Theatre performances in Canterbury are undoubtedly growing more diverse and inclusive than they have ever been, with more and more venues providing increased accessibility to the arts. Last month, Paulo Lameiro’s Concerto Para Bebes showcased at bOing! festival to great acclaim, offering a concert that was specifically curated for an audience of babies and toddlers. On the other end of the spectrum, events such as Bach to Baby offer regular relaxed musical concerts designed for adults, that babies can also attend. More and more, we’re starting to see entertainment options that are specifically adapted for people with different and varying needs; catering not only specifically to babies, but to those with profound and multiple learning difficulties, hearing impairments, or those with an austistic spectrum disorder.
Suzy Ward and Jenna May Hobbs are on a mission, and that mission is to make theatre performances and workshops more inclusive for parents with babies in Canterbury. With over half of new mothers experiencing the ‘baby blues’ and almost a quarter suffering from postnatal depression, new parents can often feel lonely and isolated as they embark on the next chapter of their lives. Going to the theatre or taking part in something that you used to enjoy suddenly become restricted experiences. White Slate Theatre want to shake that up, delivering workshops to parents with babies and adapting performances to be more comfortable for the needs of a parent. Speaking to Suzy, the co-founder of the company, she says, ‘we wanted babies to be part of our audience – we developed ways to make a baby crying not distracting, or someone getting up to change a nappy a non-issue in terms of our performances’.
White Slate theatre began at the University of Kent, where Suzy Ward and Jenna May Hobbs met on their directing course and found that they worked well together. ‘We both just got chatting one day and found that we had really similar opinions on theatre, a real love for interesting language and an interest in pieces that are about human relationships; predominantly in how people connect with people in different ways’.
While on tour for a different show at the Edinburgh Fringe, it occurred to them that they saw a lot of shows that were about female issues or problems, but not one about a woman who has got her life on track.
‘Jenna came up with the dilemma between starting a family and pushing forward in your career. Obviously, you can do both, people do, but we wanted to look at it through the eyes of a successful female scientist who was working in a lab. She wouldn’t really be able to take any time off, and if she had a child she would have to take maternity leave’.
This is the point where the play Re: Production was developed. ‘We were looking at that choice and when that comes in life. For both of us, we went to university and were planning our careers and that part of our lives, but we never knew when everything else might come. So it’s not really been a choice of “right, I’m going to have a family”, but more of “oh, that’ll probably happen at some point”. But there’s always the question of your fertility and the “ticking clock”‘.
‘In the play, we explore the role of choice and the ability to make that choice rather than that choice being taken away from you’, Suzy explains.
‘I think more people are realising the dilemma of that choice – we spoke to a woman called Jessica Hepburn who has had 11 rounds of IVF after trying to have a baby in her early 30s. She now runs a fertility festival to help raise awareness of the difficulties and questions surrounding fertility, bringing together science and the arts to examine this issue.
When we approached her we were worried she would ask, “why are you looking into this at 25/26 years old?” But she was more like “you’re the people who need to be talking about this! Young women need to be aware of the choices that are available to them, or those that may not be available when they get older”‘.
Shortly after the production of the show, the workshops developed. ‘Obviously, a lot of the content of the show is about the choice not to have kids, but we also thought that we should probably also look at the choice to have kids as well’.
‘We wanted them to be adult-centred and for the adults to talk, but labelled as a parent and baby group. So we piloted three sessions in Canterbury with the Marlowe Theatre and three sessions in Greenwich with Greenwich Theatre. It was a mixture of improvising and collaborating; we like the idea of the workshop participants having a creative input into the development of the show. The workshops were held before the show was finished, and so the performances included quite a lot of creative input from the sessions’.
I asked Suzy if people spoke about identity a lot in these workshops. How do new mothers report feeling, and what are the common experiences?
‘They definitely do! What we’ve found is that a lot of people go to parent and baby groups, but they’re often aimed at the babies and play – which is important – but sometimes you lose the intellectual, creative things that you need as an adult. I think that sometimes the topic of identity can be really hard, and at different points in your life there can be sudden shifts. Obviously, when something so life-altering happens as having a child there’s often a lot of time to reflect on that as well.
People don’t always realise how much their life has changed either – we have new parents who are finding it very cool and new and exciting. And some parents who we encounter are on their third child have had more time to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t. It wasn’t until after having their second or third baby that they starting desiring to seek out different experiences and so search for groups and activities. People need things like this to help them connect with people and stimulate them in different ways. An identity as a new parent can mean anyone – anyone from 18 to over 40. Various ages, but all with one common experience. We have people from really different backgrounds.
We didn’t want to push “how did you choose to have a child”, but instead did it through the lens of the characters in the play. So we ask “why might this character make this choice?” And “why might they do this?”
And then people were so willing to open up personally. There was never any pressure on people, but we use characters and use another story to allow people to process their own story.
It’s also good for looking at the assumptions that we put on people. E.g. what we think of when we think ‘mum’ or ‘parent’. One participant really struggled with why a male character in the show really wanted a family, because her husband was happy to have a family but would never take any responsibility for it. She found it challenging to consider a narrative that didn’t fit with her perception of how she felt men tended to be. The workshops provide a safe space to gently challenge these perceptions’.
The existence of the workshops also challenges the assumption that parents are unable to participate in the arts. As long as the resources are there, anything seems possible:
‘It was a great concept, but we were a bit worried about what would come up. We suddenly realised we had to think about accessibility and the equipment. It really pushed us to think about that.
In our first session we wanted to get really creative and ask people to write things down, but of course, that’s pretty difficult when you have a baby in your arms! Some people plop their baby on a mat and are happy to carry on, but some are always holding their babies. It’s all very different.
‘In terms of other similar things that are out there at the moment, Curzon has a baby screening—that was one thing that really related to how we do our shows. It’s often a film chosen with adults in mind, but the lights are lower and the setup is more accessible so that parents can move in and out.
In so far as the actual workshops, we haven’t found anything that’s particularly similar.
At bOing! festival, we went to a talk on creating theatre for babies. This was exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do which is what made it really interesting— they were discussing how to make theatre for babies that adults can also enjoy, whereas we’re focusing on theatre and performance for adults that can incorporate babies. I asked the panel if any of them had ever done it from our angle before, but none of them had encountered it. I’m not saying that that means it’s not out there, but it definitely feels like quite a niche. We’ve had a lot of people from London and outside of Canterbury who are very interested in what we’re doing’.
The White Slate Theatre parent and baby group begins this week and is inclusive for mums, dads and grandparents. With new evidence to suggest that exposure to the arts and culture is incredibly beneficial for our mental health, workshops and experiences that are available to these at-risk groups allow people to express themselves, no matter what their circumstances.