Guest post: "We put a baby on stage for half an hour - here's why"
With their Edinburgh Fringe 'anti-theatre' show Come Look at the Baby, Thorium Theatre explore the ethics of sharing our children's stories without their consent
Posted on: Thu 25-Aug-16 16:11:45
(23 comments )
Every parent or carer has experienced it – you take your baby into a cafe or restaurant, and people start staring, smiling, sometimes waving and saying hi, sometimes even coming up and pinching the cheek of your baby. All without even looking at you.
There is a strange dynamic in public about how we look at babies, and what is OK or not. Everyone has different views. Some parents are very happy to parade their child, and many babies love the attention. Parents might be proud or flattered that people think their baby is cute, or aggravated if they'd prefer people to mind their own business. What's most interesting to us, as theatre makers, is why the coo-ers often don't even think about their behaviour.
This year we put on a piece of anti-theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to encourage just that – making people think about how they look at babies in public. We took a very normal behaviour and formalised it in a stage environment, to encourage people to see it in a new light. It was called Come Look at the Baby and was exactly that: a thirty-minute show of a seven-month-old baby, with its Granny, on stage playing with toys and gurgling. Members of the public could come for free or pay in advance to watch the show.
We knew from the start we wouldn't make money – we paid out of our own pocket and we pledged to give any profits we made to charity (though with 1500 shows a day rivalling for attention and average audiences reputed at around seven people, that was always unlikely). But we thought it was an important thing to do, and waited to see if anyone else thought the same.
There is a strange dynamic in public about how we look at babies, and what is OK or not. Everyone has different views. Some parents are very happy to parade their child, and many babies love the attention. Parents might be proud or flattered that people think their baby is cute, or aggravated if they'd prefer people to mind their own business.
We were overwhelmed with the press coverage. Nearly every broadsheet ran a story, and broadcast, press and radio coverage came from Canada, Switzerland, Qatar. In a festival known for pushing the boundaries of theatre (for better or worse) it was billed in many places as one of the "quirkiest shows to see at the Fringe this year".
Audiences were varied. Some were curious, coming to just to see if it was a real baby or not. Some came for an "eccentric fringe experience"; young couples came on a date; grandparents who missed their grandchildren came to gaze; exhausted performers came to be somewhere quiet for 30 minutes. Audiences were varied, very respectful, and came out beaming – surprised at how not boring the show was. Regardless of why they came, we found in talking to them afterwards that they were moved to think about how they interact with babies.
It helped that the Granny and Baby that we found for our show were a great double act. Baby was comfortable, sociable and smiled. True to the 'anti-theatre' nature of the show, the attention was definitely turned on to the audience, with Baby spending most of the show inspecting and watching the audience carefully. Any sneeze, cough or movement from the audience would instantly attract the baby's attention.
Even with a calm and outgoing star, we designed the environment very carefully to mimic the baby's usual play environment with rugs, lights, and hangings in the community centre we used as a venue. Everything was designed to keep the experience, for the baby, as close to its home life as it could be.
There was one thing we couldn't do, however, and that was ask the baby itself permission. Just as in film, TV, or modelling, which follow the same rules and regulations, we had no way of asking what the baby wanted. That's why we took the decision to keep the baby anonymous – so that later, when he or she grows up, the baby can choose to 'own' the experience and link themselves with the performance, or not. The issue of consent runs through every interaction we have with children these days. Children, after all, cannot consent to be on their parents' social media feeds – and we are still navigating the ethical consequences of a world in which their entire lives will be documented essentially in public.
We hope that every time our audience now see an ad campaign or clothing catalogue featuring an infant, they remember those babies have been in big studios with stylists and flash lights, strange smells, and costume changes - a far cry from fairy lights and quiet music with granny. We hope that next time they come to play with a baby in public they think whether to check in with the parent or carer first. We hope that as well as consolation and a chance to reflect for a handful of people each day, the show in its own small way will have started conversations.
By Thorium Theatre
" own the experience " great now we have corporate speak for babies.
I think it sounds great, everyone loves to gaze at a happy baby!
Oops not sure where all those Ls came from!
It sounded like a great show, but with a 22 month old toddler, it's one we'd seen recently! I'm glad it was a success for you, and I hope it helped to demystify 'the baby' a bit.
I saw Lady Rizo's show where she BFed her son live on stage - another 'stunt' that sounded like it would be weird, or not respectful to the child, but it was actually really moving and beautiful.
"We hope that next time they come to play with a baby in public they think whether to check in with the parent or carer first"
Why? I love that babies naturally attract people's gaze in public to the point where everything else dissolves. The parent or carer can't stop that happening. If it upsets them that much they can stay at home (or attract more attention by veiling their baby!)
Is it not OK to smile at babies?
Isn't it quite a good thing for babies to get a reaction from people they see?
I like it that people react to babies. Babies are naturally curious about people. My ds is naturally very sociable and even now at 21 months makes eye contact with people, smiles, waves and pull faces. I just pretend to ignore whatever is going on and let others respond to his antics without engaging with me. Its him who has got their attention not me. Actually I think it's quite sad when a baby wants to engage with you and you ignore them. However if a baby shows they don't want to interact with people then it is better to not directly interact with baby. Instead comments could be directed to the parent.
I love the way very young children have no inhibitions and go up to people without regard for how they 'should' behave and just react with feeling. Obviously there's a point at which they need to be appropriate and not offend but kids are naturally curious and it brings out an innocent curiosity in adults around them. No one needs to ask permission to interact with my kids because my kids are capable of reacting to the situation themselves. Stick your head into my 1 year olds buggy and if she doesn't like you she'll shout or cry. That's her communication of consent or not and adults then react to that.
I think this sounds like a really interesting show
and I really get that in general we are not respectful enough of babies and children and use them for our own ends. But, we are strongly primed to respond to babies (and they to us, adults) for good reasons and in some ways I find it reassuring that nearly everyone does respond- to me that demonstrates some genuine humanity in us all. On the other hand, that 'response' often isn't genuinely responsive- people ignore or don't understand what the baby or child is saying and impose touch/conversation which isn't wanted.
How does starting at a baby for half an hour make people stop and think next time they see a baby?
It's this kind of bonkers bullshit that makes the Fringe the giant mess it is.
I don't think it's everyday interaction with babies that is the problem - we are biologically primed to want to take care of them, and they to look at interesting faces, etc. as part of development. People often get joy from looking at babies, and the babies equally get something out of it. And if they don't want to interact, they'll make it clear.
So I don't think there is a need to make people stop and think about that sort of interaction; nor do I think this show would do that anyway. Sounds pretentious, to me.
What I think could be addressed is the number of people using their children for their own ends - particularly blogging about them, writing columns in newspaper, and other things that get the author attention, money, sympathy, etc., without regards to how the child might feel later to find that their behaviour has been exaggerated for laughs, that their fears and worries have been exposed for discussion, that their development has been open for everyone to comment on, etc.
That would be a useful topic to explore. But this show doesn't do that. Instead, it focuses on a normal and healthy part of human interaction, and somehow makes it into something 'wrong', that needs analysis and change.
I think they missed the boat. Might be an interesting and popular show to watch a baby, for all the reasons mentioned above, but in terms of getting across the message they want, or provoking thought about it, nope. Not for me.
Tis the demise of Theatre same thing happened to music.
Good philosophy, but not what most would term theatre, anti or not, it's such a shame that a good message had to be displayed in such a way.
I have a 7 month old so I've got questions - what if the baby needed a feed or changing? Or was all screamy?
Are no longer allowed to look in the direction if anyone?
I just wandered up to aa woman and asked her where she got her jacket.Did I need permission from her to speak to her before hand?
I also waved at a toddler who was looking through a cafe window... Whoops naughty me.
Its all a it PFB this show
Babies interact like mad with the world around them and other people are an interesting part of that. I would never dream of touching a stranger's baby without permission, but eye contact, smiling etc I think are just a normal part of interacting with the world around you. In just the same way I might talk to someone at the bus stop. You soon gauge if the adult doesn't want you cooing at their baby. Most people seem OK with it and I was certainly OK with it when mine were small - they loved a bit of attention when they were tiny (which soon changes, haha).
I can look at a baby interacting any time, bus, tube, train...last night at soft play. Even had a hug of one yesterday, quite cute but not really interesting. Just being nice to his proud new mum.
Babies are just babies, to be honest I find them quite boring. But maybe that's just me. I've had a couple so maybe I'm over the novelty value? Put two toddlers fighting over toys on stage when you have another and you've got another show. Get breeding, I'd suggest a minimum 18 month gap for fight/share value!
Children are just children. Is your baby that important or impressive. Mine were cute to me, but I don't think anyone else was that bothered. Is this really about you or the baby?