My career as an early years theatre specialist began when I found myself the mother of two early years children living in Hackney in the mid-90’s at a time when there were more early years children per square mile here, than anywhere else in Europe!
I thought I was pretty switched on about children. But when I went to my daughter’s nursery to do some drama sessions I was amazed. The children wanted to engage in far more complex and interesting experiences than I’d anticipated. They were bursting with ideas, energy, demands and reflections. They wanted to play imaginatively with me and this was both hard and wonderfully easy.
Fast forward two years to Edinburgh in 2000, where I stumbled on the advertisement for a three-year dedicated early years theatre post. By this time I’d been persuaded by a friend to co-write an interactive promenade for 3-8 year olds which we advertised in Time Out for birthday parties – Bird Man and Mrs Moon – it had gone well, taught me a lot and intrigued me further about the potential for drama with early years children. (I had also run a very chaotic weekly drama group in Stoke Newington called Jellies). We hid golden eggs in washing machines, climbed in through windows and sang songs as we and the children swung socks with jelly beans in around our heads!
I got the job of Wee Stories Early Years Project Director – I think I was the only person who fitted the specification. I was charged with mounting a 6-week tour of a new production based on Aesop’s Hare and the Tortoise, five weeks after starting work. I had never directed and I’d co-written a play once. I wasn’t initially at all inspired about the story of the Hare and the Tortoise! But urged on by my partner, and liberated by knowing no one in Scotland to see me fail, I took it on. I didn’t really know where to start but I was mindful of my experiences in my daughter Ruby’s nursery. I found two wonderful collaborators – Designer Catherine Lindow and Actor Deborah Arnott – I recruited the children of Leith Walk Nursery (where my younger daughter, Iona, had just started) as our consultants.
Working between drama sessions in the nursery where we tested and experimented with the script and interactions, was inspiring, fascinating and grounding. It was also hair-raising – would they like it? Would it hold their attention? Would it work? Of course with their input they would and it did. I believe any theatre for children reflects the artists creating it and their relationship with children. I felt it was important we ourselves loved our shows and would want to watch them as much as our audiences would. Working in such close contact with children as our experts really worked.
Working in this way, enabled us to hone in on what excited children about the story. Being in the play as an actor as well as writing, directing and producing it, gave me insights at every stage and interface of the work and enabled me to constantly refine and develop it. Our children’s audiences were largely experiencing theatre for the first time. Quite often a child might cry when the lights went down or the play began. So we began welcoming them and introducing ourselves at the start of every show, letting children in on the conceit of what we were about to do. This instantly eradicated expressions of anxiety and any disruption. Working in this way enabled us to begin to develop a deep understanding about what we were doing and the impact it was having on children.
It was hard not to identify opportunities to extend the impact and enjoyment of our work for children. Working so closely with our audience meant that good ideas occurred to us all the time. For me personally, I had found a place where I could use all my experience, everything I’d learned in 16 years in the theatre and nearly 40 years of life! The clarity of focus was liberating, our audience both generous and honest, so we learned quickly! Catherine’s design - using a washing basket for Tortoise’s shell and a pair of red tights on the actor’s head for Hare’s ears - not only tickled children pink but we soon heard that children all over Scotland were recreating Hare and Tortoise with the tights and the washing basket! Re-mounting the show for the fifth time this Christmas 2014, several 17 year olds and numerous parents said excitedly ‘Is that the one with the tights and the basket?’
Working in this way made it easy to identify ways children could be supported and encouraged to further extend their theatre experience into their play at school/nursery and at home. I wrote a Teacher’s pack. Free, interactive programmes were also hats, worn throughout the performance by children and adults as ‘Race Supporters Hats’ with either Hare or Tortoise at the front and later made into puppets – to show the story to somebody else or make up your own story - or board games. Venues were encouraged to provide ‘Bun Brothers Teas’ after the show (two comic baker characters in the play) where families often sat in a lovely haze of the smell of sweet iced buns, chatting, playing and making puppets long after the show.
We play(ed) in schools, theatres, village halls and theatres large and small. I instituted bringing the actors into the space early to meet the arriving audiences, mingling and chatting, for at least 5 minutes before every performance. This both crucially reminded the actors who they were playing to and for and reassured and delighted the families. It also allowed an opportunity for good housekeeping. We have found that our developmental approach with children means we can guarantee all 3 to 7 year olds love our shows and will be held by them, as will many under 2’s. But 2-year-olds are anyone’s guess and although many will, they shouldn’t be expected to sit for an hour or more. A roaming actor pre-show can encourage families to take a restless child out if they need to but feel welcome to come back when they want to. Our confidence in our work means we have high expectations of our target audience of 3-7s, which we can communicate to accompanying adults and illicit their support. In subsequent plays this pre-show communication has allowed actors to collect ideas to feed into the show and set up the rapport that punctuates all the Licketyspit shows.
Following Licketyspit performances, the actors again address the audience as themselves, showing them the puppets they can make to re-tell the story, thanking them and inviting them to interact with the company online, by post and though feedback forms. Initially I insisted the actors also saw the audience out, handing out programmes (unless they were wearing them already!) But my shows are extremely energetic, sweaty and very exhausting so ultimately I’ve understandably been defeated on this by my actors! These shows are immensely demanding to perform. Actors never believe how much. But it is because it is like bringing 100 or more people into your home to entertain them. A relationship is formed.
Licketyspit has been amazed at the continuing expression of ownership and friendship the company gets from its audiences who collect our shows.
I notice now too that there are always characters in my plays that children would like to be, doing things children would like to do. There is a lot of humour, often physical or slapstick. There is always music, often live musicians (Molly Whuppie is entirely underscored by Harp and Fiddle played by two of Scotland’s top folk musicians). There are often catchy songs and rhymes, “five years later we still sing the Spaghetti song every time we eat spaghetti!” (Mum). There is no fourth wall – I want children to feel the show is happening here, today for and with them and that if they weren’t here it would be different. Because at root, theatre is a shared story given and received. It represents a generous exchange between human beings. Providing theatre for children – at such a full, important and thrilling point in their lives – is a privilege and a joy.
This is just as well because just as early years children are under-valued by society at large so too are the people who work with and for them. Children’s theatre is still a relatively new art form in the UK and money is surely short. But just as parents are riven with anxiety that they are doing the best for their children, theatre directors and children’s programmers too, can become emotionally attached to their own theories about ‘what children need’ and what ‘good theatre is’ and this doesn’t foster the generous and inclusive exchange of diverse ideas and practice, that could and should be happening. I believe passionately that we in children’s theatre need to remember that we are not children and that it is our duty to find out what they think in the making of our work and in the decisions and judgments we make on their behalf and in their time. There are shows that thrill or move adults that clearly pass children by and there are shows that powerfully inspire children that are dismissed by adults who have failed to observe and listen to children’s responses to them.
The kind of work I have written and directed for early years children appeals to children from 0-12 years and to adults and is highly successful with children with complex needs and English as an additional language. This means it places early years children at the heart of a diverse multi-generational audience – in the middle of things – which is where I believe they want to be – joining in, seen and heard. Early years children are so deeply underestimated a lot of the time. Complex, demanding theatre for them like this, which is equally enjoyed by adults, can open eyes about how able they are to fully participate in the world around them.
Our theatre is highly accessible and has such a broad appeal because there are so many ways to understand it. At the root of each play is a strong and complex narrative rich with language because, while I value wordless theatre, I believe one of the single most powerful preoccupations of early years children is their desire to understand language and to communicate and connect with other people and build relationships. My approach has shown me that children love the challenge of navigating their way through a story full of new words and ideas. They love words. Even if they don’t yet understand them they can enjoy the sound, taste and feel of them. They are adept at finding a route through a story, at whatever level they are able to. But they remember everything and squirrel it away in fine detail for later examination, exploration and re-invention.
For example, in our show Heelie-go-Leerie (head over heels - a play about play!) we incorporated poems we’d created with children. One was recited at the beginning and the end of the show:
There was a witch and her fingers were long and green, She liked bread and soup, And carrots and potatoes. In a scary spooky house this witch could be seen, With a scarecrow a vampire and a crow. Eating her shoes!
One day at the end of the show, an actor spontaneously stopped before the last word in each line and opened her arms to the audience, who immediately and with gusto completed each line of a poem they had heard for the first time only an hour earlier. An astonishing demonstration of their powers of concentration and capacity for knowledge.
When we powerfully engage with children in the creation and delivery of their theatre we create experiences they remember their whole lives that become part of their history. We give them stories they are empowered to share and ‘dine out on’! We give them a shared experience with their families and communities, which can reverberate for years and become part of their culture.
Licketyspit’s work is appreciated, respected and endorsed by children, thousands of families, many early years professionals and children’s experts in education, health and wellbeing and play. But among adults at large it is sometimes controversial. This is fascinating to me and I think reflective of how well our target audience of early years children are understood by society. Our work explores major themes that continue to pre-occupy us all of our lives – love, friendship, family, society, the world, similarity and difference, fear, openness, honesty, tyranny, hope, play, imagination, possibility - because these are what we’ve found our children’s audiences are interested in. But our shows are playful and fun and interactive. The word ‘play’ seems to be a light thing yet we know it is essential for children to thrive. Our shows may seem light but we can see that they represent substantial formative experiences for early years children.
Where are we now?
Given the chance Licketyspit want to keep touring these plays. But developmentally, we have gone further into the relationship between plays and ‘play’, the potential for specially trained actors (actor-pedagogues) playing with children and the evident benefit to their personal and social development as a consequence.
All of this work has brought has brought us to the LicketyLeap project, which is built around a 90-minute immersive theatre show for ten 3-5 year olds led by specially trained actor-pedagogues. I had become increasingly aware that our audiences wanted to come into our stories with us. LicketyLeap is an extraordinary project that has come out of my learning to listen to children, who so clearly know what they need in order to flourish. It has led to the development of an adult-led child-centred form of imaginative play where the adults liberate and facilitate children’s play through also prompting and guiding it. We believe the nature of adult engagement with children in this work has enormous potential to foster children and adults to play in a way that benefits everyone, especially children.
Meanwhile Licketyspit is launching Porridge & Play – indoor and outdoor group games and imaginative play for families with 3-8 year olds and a bowl of porridge – at North Edinburgh Arts Centre.
We are also working with support of a consultant thanks to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to develop DRAMATIKA - the new overarching approach to the work of Licketyspit. DRAMATIKA aims to facilitate and champion the integration and expansion of drama-led creative practice in nursery, childcare and education settings. It is a dynamic approach, which connects children, their families and communities through theatre, play and active storytelling.
We say that our mission is to inspire and fire children’s imaginations but it is of course children who inspire us with their tenacity, their rich imaginations, their generosity, their spirit and their energy. Theatre is the art-form built on play and actors, like children, are experts in play. Child-centred children’s theatre for early years children can be a catalyst for cross-art-form creative engagement in nurseries, at home and in communities. It can be a shared story to prompt the crucial conversation we should be having constantly with our children about life, the world, the way we live and our infinite possibilities! It should be a firey fountain of energy and possibility in every community. That would really change society.
Virginia Radcliffe is the Artistic Director/Chief Executive of Licketyspit Theatre Company, based at North Edinburgh Arts in Muirhouse.
All Virginia’s work is developed through practical artistic research with early years children. She has written nine plays for early years audiences, which have toured to theatres, nurseries, schools and community venues throughout Scotland. Productions include: Hare & Tortoise; Molly Whuppie; Quangle Wangle; Wee Witches; Magic Spaghetti; Heelie-go-Leerie; Green Whale; A Piece of Cake and most recently LicketyLeap. LicketyLeap, is the culmination of her early years work to date and in 2011 received unprecedented early intervention funding, for the remarkable impact it has on participating early years children and its success at engaging with parents and carers. Virginia also writes children’s books, songs, rhymes and resources for teachers.
"It is always easy to be carried away by inspirational work with young children. It is necessary to take a long hard look in the cold light of day. Licketyspit has undertaken careful evaluation of the impact of its work, and what emerges is exciting. It helps and develops children’s learning in important ways for their educational development, but my interest is in the particular ability it demonstrates to engage very young children in both ‘narrative’ and ‘character’, the two most essential ingredients of literature and creative writing. Without these there would be no literature, either of the oral tradition through storytelling and drama, or the literature that is set down for audiences to read. I have worked to encourage this in young children, and to engage their parents and families in understanding the importance of this deeply human way of high level functioning across the years."
"The work of Licketyspit (LicketyLeap) is of a depth and calibre which has the kind of quality which is rarely found. It now needs to become part of practice in every group setting working with children 3-7 years. The more parents and practitioners understand and act on the work of Licketyspit, the more young children will be given experiences which will serve them well for the rest of their lives. (Professor Tina Bruce CBE, Froebel Trust, 2014)" Virginia Radcliffe.
'Leaping into Ourselves: A study into the layers of engagement made by early years children through Licketyspit's immersive theatre project, LicketyLeap' (Stephanie Knight, April 2011). Published Glasgow Life.
'The Adventures of LicketyLeap: Transforming lives - the possibilities of theatre' (Licketyspit, May 2013).
Image Credits - All photos by Licketyspit Theatre Company except the thumbnail / header photo which is by Milton Keynes Gallery