By Lise Hovik
The Red Shoes was an artistic research project working on the idea of improvisation and free playing as a path to good communication in children´s theatre. It explored different forms of art in search for the genuine interaction between actors and children, and was deeply concerned with the possibility of equal interchange between the babies and the adult performers. In this respect the project touched upon the question of democracy in art. The project resulted in an article-based dissertation, in which one of the articles asks: Baby theatre – a democratic artform?
The question of democracy in theatre for the very young could be a question of the structures of power within an artistic work, and it could be a larger question concerning cultural politics and the market economy. I will now give a brief introduction to my research concerning this topic, together with some arguments from the article above, on aspects of democracy in theatre for the very young; democracy inside the theatre and outside in the larger community, culture and market.
Democracy in theatre
In the traditional theatre space there is a distance between spectator and stage, and the communication leans on the attentive and absorbed focus from child spectator to adult actor. This setting reflects the power structure of the old theatre democracy. When thinking about western theatre at large, it is in fact not a democratic institution anymore, although it once was in ancient Greece. In traditional bourgeois theatres the audience is not meant to be heard nor seen. We are meant to pay our ticket, be quiet, sit still and hopefully be amused. The youngest audience in this kind of theatre will not necessarily obey the power structure. They might raise their voice in protest or excitement, but unfortunately no one will really listen. I would then suggest that the political voice of the baby is neglected and not respected in the larger debate on the form and content of the show.
One answer to the question of democracy in theatre could be interactive theatre. The interaction with actors or specific sites can engage the children in different forms of dialogue or interplay, or open immersive experiences in theatre spaces. But is the idea of interaction itself a guaranty of democracy, or is it just another internal power structure, pretending to be democratic? Looking closer into the interactive forms of theatre, we often find that adult power is even stronger regarding the ways children are guided, asked or invited to participate in predestinated narratives. It might as well be a tyranny in disguise.
To explore new possibilities in interactive theatre forthe very young, I have conducted three different performances throughout the research project The Red Shoes Project (2008-2013).
The Red Shoes Project
This research project consists of three closely related theatre performances for young children (0-3 years). The project was concerned with the development of dance theatre for the youngest children, in which opportunity was given for the children to participate actively and freely in the performances, and to interact with the performers. The Red Shoes Project explored the theatre event through three different art settings, following methods and research design from the field of artistic research. The Red Shoes (2008-10) was a dance theatre performance for 1-year olds, Red Shoe Missing (2011) was an art installation for 0-3 year-olds, and Mum´s Dancing (2011-12) was an improvised dance concert, also for 0-3 year-olds. All of these productions had red shoes as a connecting theme and playful artistic material.
The research project used performative aesthetics and theories of affect in the dramaturgical analyses of performance events. The dramatic structure in the three different performances shifted between the traditional common focus from spectators to stage, respectively each spectator´s individual focus, alternatively the affective multi focus of the whole event. The research elaborates on what implications these shifting focuses may have for the children, the performers and the artist-researcher. A scientific research project generally presupposes a clear focus and a reflected perspective as essential for the result, whilst the more intuitive and improvised choices inherent in the artistic processcan yield another type of knowledge. This knowledge, which is not so readily accessible through a hermeneutical interpreted “outside” perspective, becomes apparent when the interpretations are placed in dialogue with each other and with the physical experiences of the performers.
The Red Shoes Project shows that bodily knowledge of the performers and the artists are crucial in theatre for the very young. If we care to ask the babies what they would like to see and how they prefer to watch theatre we will not get a satisfactory verbal response, but their bodily response is highly readable. One of the premises of democratic exchange in this field is then to respect the small children´s bodily, musical and aesthetic language and allow a listening quality in the communication between the actors and children. This also opens up new possibilities for the parents and carers.
In a democratic society every human voicedeserves to be listened to, and every child has a right to experience arts and culture. Based on the UN convention the Arts Council in Norway initiated several projects developing arts for the very young. Another important political drive has been the kindergarten policy. From 2005 every child has been granted access to kindergarten from the age of one. As a consequence the youngest ones got new attention in pedagogical, political and aesthetic discourses. Research on toddler culture proved that very young tots have great social skills, and also a culture of their own (Løkken, 2000). Baby culture, offering aesthetic experiences in a safe and welcoming space, is now on the democratic agenda.
This new baby culture is also expanding into the adult culture. It would be easy to ironize over the cute baby culture weaving into the white Norwegian middle class and the wealthy part of society. Babies as luxury objects, adorned, decorated and glamorous kids going to suitable theatres and art exhibitions could be provoking: Do they really need this? It seems unnecessary; the baby needs food, safety and love. In the end this is true also for adults, so we could as well turn the question of art as unnecessary luxury upside down and ask: Do we need art? And if so, why should adults need it more than children? And why should elder children need it more than younger children? The answer must be that the many languages of art can communicate across political systems, power structures and conventions, and not the least, across the ages and generations.
Fletcher-Watson, B. (2012). The Proscenium Press-Gang. Participation as tyranny in arts for the very young – a provocation. In A. Dalla Rosa & A. Sacchetti (Eds.), An Idea of Art and Childhood – an open collection of thoughts. smallsize.org: Artistic International Association Small Size. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3439397/_The_Proscenium_Press-Gang_participation_as_tyranny_in_arts_for_the_very_young_.
Hovik, L. (2014a). De Røde Skoene – et kunstnerisk og teoretisk forskningsprosjekt om teater for de aller minste. Ph.d.-avhandling: NTNU, Institutt for kunst og medievitenskap.
Hovik, L. (2014b). The Red Shoes Project – theatre for the very young as artistic research. Journal for Artistic Research. Retrieved The Research Catalogue (unpublished in JAR), from http://www.researchcatalogue.net/profile/show-exposition?exposition=56059
Løkken, G. (2000). The playful quality of the toddling “style”. International Journal of Qualitiative Studies in Education, 13(5), 531-542.
Norsk Kulturråd. (2014). from www.kulturrad.no
About the author:
Lise Hovik is associate professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway. She is the artistic director of Teater Fot, an independent theatre group mainly working with theatre productions for small children in Trondheim, Norway (www.teaterfot.no), and responsible for the artistic research in the ongoing project SceSam, which explore interactive dramaturgies in children´s theatre (2012-15)(http://scesam.no).
 De Røde Skoene – et kunstnerisk og teoretisk forskningsprosjekt om teater for de aller minste (Hovik, 2014a). This article based thesis is written in Norwegian, except one long concluding English article: The Red Shoes Project - theatre for the very young as artistic research (Hovik, 2014b).
 The ancient democracy will not count as democracy today, regarding the exclusion of women, slaves and of course children.
 Ben Fletcher Watson has suggested that child participation in theatre for the very young can give the child an experience of tyranny rather than freedom and democracy (Fletcher-Watson, 2012).
 The artistic work was created by Teater Fot, in which the author is artistic director. More information on the productions and the research is found on www.teaterfot.no.
 I use the concept of event referring to Erika Fischer-Lichte and Wilmar Sauter.
 The UN Convention of Children´s Rights from 1989 was implemented in Norwegian law in 2003. Klangfugl (1998-2002), Glitterbird (2003-06) and Kunstløftet (2008-15) have quality in professional art for young children as their main target ("Norsk Kulturråd," 2014).