audiences. Performative dramaturgies as well as a more sensor)- and non-verbal artistic communication seems to be more fruitful in this kind of theatre art. Abstract forms of expression like dance, movements, and sounds, and the intra-actions of the audience, have become vital parts of the scenic event (Borgen, 2003; Bohnisch, 2010; Gladso et ah, 2005; Hovik & Nagel, 2017). Being a part of the production team of the performance Readymade Baby, 1 performed for children age 0-3, I have conducted research on the communication between actors on stage and the audience. This chapter is based on empirical data from rehearsals as well as from performances in and outside Norway over a period of two years. The aim of this chapter is to investigate the complexity of the sensory and multiple communications in scenic art with young children. In revisiting ethnographic data from two scenes in the performance, I explore what theories of affect can open up and contribute to in the analysis of the data.

Messiness, intensities, vitality, sensations, desire and the unsaid

Inspired by non-representational ethnography (Vannini, 2015), I am, as an audience-researcher and a part of the creative team, entangled in the messiness of relations and affects between human and non-human entities. Starting out with empirical data from participating in and observing numerous rehearsals and performances, interviews with adults, field notes and photos, my attempts to analyse and interpret within ‘traditional ethnographic methods’ catches me up in thick descriptions and by doing so, the dance stops. Situated in multiple positions as producer and researcher with the performance, I desire to stay in the messiness of bodies, intensities, vitality, sensations, desire and the unsaid, to let my embodied research direct me to what is affecting and being affected in the doings to come. Rather than trying to ‘capture’ the performance, I invite the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, together with theories of affect, into a different dance (Vannini, 2015). This Vannini citation interrupts and reminds me to continue to ‘dance a little’, searching for bodily rhythms and pulses in the storytelling, ‘to “dance a little” may entail a greater focus on events, affective states, the unsaid, and the incompleteness and openness of everyday performances’ (Vannini, 2015, p. 319).

Thinking with

Revisiting empirical data from the performances, I’m guided by Deleuze and Guatarri’s reminder that art, as w'ell as philosophy and science, are ways of thinking; art is working through affect and with affects; the artist creating affects, not only in the artwork, but also by offering them to us in a becoming (as an audience), and as a part of an assemblage (Deleuze & Guattari 1991, p. 501). My attention is moved by this to wonder how affects in a performance are working and what they do. According to Hovik (2019), little attention has been given to researching affect as a dimension in theatre for young children in Norway. However, it is obvious that affect has implications in the art event with a lively and young audience and their accompanying adults. Every scenic event is unique and unstable, created in the movements in time and place. For Deleuze and Guattari (1980/2005), we may appreciate the theatre performance as an assemblage including the affects of entangled elements in the performance’s processes of becoming.

Working with affect

Brian Massumi gives attention to what can affect and be affected. For him, affect can be understood as autonomic bodily processes that are independent from reflections or language. Massumi suggests that ‘intensity is embodied in purely autonomic reactions most directly manifested in the skin—at the surface of the body, at its interface with things’ (Massumi, 1995, p. 85). Theatre is a social art form in experiencing how the art is done with and among children and adults, and as such working creatively with a performance, one can explore how expressions affect the audience.

However, affects, according to Massumi, are not working on a subjective level in the way that actors might create different emotions among the audience. Affects are working more like intensities between small and big moving bodies, cushions, sounds and temperatures affecting us unconsciously (Massumi, 1995, 2015). The performative event w'orks with affects, and we are all entangled in the becoming of the performance. This opens possibilities to give attention to the sensory communication in theatre, not only as presence, but also as affects.

Poetic affects

Slowly adults and children find their seats around me on small colored cushions that are placed in a half-circle on the floor in front of the stage. One of the three actors makes her way out of a wheeled steel box that for this scene becomes a pram at the back of the stage. She jumps in her sleeping bag towards the audience while the other two actors, who have been greeting the children while they were arriving, are now dancing between the yellow and orange umbrellas that are scattered like a curtain on the floor. One by one the umbrellas are folded and closed with a little click. Attention towards the stage is rising and the place-space turns silent. Affectively the tension is intense, goosebumps on my arms and a tear pressing its way in the corner of my eye, being surrounded by so many small and big bodies in complete tension. Then, suddenly a tiny but clear voice breaks out in a ‘bah!’

(Field notes, March 2008)

This moment is moving. An embodied intensity and energy are present in and among bodies around me. There we are sitting close to each other on the floor. Being present in this moment of beginning has an effect on all of us.

Possibilities of affect

The affective turn opens up other narratives in my analytic approach to theatre art for children. What creates affect in bodies during the opening scene are intensities from movements of dancers and umbrellas in all directions together with little clicks from the umbrellas when they are closed, while music of water drop-like sounds, slowly is creating rhythmical magic. However, the affect is also created by the intensities of focus and curiosity in small and big bodies that are either standing, lying or sitting close together on the floor with faces turned towards the performers who are also affected in this moment of smiling dialogues.

Though artistic strategies are made with movements, objects, gazes and rhythms in order to make the scenic event special and magic, the performing moment is filled with uncertainty. Questions of how the audience react, will the children pay any attention, or will they start crying, are parts of the uncertainty artists as well as accompanying adults might have. The gap between how the affected value of a performance and how it is experienced might involve a range of affects (Ahmed, 2010, p. 37). In Readymade Baby, movements of adult pointing fingers and hands grabbing small bodies in attempts to transgress the invisible line between stage and audience space in a first meeting with scenic art, were making affects. These often unspoken feedback-loops are affecting the rhythm of the performance as well as the intensity in the audience. These actions which create disturbing affects are part of the messiness and the becoming of the performance and as such offer possibilities to re-configure our concepts of what is working in art experiences for young children (and their adults).

Auto-poetic feedback-loops

Though most studies in the field of theatre for young children recognize the audience as an embodied and interactive part of the communication (Borgen, 200.3; Hernes et al., 2010; Hovik & Nagel, 2017; Solli, 2014), little attention is given to more-than-human elements and non-representational aspects of communication. Theatre is a multimodal art form and as such, artists from different arts practices are working with material elements like stage light, music, costumes and scenographic installations. I want to investigate how other-than-human elements like intensities, sounds, temperatures and expectations intra-act in the becoming of the art event and by that decentring the human subject and social actions between actors and audience (Barad, 2007; Lenz Taguchi, 2010).

With performance art and post-dramatic theatre, the autonomy of the work, as well as representation, is challenged. Several twentieth-century cultural-political movements including Dadaism, the avant-garde, the 1968 student rebellions, and more recently the Occupy movement, have been significant to the emergence of performance art (Bishop, 2012; Bourriaud, 1998; Fischer-Lichte, 2008; Lehmann, 2006; Sauter, 2000). In discussing participatory art, Bishop refers to the performance as a profound embodied meeting between artists and audiences in time and space. The political context, she states, also has a significant role in art production, ‘the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a со- producer or participant’ (Bishop 2012, p. 2). The spontaneous verbal and non-verbal communication between actors and audience is the core of a performance.

According to Fischer-Lichte, ‘the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators enables and constitutes the performance’ (Fischer-Lichte, 2008, p. 132). She highlights that the communication can be regarded as auto-poetic feedback-loops, where the spontaneous and sensory communication between actors and audience is unpredictable and creates the uncertainty of the performing event (Fischer- Lichte, 2008). Performing for a very young audience, these feedback-loops are clearly parts of the performance and as such, the audience becomes an intraactive part of the performance. The participation of the audience is what creates the lack of control and uncertainty but also possibilities in the becoming of a performance for/with young children and their accompanying adults.

Readymade Baby

Drawing on the empiric data from my involvement in Readymade Baby, and through the lens/method of devised theatre, I revisit that work in terms of intraaction and affect. The ensemble developed the performance through improvisations with movements, music, sounds and objects in crossovers of dance and theatre. Three performers (two dancers and a musician2) investigated objects, costumes and sounds as well as choreographic possibilities. During the performance, orange and yellow umbrellas danced a poetic opening of the performance and blue, green and pink cleaning mittens placed on hands, on feet and heads were creating playful and absurd movements and situations. Megaphones were turned into mystical instruments with whispering sounds and twisted voices.

In Aristotelian dramaturgy used in traditional theatre for children, literary' text and linear narrative is predominant. However, the devised performative dramaturgy' used in Readymade Baby valued elements like bodies, sounds, movements and objects in the performing event (Arntzen, 2015; Glads» el al., 200.5; 0stern & Hovik, 2017). Likewise, the focus was moved from the actors representing different characters, to non-representational bodies and movements and the ensemble emphasising playfulness in the absurd and the poetic, as well as sensory intraactions with the audience. According to Guss (2001) children’s playing is an aesthetic form of expression. In this way, we worked with expressions of form and content, creating moments that would generate surprise and wondering as well as challenging the child audience.

During the rehearsal period, groups of young children from a kindergarten were invited several times to the rehearsal studio with their teachers. The intentions of the production team were to explore feedback-loops with affects from human and non-human elements. With observations and video-lakes, discussions were had with the participants after each rehearsal around possible scenic strategies when listening to the affective communication.

Listening research

During the production and following touring of Readymade Baby, I worked closely with the instructor and the actors as a dramaturgical advisor on the performative communication, discussing how and what different artistic strategies involving humans and non-humans were producing among the audience and onstage to investigate creative possibilities. Drawing on Braidotti’s nomadic theory, Eeg- Tverbakk suggests the dramaturg as a ‘nomadic subject’, a subject that lives in and with transformations affected by encounters with other things and bodies. ‘A nomadic dramaturg interrogates and negotiates power relations, always shifting positions and engaging in different ways with her surroundings’ (Eeg-Tverbakk,

2016, p. 28).

Being a nomadic researcher in the middle of the creative entanglement, I am engaged in sensorial listening focusing on relations and formations taking place in the encounter between humans and non-humans as affective parts of the performative moment. The audience of children accompanied by adults (parents or teachers), is a moving mass, audible, with shifting focus and desires. As such, it is not only artistic strategies and expressions of dancers, costumes and scenographic elements that are creating the performance; small and big bodies in dancing movements, rhythms, intensities, sounds, expectations and power relations are also part of the messiness and instability that produces the becoming of the performance.

I have now tried to map out some significant elements of theatre art for children as it has come to exist in the field of early childhood studies as well as onstage. Theatre for young children as performance art and non-representational performance, is different to traditional dramatic theatre art. On revisiting my empirical data using theories of affect and from new materialism, I explore this difference regarding what affects are produced in the complexity of scenic events for children, exploring how research on affect between humans and non-humans in scenic communication can contribute to research on theatre for young children differently and what might that produce.

Disturbances and possibilities

The three actors onstage are all singing an opera-like polyphonic song (in nonsense-language) to recorded music. During the scene, the sound of the music and singing becomes rather loud and intensifies. One of the dancers sits on a cushion on wheels formed like a red mushroom made in faux fur, rolling back and forth, each time closer and closer to the audience. Several of the adults among the audiences are now moving anxiously. They turn towards the children’s faces. Quite a few lift the children to their laps or put an arm around. The majority of the children are sitting with bodies leaned forward and follow the actions on stage with intense and severe focus.

(Field notes, April 2008)

This affective scene evokes my curiosity and makes me enter into questions of what is working and in what ways. The music and singing slowly change in the dynamic, shifting between harmony and disharmony. The dancer sitting on the wheeling mushroom cushion is moving back and forth across the stage in the same slow pulse as the music, getting closer to the intensely focused children sitting on the floor.

Sound is resonance created by vibrations that have the potential to affect our bodies. How bodies are affected is subjective, as how some sounds are evocative to one person and noise to another. Yet they are also socio-culturally constructed, based on ideas and ideals attributed to the given sounds (Gershon, 2013). The vibrations of the sounds affect small bodies in this scene. The singing dancer, rolling back and forth affected by the pulse of the music, creates together with movements and sounds, intensities and suspense. Being physically on a level with the children, her smiling gaze and body are directed towards and in tune with the children on the floor in front of her.

The sounds and movements affect adult bodies differently where the vibrations and intensity of sounds and movements create dis-ease. Using the notion of performative intra-actions, movements and intensities are creating agencies differently, where agency can be understood as a quality in between bodies involved in mutual engagements and relations (Barad, 2007; Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010). In dramatic theatre, this intensity could be used as an aesthetic means or affect to create suspense in a narrative. However, in this performative dramaturgy the different elements creating this scene are all working equally and without a narrative. The entanglement of the loud music and singing together with the movements of the dancer, the focusing children and the uneasy adult bodies creates the complexity of the communication in this scene. Giving attention to these intra-actions whether they are meaningful, noisy or scary, opens for the ongoing reconfiguring of practices of scenic communication with children (Barad, 2007, p. 141).

Towards the final curtain

In this chapter, my aim has been to investigate in what ways theories of affect may produce other stories of communication in performing art for young children. Relating to children’s playing and non-verbal sensuous communication, this performance draws on performative dramaturgies rather than on traditional narratives. A young audience comes with enormous vitality and also many uncertainties. Using affect theory makes it possible to give attention to this liveliness and uncertainty to investigate what and how this is working in the becoming of the performance event.

During my research, my attention has been drawn to how dancing, jumping, crawling bodies and megaphones, rhythm and expectations are entangled and create particular kinds of affects. Artists are working with affect, and in producing scenic art, they are sensitive to the affective impact on the audience, co-creating the performance (Borgen, 2003). However, attention is often given to human presence and embodied communication (Fischer-Lichte, 2008; Hovik, 2019) over non-human participants.

A teacher stated in one of my research interviews (2008) that she did not understand anything, but recognised dial the children were absorbed in the performance. With attention to affects, feed-back-loops in intra-actions with affects of more-than- human elements like sounds, intensities and expectations create odier readings of the art-event. In this performance, the concept of ‘audience’ as quietly and passively receiving, seems to prevail among the adult audience, which causes them to pull crawling children away from the stage. Additionally, values about and interpretations of dissonant or loud music as ‘disturbing’ for young children, or not necessarily ‘art’, emerge. This chapter has sought to explore, additionally, in what ways intraactions of disturbances, uncertainties and intense affects may open up multiple possibilities in new creative becomings of performance in ways that reconcile with young children’s ways of being in the world—with or without dieir adults.


  • 1 Readymade Baby was produced in March 2008 with funding from Norwegian Art Council and was performed more than 250 times in numerous European countries as well in Chile and Brazil until 2013. The director and choreographer Karstein Solli has since 2005 produced and directed several performances for children at the age group 0-3.
  • 2 The two female dancers, Beata Kretovicova Iden and Marianne Skjeldal and the male singer and musician 0ystein EUc performed with singing and dancing. Oystcin being a countertenor, created with light tones unique soundscapes in addition to recorded instrumental music mixed with electro-acoustic music played on stage.


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