Over the last few years, Fevered Sleep (the company of which I’m co-artistic director) has been exploring different ways to involve children in the creative processes through which we make our work. How we do this takes many forms, but at the heart of it is always the same belief: that, as artists, we have much to gain from making spaces in which children’s voices and children’s imaginations can be nurtured, whether as collaborators, co-creators or audiences.
What does this look like in practice? Well, it really depends on what we’re making. Fevered Sleep works across artforms. We make performances, films, books, installations and digital art. Sometimes the work we make is for audiences of children (such as our trilogy of shows based on a child’s daily rituals, “Feast Your Eyes”, “And the Rain Falls Down” and “Brilliant”); sometimes it’s for adults; and sometimes it’s for anyone, regardless of their age.
We’ve also made a series of projects which involve children as collaborators and performers, such as “On Ageing” at the Young Vic Theatre in London in 2010. This year, we’re presenting our new dance work, “Men & Girls Dance”, which tackles head on the tricky politics of how men and children are allowed to interact, and is performed by five professional male dancers, and nine 8-11 year old girls who dance for fun. In both these shows, children have been absolutely central to the project and to the creative process.
Again and again, I’ve found myself really surprised by the ways in which the children taking part have responded to tasks and questions that have been asked of them, and by the ideas, emotions and energy they’ve brought to our creative process. Like artists, children live in a world defined and understood through play, and like artists, children model the world in endlessly different ways, in order to learn it, shape it, test it, and find a place in it.
These parallels - between the playful, searching, questioning imaginations of children and of artists - ought to bring more artists into contact with more children more of the time, but it seems to me that we still live in a time – unfortunately – in which children are not seen as potential audiences for the very finest work of the very best artists, nor recognised as people who can make a really rich and provocative contribution to artists’ work.
Of course I’m not suggesting that all artists should invite other people – whether children or adults – into their creative process. How and why artists make their work differs hugely from person to person, and some processes are more solitary than others. I’m simply observing, and recounting from experience, how invigorating and creatively exciting it can be for an artist to come into contact with a child, how that child’s different point of view on the world can enrich our practice, and how, by celebrating children’s creativity, we can also advocate for children’s rights, and status, and potential, and importance.
At a time when children continue to be denied their rights to a full, creative, liberated, liberating experience of the world, this work feels important and necessary.
Back to Fevered Sleep. Even when we’re not making a project in which children have a central part to play as performers or co-creators, we’ll always be keen to find mechanisms to bring them – and their voices and imaginations – into the work. This might be by showing work in progress, or inviting them to talk or play with us in response to a particular theme that we’re exploring. It’s sometimes by visiting schools to run R&D workshops, to help us understand the things we’re exploring better (by bringing many pairs of fresh eyes to bear on things).
However we engage with them, we’ve really found that our work is better if we create opportunities for children to feed into its making.
One of the upshots of this is that we spend a lot of time travelling to different parts of the UK. On one project, we met children who lived in inner city London, in rural Lancashire, in Birmingham and on the very far northeastern tip of Scotland. Four wildly different communities, whose children experienced and imagined the world in hugely different ways. It’s important to acknowledge the great diversity of “children”.
As well as the incredible differences between, say, a two year old, a four year old, and a seven year old, there are further, deep differences depending on the communities, locations and cultures that we make sure to visit. Acknowledging all of this, and finding ways to connect with all sorts of children in all kinds of places, has become a simply brilliant, and essential, part of our creative process.
And as I said before, there’s a politics to this attitude to children too. There’s a politics in this celebration of children’s imaginations, creative voices, and capacity to think in deep, surprising and complex ways about all the same things that we’re thinking about as artists (regardless of the subject matter – we don’t think anything is out of bounds as long as it’s framed and approached in the right way).
The combination of this politics, and the clear creative benefit that working with children has brought to the projects we make, drives Fevered Sleep to maintain a deep, unwavering commitment to children: children as audiences, children as collaborators, children as critics (our fiercest critics), and children as citizens, citizens with as much right as anyone else to have access to the very best art.
We have a government that appears to be confused about the role of arts and education in children’s lives (diminishing the importance of compulsory arts subjects in school at the same time as increasing subsidy to Arts Council England), and so it seems more urgent than ever to find ways in which artists and children can come together, in ways that are enriching and necessary for both.