CTC's Newest Play for Preschool Audiences | Babble Lab

Children's Theatre Company Acting Company member, Autumn Ness, dives into the world of new play development with her most-recent creation, Babble Lab. Autumn Ness is celebrating her 23rd season as a member of the CTC Acting Company and is the recipient of the 2018 TCG Fox Foundation Fellowship, the 2020 MRAC Next Step Fund, and the 2022 MN State Arts Board Creative Support Grant which all supported this project. We sat down with Autumn to hear more about the creation of Babble Lab

To start, what exactly is Babble Lab and what is your role in it?

About 10 years ago, I did my first show for the preschool audience, The Biggest Little House in the Forest, and I was absolutely hooked. I loved all of it — the way there is no barrier between the audience and the show, the way they respond back to you, and how clean you have to be in your actions to make the story work! After that, I started to try to develop my own.

I would go to Peter Brosius (Children’s Theatre Company’s Artistic Director) every summer to pitch different ideas for a good preschool play — a play about an unemployed fairy, a puppet Alice in Wonderland, a funky take on Fun with Dick and Jane. They were all terrible and Peter was always kind and encouraging. Because of that, I kept going. Then, two years ago, during one of those meetings, I did five minutes of holding those plastic alphabet magnets and making letter sounds. Just a small, silly little thing, and Peter said “that’s really cool, I like that.” I started by creating 15-minute chunks of a show that would be wordless — only letter sounds. I would meet with Peter and other staff whenever I could grab an hour, in whatever space was available, and we’d all say “this was interesting, this was not, more of this, less of that.”

Hugo Ball sound poem circa 1917.

Then my husband (who is also in the Acting Company at CTC), who knew I was working on a play without “scripted lines,” showed me a YouTube video on “sound poetry.” I knew from my theatre history 101 that sound poetry was part of the “Dadaist” theatre movement, which came about in Europe at the start of WWI as a reaction to the pointlessness and horrors of the war. Dada artists said, “everything is absurd, nothing has meaning, and that is what our art will reflect.” They would write poems entirely of made-up words. It would sound so silly if we didn’t stop to think that Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and Dr. Seuss did the exact same thing, as did my boys as they were developing and growing. As a parent, I was very familiar with this occurrence and thought it would suit this play I was creating perfectly!

After some great workshop time to figure out the story, I wrote the script for Babble Lab — my very first script! I was so nervous about it that I put off emailing it to the waiting staff until the last possible second! This will be a one-person show with me as performer and creator.

Give us a brief synopsis of the play!

The story takes place in a laboratory like no one has ever seen: it’s part-chemistry lab, part-sound studio, and part-mechanic shop. I play “The Scientist,” who works alone in this curious little lab. Eventually, she discovers the ability to make vocal sounds, then puts alphabet letters together into these “sound poems.” However, the language has its own powers and causes her problems and makes a mess, though ultimately brings playfulness and joy into her work.

What about Babble Lab is different from other CTC shows?

I can say this is entirely different from all the CTC shows I’ve ever done! Not just the world of the character, or the nature of the script, but how we’re looking at bringing these letter sounds to life with projections in an interactive way. It’s going to be so epic! 

What can families expect when bringing their preschoolers to Babble Lab?

This show is made to be a “least restrictive environment” for all our kiddos. We expect our audience to express themselves during the show, and we welcome everyone being themselves while they are with us. The show starts in the lobby to help smooth any fear or uncertainty our audience might have about being in a new place. The whole experience is about an hour, and our littlest audience members have their seating right up front.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges with Babble Lab?

Oh, my gosh, there are a lot. But, I’m not being trying to be corny when I say that all the challenges have been opportunities. I’ve been creating a world from the ground up and making an interesting and cool character who can be meaningful for an audience, even when she speaks a language no one has ever heard. Even performing alone is challenging enough — there is no one to hide behind!

Do you have any fun stories about the process so far?

In our workshop process, we went to a few preschools to try out a short segment. At first, they were pretty quiet, and then I started some of the made-up language bits: they began to laugh. It got to where I had to stop because I couldn’t hear myself. At the end, we did a question-and-answer session where I asked how the show made them feel. One four-year-old raised his hand and proclaimed “best play ever!” I’m guessing it was also his first play ever — but I’ll take the compliment.

Share a bit more about the Dada influence?

Once I discovered the Dada poems, I started trying to learn more about that art form. I went to Holland for a week to work with a Dutch sound poem master and had a crash course in this new type of performance. It was a totally weird, totally awesome week!

Check out one of Hugo Ball’s Dadist sound poems!

What kind of takeaway to do you hope the audience has after seeing the show?

For me, the takeaway is very personal. Both my children struggled in their development of spoken speech, and then later with their reading and writing. You start to see that children have a strict “right and wrong” way put upon them on how to use language and communication. The discoveries of words when you’re young, seeing how letters come together, and the power of your words should be magical, musical, playful, and fearless! That’s what I want for the preschoolers who leave our play. 


Check out these new pieces along with all of our Theatre for the Very Young titles here

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