Anna Newell of Anna Newell Theatre Adventures has been collaborating with The Civic in recent years on projects. The Civic are her lead Producer, with Niamh Ferry our general manager acting as Executive Producer. Anna spent some time in The Civic recently, developing her new work ‘SHIMMER’ for babies ages 3-12 months and tells us all about the project here…..
‘I’ve just finished making a show for audiences who’ve never known anything other than the pandemic. It’s a weird thought.
Often when people hear that I make shows (or theatre adventures as I mostly call them) for babies, their response is ‘what’s the point? They won’t remember’. But actually it’s the very opposite. What happens in the first 3 years of your life as your brain is growing faster than it ever will has a massive impact on who you might turn out to be. My work is inspired and informed by neuroscience and here’s a blog I wrote about that very thing 6 years ago – https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/sep/22/theatre-babies-arts-babyday-belfast
I’m delighted to have as a friend and advocate and inspiration the astonishing Dr Suzanne Zeedyk whose work with what she calls ‘the science of connection’ has created massive ripples over the past 10 years in all kinds of fields – the more obvious ones like education and childcare of course, but also in the context of prisons and policing.
Here’s what she wrote about babies and the pandemic – https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/believe-it-or-not-babies-are-feeling-the-impact-of-the-pandemic-dr-suzanne-zeedyk-3168013
Before Covid-19 came crashing in on us, I’d managed to secure major Arts Council funding to create what I’m calling The Network For Extraordinary Audiences (link to www.extraordinaryaudiences.com) – 7 venues across Ireland who are committing long term to supporting and programming and advocating for the audiences of babies, early years and children with complex needs.
Above all, for me this work is about the fundamental human right of every child to beauty, to high quality arts experiences, however young they may be or however profoundly disabled they might be perceived to be. (link to this – https://www.annanewell.ie/about/why/)
For the last 18 months, I’ve tried as much as possible to find creative ways to keep that work live and in-person. In 2020, we toured for a total of 8 weeks – outside early years settings, inside special schools towards the end of the year and even directly to the gardens and driveways of individual families of children with complex needs. In spring 2021, we toured GROOVE https://www.annanewell.ie/work/groove/ into special schools across the country for 8 weeks.
SHIMMER marks a return to the venues. Conceived before Covid, the idea was to make something epic for babies (all of my baby shows so far have been very small and intimate) and to create a theatre language using contemporary dance and immersive video rather than closeup props. All of which were quite fortunate decisions as it turned out!
It brings together a team of old collaborators and new – composer David Goodall who I’ve worked with for over 30 years, choreographer Hayley Earlam who I met working with Scotland’s inclusive dance company, Indepen-Dance, video artist Conan McIvor who I’ve worked with since 2006; and the first time working with wonderful Irish designer Katie Davenport and dancers Jess Rowell and Anderson de Souza. And of course, my right-hand women, Production Manager & Line Producer Ashley Smyth and Executive Producer Niamh Ferry who is also General Manager with the Civic who co-produce almost all of my work and without whom none of this would happen.
We tried to start making SHIMMER last year and did the dance of the dates which everyone in the arts has become so familiar with. And it started to feel like this one might be a project that would never happen.
But bit by bit it did. In May, Hayley & David hooked up in their native Scotland for a couple of development days hosted by The Work Room (https://theworkroom.org.uk) whilst Conan, Katie, Ashley & myself managed to get into the Civic for a couple of design days. Hayley and I auditioned for dancers in the Civic a few weeks later with Hayley projected onto the back wall of the theatre and watching the auditions through a web cam. David wrote the entire score for the piece before we started.
And then in August 2021, it finally happened. Three weeks later (one at Draiocht – link to this https://www.draiocht.ie/take-part/artists/artist-support-anna-newell-theatre-adventures – and two at the Civic), we had a show – link to this – https://www.annanewell.ie/work/shimmer/
As well as neuroscience and the desire for beauty, my work is always always informed by creative consultation with my audience. We put out a call for babies and their parents to come in and join us. And nearly 100 babies signed up and came in and giggled at the jiggling fringes on the performers’ costumes, stared wide-eyed at the magical projections and were entranced by the flying foils and the gorgeous reflective cushions. Some of them came back twice or even three times. It’s probably fair to say that there are babies under 1 in Ireland who’ve seen more live theatre in 2021 than many adults…..
Despite not being able to do the close-up tactile work that’s usually so much part of my shows, we found ways to ‘touch without touching’ – tiny torches playfully danced in the hands of the performers onto the cushions and the babies themselves and the movement of fabric and bodies in space created gentle breezes that genuinely meant that, despite the masks (thanks to https://clearfailtemask.ie for our wonderful clear masks) and the distance, all kinds of connective, immersive, sensory moments created the epic dream-like delight for baby and parent that I had always hoped that SHIMMER would be.
A massive thank you to everyone who was part of this amazing adventure in difficult times – to the collaborating artists and producers, to the venues who believed, who provided space and who continue to be part of the Network as an ongoing concern, to the Arts Council of Ireland who have so generously supported me since I relocated from Belfast to Bray in 2016 – and most of all to the babies whose wonder and delight lights up the theatre every time’.
Photos: Neil Harrison
Thanks to The Arts Council of Ireland