TB Agent Blog – My visit to TakeOff Festival of Children’s Theatre, 2017

TB Agents BlogNo DescriptionTakeOff Festival, Durham
Cat Boot

Theatre Bristol supportted circus-theatre maker Cat Boot as a TB Agent to visit TakeOff Festival in Durham, Britain’s leading festival of children’s theatre. Here she reflects on her experiences at the festival.

In October I was offered a workshop place exploring Teatro Al Vacío’s approach to making dance for early years audiences. This was part of an initiative between the European funded Small Size network and Polka Theatre, and a pre-cursor to TakeOff Festival 2017, an international annual festival of work for young audiences presented by Theatre Hullaballoo. The good people at TB were kind enough to pay towards my delegate ticket as part of the TB agents’ scheme, and so I packed my bags.

I wanted to do this because earlier this year I made the first draft of a show with my company, Can’t Sit Still. The show is called Plink and Boo. It’s for 2-5 year olds and their grown ups and playfully explores gender stereotypes in children’s toys. We’re working towards finishing the creation and taking it out on tour from Autumn 2018, so this opportunity was perfectly timed to see stuff, reflect on my own practice, talk to programmers and have a week away from the multiple demands of teaching, parenting and trying to run a company. A week of space.

Space came in many different forms throughout the week.

Teatro Al Vacío are a Mexican company that have created a beautifully simple yet complex show for 3-6 year olds called Close (Cerca). Over 2 days we were given an insight into their very gentle, spacious approach to making work. Nothing was rushed, everything was considered. We took part in durational improvisation exercises that is are an important part of the process for Adrian and José (performers and directors). Moving through the difficulty or even boredom that can come from undertaking an exercise for a long time leads to a sort of creative crisis – you have to make a decision to change it or find something new, even if this veers away from the original instruction. This very spacious, gentle and rigorous approach felt like a real treat. Adrian and José invited us to consider a method where allowing the idea space and time to breathe was the aim, not the place in which you get stuck. It reminds me of the Improbable way of working – “We have so much to do, we have such little time, we must slow down”. I don’t think I can ever hear this enough.

Space to connect

The luxury of staying on for the two and a half day delegate festival following the workshop added to the feeling of spaciousness the week provided. It allowed me to get to know my fellow participants in greater depth, rather than rushing up to Durham only to rush home again a couple of days later. I’ve done a couple of five day workshops this year, and met some wonderful people, with whom exciting collaborative conversations and ways of working have begun. However, five days never seems long enough to form truly meaningful relationships. Space to connect with others is important – I’d like more of it.

(Open) space

The delegate festival itself was absolutely jam packed. On Thursday I saw five shows, one script in hand reading and attended a meeting, and I didn’t do all the things on my timetable. In this instance the lack of space didn’t work for me. Prior to the festival I had made arrangements with several people who wanted to discuss booking Plink and Boo next year, and I simply didn’t manage to find them all. Open Space Technology tells us that the coffee breaks are the most important parts of any conference. Despite the amazing line up of work on offer at TakeOff, I could have done with a few more coffee breaks.

Physical space – performers and audience

Most of the work at TakeOff employed a fairly traditional use of space and fourth wall, with the audience as observer, rather than participant. However, in Plink and Boo (as in lots of my work), I’m interested in a lack of divide between the audience and performer. One of our initial lines of enquiry during creation was to explore what would happen if children were allowed to move freely around the space during the performance, with the notion that if they followed their interest they could build a richer and more meaningful experience than one which we prescribed for them. The first draft of Plink and Boo was participatory, if not the free-for-all that I would have liked. However, this element of the show has been met warmly by parents, childcare professionals and children themselves, who have encouraged us to explore the idea further. I don’t think my interest is shared by some very respected programmers of work for young audiences, one of whom told me that they “have an allergy to participatory work for children”. But I think that there’s space in this for all of us.  Interestingly, TakeOff invite a different guest programmer each year. I think this is a great approach. We all have different tastes, so let’s see what’s out there.

Space – the fin(anci)al frontier

The week at TakeOff and chats with many wonderful programmers and theatre companies were a polite awakening regarding how naïve I’ve been in trying to achieve a fee for Plink and Boo that would genuinely cover the costs of the company, creative team, performers, publicity, travel and accommodation. And I don’t mean this flippantly – theatres can’t afford to book shows that won’t make back the guaranteed fee sought. The Arts Council want to fund productions that can be financially sustainable beyond the funded period. Audiences don’t want to pay high prices for a ticket, and I don’t want them to either. So who pays for reduced capacity shows for 2-5 year olds? Should I have found out the financial reality BEFORE creating the show, and made what was realistic, rather than what I dreamed about? That doesn’t sound like a positive way of working to me.

So my question is this: if we’re not given the financial space to make the work we want to make, that we feel is truly serving of the artistic vision and reaches its potential in every way, is there any point in making what we can afford to with the money available? Is this not a dangerous vicious circle, where the lack of investment leads to poorer quality, less exciting work, leading to even less investment and interest in future work? What’s the way out? Answers on the back of a postcard please.

And finally…

I just want to say a big thank you to all at TakeOff and Theatre Hullaballoo for a really well organised festival and the opportunity to work with Teatro Al Vacío, and also to the good eggs at team TB for the cash and on-going support. I heard last week that, following my participation in a post festival evaluation survey, I had been entered into a prize draw for a free delegate pass for next year’s festival. And guess what? I won! This gift is just going to keep on giving.

If you would like to apply to be a TB Agent, and be supported by Theatre Bristol to attend an industry event or conference, find out more and apply here.