Replay Babble About Theatre

Two new productions from Northern Ireland's theatre company dedicated to young audiences are set to light up the 2013 Belfast Children's Festival this March

Theatre is something adults go to. Often it’s a habit you acquire in later life, like drinking decent wine or reading classic literature. It hasn’t much to offer the average teenager, and even less if you are younger. Television and video games are much more popular...

It’s preconceptions like these that Belfast’s Replay Theatre Company was established to combat, and 25 years since its inception, Replay is still energetically addressing the challenge of creating theatrical experiences exclusively for the 0-18 year-old age group.

‘We’ve just recently moved from the Old Museum Arts Centre to new offices in the wonderful Skainos Project on the Newtownards Road,’ explains Replay’s artistic director, Anna Newell. ‘We’re very excited about plans for the next couple of years.’

Reasons for that excitement aren’t difficult to find. Between January and March 2013, the company will launch its anniversary celebrations by staging a new production, Lifeboat, and Babble, which premiered at the Pick 'n' Mix Festival in 2012, at this year’s Belfast Children’s Festival, which this runs from March 8-15.

The most unusual and eye-catching of these Replay productions is undoubtedly Babble, a show that is targeted at Replay’s youngest ever demographic: babies up to 18 months old, accompanied by parents.

Babble takes place inside a unique construction called the ‘Bubble’, described by Newell as ‘a portable performance space, about seven metres high and four metres wide, a dome that can go wherever the audiences are'.

Inside it, lying on their backs, the babies experience ‘a magical world of voices and moving pictures’, described by one adult participant in development workshops as ‘perfect for the age-group', with ‘fantastic potential for expanding the children’s sensory development with its combination of soft textures, visuals and sound'.

Newell’s focus on music and moving images as potent media for creating theatrical interactions is no accident.

‘I come from a very interdisciplinary background, so a lot of the work that we’ve been making in the last couple of years has had strong video elements. And I would tend to score most shows like a film,' shes says, 'so we have soundscape through them. For me, it is about responding to the newer audiences that we’re working with.’

One such audience are the primary and secondary school pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties who recently experienced Bliss, the show for which the Replay ‘Bubble’ was originally invented.

‘For Bliss what was really needed was something that was very immersive, very multi-sensory,’ Newell explains. ‘And we were very lucky to be collaborating with Tim Webb from London’s Oily Cart company, who are world leaders in that kind of work.

‘The ‘Bubble’ designer, Ciaran Bagnall, made these beautiful padded boats that the pupils watched the performance from. There were only six audience members at any time, it was very up-close. The experience was kinaesthetic, it was oral.’

For Newell, the degree of distraction-free focus offered by Bagnall’s ‘Bubble’ is crucial to creating the environment needed to fruitfully engage the special type of audience Bliss was aimed at. ‘Many of that audience would have limited hearing, limited sight. There were six performers, as well as six audience members. So a lot of the piece is on a one-to-one basis.’

And it worked. ‘The response was extraordinary, really overwhelming. The teachers said that this is an audience nobody makes work for here [in Northern Ireland]. For me it was about creating something really gorgeous, uplifting and beautiful, that people responded to on a visceral level, which I think is what theatre should be anyway.’

The same core principles underlying the creation of Bliss also inform Babble, in which the padded boats of Bagnall’s original designs are replaced by soft foam for the participating babies to lie on. Babble's content has once again been carefully researched and tried out in development beforehand.

‘Babies very rarely get to hear people singing in harmony up close,’ smiles Newell. ‘And it’s very important for me, in terms of quality, that the guy who’s composing the music is an award-winning composer, David Goodall. We’re working with a speech and language development expert to look at the sort of sounds we might put in it.’

Though Newell is particularly animated about Bliss and Babble, and the new audiences Replay has reached with them, she is careful to point out that the company is continuing to prioritise the age-groups it has regularly made theatre for in the past quarter of a century.

‘We’re very passionate about making work that is absolutely age-appropriate. Even within a two-year span children change dramatically, and it’s really up to us to make theatre that is absolutely right for our audiences.’ The new show that Replay will be presenting in tandem with Babble at the Belfast Children’s Festival is, accordingly, very specifically targeted.

Nicola McCartney’s Lifeboat, for 8-11 year-olds, tells the true story of Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, who survived 19 hours in an upturned lifeboat, when the ship that they were emigrating in from war-torn Britain to Canada was torpedoed by enemy forces in 1940.

Underpinning all three productions is Newell’s unwavering commitment to the special role that theatre has to play in contemporary society, and her conviction that it is an art-form which absolutely no age-group should be excluded from.

‘There’s something extraordinarily human about the live performance act,’ she muses. ‘Kids have extraordinary imaginations, and I think that creativity engenders the idea that people have different opinions, that people can see the world different ways, that there may be different ways of being and thinking.’

‘And if people know that things can be different, then they can imagine a different present and future. I believe that the arts and creativity are a crucial part of our lives, and so should be around people at every age. To have light, and joy, and beauty in your life, I think creates a different kind of society.’

Visit the Replay Theatre Company website for more information on the above new productions.