Janet Stanford has been the Founding Artistic Director at Imagination Stage for over 20 years. Under her leadership, Imagination Stage has become a leader for Theatre for the Very Young (TVY) programming around the world! Some of their original TVY works including Wake Up, Brother Bear, Inside Out, and Mouse on the Move are available in the PNA catalogue and we are excited to introduce their newest work, Mother Goose!
Why do you find this work important for your community?
Artistic leadership at Imagination Stage began seeing Theatre for the Very Young (TVY) plays at international festivals in the 1990’s and was intrigued by the idea of making developmentally appropriate theatre for children ages 1-4. We applied for and later received a two-year Doris Duke Foundation Audience Development grant in order to start our program. We began by collaborating with European artists whose TVY work we admired, and then we devised our own scripts using the elements we most enjoyed including a small audience, lots of sensory experiences for the young children, and ways for them to add to the creation of scenic elements and participate on the stage. The work was instantly embraced by both parents and educators in our community. We have augmented our own original shows with others by artists like Barry Kornhauser and Annie Cusick. We have partnered with TVY artists in England, Italy, and Spain. And in 2018, we took Inside Out to the South Korean 25th Summer Festival in Seoul and Busan. Children of all ages benefit from live theatre which appeals to their specific interests and abilities. TVY introduces pre-school skills in the context of a communal experience. Children are eased into live theatre with gentle music, episodic story elements, and the freedom to come and go from their seat without pressure to pay attention or behave in a certain way. Interestingly, parents who often tell us that their child cannot attend to anything for 45 minutes find that TVY absorbs them completely.
What drew you to the stories of Mother Goose?
These traditional tunes and stories have survived because they are catchy, fun, and introduce characters who are part of the fabric of Western culture. We were quickly drawn to the song about the old woman who cleans the sky of cobwebs because it is epic and magical and suggests a journey that we can all take into the sky at the climax of the story. Along the way, we meet some iconic characters: the reckless Humpty Dumpty, over-bearing King Cole, industrious Itsy Bitsy Spider, Mary’s beloved Little Lamb, and the highly emotional Little Kittens with mittens. The themes involve helping others and working together. One goal is to find the feelings that underpin these rhymes and lend them the depth and heart that has made them endure in the first place.
When you are developing a new piece for early childhood, what aspects do you look for in a story?
While there are as many ways to make TVY as there are artists who want to do it, we have found that this age group loves handling props, having simple ways to participate in the action, a chance to co-create a beautiful sculpture on the stage, anything sensory that you can add to the storytelling—a spray of water or a feather to touch. It is also good to involve music. And the segments of the piece should be varied between energetic and calmer sections so that the children’s short attention span is acknowledged and celebrated.
What advice do you have for theatres wanting to implement early childhood programs in their own communities?
In creating a piece for your audience, use your own knowledge and memory of the early years. Trust those instincts and make something wonderful for the toddler in you! If you can find actors with clown skills, hire them for this work. We have found that the actors’ clarity of movement and comic timing are key to holding the attention of young children. As producers, let the audience know that all children are welcome and that there is no expectation that the audience needs to behave in any set way. You will find that parents typically want these shows in the morning so as not to conflict with nap times. Sometimes, we have published book versions of our plays so that caregivers can revisit the stories at home. We also limit the audience for this work to 50 children with 50 adults. Part of the charm is that everyone can get involved safely and we have found that more than 100 makes that impossible for the more participatory plays.
Want more information about shows for your youngest theatre goers? Check out our full list of TVY titles here.