I have written many study guides demonstrating how a performance links to academic standards, led pre-show sessions linking math to an upcoming play and taught post-show workshops focusing on sequencing through tableaux. I believe that all of this work was valuable, and it engaged young audience members who learned something through each of these experiences. I have also participated in the cast meet and greet, printed coloring pages of the characters for children who get to the theatre early and presented ‘behind the scenes’ information in the lobby. Children enjoy these experiences too, but recently it was brought to my attention that all of these activities focus on young audience members being passive participants who follow where we, the artists, lead them. Recognizing this I began to wonder what it would look like to engage children as creative artists.
I encountered this idea of engaging children as creative artists while working on The Balloon Project at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). The Balloon Project, an exchange with Patch Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Dave Brown in which Dave led student-artists from UT Austin through a visual theatre devising process and UT Austin students and faculty helped Dave gain an understanding of the community engagement models we implement in our work. While Dave led the student-artists through open explorations and play that would later be refined into segments for The Balloon Project performance, I focused on designing the pre- and post-show engagements. The idea emerged that these engagements would somehow intersect with the performance offering the audience the opportunity to engage in a bit of the open exploration and play the artists used in creating the performance.
To facilitate this experience, each child received a small balloon as they entered the lobby outside the theatre. In addition, two large tables were covered with black and white objects, in the shape of either a line or a circle. No instructions were given to the children on what to do with the balloons, and the performers engaged with the children non-verbally while two musicians played ukulele in the center of the space. The young audience members played with their balloons and the performers began to play alongside them. Performers mirrored the actions of young audience members as they balanced, shook and threw their balloons or sat silently beside a child as they created a picture using the materials on the tables. In this pre-show engagement the audience was empowered to create and explore using the same objects the performers would later use within the show. When it was time to enter the theatre, the ushers requested that children place their balloons into baskets. The student-artists followed the audience from the lobby into the performance space to begin the show. After the performance the student-artists led the audience in a procession back into the lobby. As the audience moved to the lobby at the completion of the performance balloons were re-distributed to young audience members. The audience could then add their balloon to the collection of objects used in the show that the performers brought out and displayed in the lobby or they could continue to explore with their balloons as they saw fit. The tables of black and white shapes were left accessible to encourage audience members to make their own artwork inspired by the performance they had just seen.
Before The Balloon Project I hadn’t given much thought to how audience members could engage as artists when seeing a performance. In my mind I had unintentionally made a distinction that children engaged as artists when in art classes, that they engaged as learners while in a school setting and that they engaged as passive viewers when in role as audience members. In post-show workshops I might ask students to re-tell what they saw using drama, but there was very little creating asked of them. Creation, it seems, is often left to the professional artists. Recognizing this, I have begun to make a conscious effort to think of the young people I come in contact with as creative artists, learners and viewers despite the setting.
Pablo Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” One way to help keep the artist alive in children is to find opportunities to engage them as creative artists. So I challenge you to take a moment and think about:
- Who is being given the chance to create within your theatre?
- What is being created by and for children?
- Where can simple shifts open the way for children to explore and create rather then recreate?
- When can you move away from pre-determined outcomes to allow for discovery?
- Why does there need to be a ‘right way’ or a pattern when the arts hold the power to open up minds?
And ultimately, how can audiences be engaged as creative artists?