- Everything will be touched. And probably quite a few things will be chewed on as well. From the cloth drapes lining the walls to the glass-bead feet of the water skimmer bug puppets, we anticipted that every element needed to stand up to intense tactile exploration by small hands. We made sure that everything that needed to stay fixed was firmly attached, and that everything that was intended to be picked up could withstand a lot of use. Our aesthetic is very hand-crafted and we want everything we have in this show to look like it is made out of familiar materials, but even though it looks slapped together during an afternoon playdate, weeks of planning and buckets of hot glue went into ensuring that our props were up to the challenge of the audience.
- Teaching the rules. In any interactive theatre, the audience wants to have the rules for participation clearly defined. If you talk to the performers, will they talk back to you? Can you go on stage? Should you keep your shoes on? In theatre for young audiences, this applys doubly because not only do we have to teach the rules of participation to the kids, we also need to teach it to their adult companions. Kids are used to being told where they can sit, when they can touch something, so they are eager to learn the rules. Also, young children have much less experience with theatre, so they haven't been trained to sit quietly and passively watch - participating comes naturally to them. Adults, however, want to make sure that their kids are not misbehaving and bring a lot of baggage into the space about what an audience member's role is during a show. We decided that at the beginning of the show we would tell the audience "NO" before we told them "YES," letting them know that it isn't a free for all and that we would have certain rules about what you could do when. But after that we try to give them clear instructions (sometimes with our voices, sometimes by modeling behavior with a puppet) about how to move around the space and touch the objects. Once everyone is on board with knowing the rules of the game, it is much easier to sit back and enjoy the story.
- What IS the story? Children under 5 are largely non-narrative. While they are very interested in cause and effect and how incidents fit into a larger context, they are not particularly interested in a character's emotional growth or figurative journey. Under the Tree has a loose story of a young girl running away from home and finding a new hiding spot, but the "plot" of the story is mostly her discoveries within the new place. This perfectly matches the developmental desires of our young audience to experience new things within a familiar context and appreciate a story as it relates to their own experience. Half of our audience, however is much older than 5 and does need that narrative arc. During this weekend's performances we discovered that we needed more solid narrative action (or at least more clearly expressed action) for the adults in our audience and are currently working on finding stronger ways to "raise the stakes" and express the character's emotional journey.
It has been a great development phase for this play and we are learning so much from every audience we have join us "under the tree." I look forward to sharing more about our development in the future and producing this show in Brooklyn in June!