At the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, theatregoers get younger and younger

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      If you think you’ve been noticing more babies and toddlers around, you’re not imagining things. According to the most recent census, the percentage of Canadian children under four grew by 11 percent between 2006 and 2011—the highest rate since the baby boom.

      Not surprisingly, the new child surge has affected programming at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, where associate artistic director Lucie Lareau has seen growing demand for preschooler-friendly performances. The result is that this year at the event on Granville Island, shows like the shadow-puppet-based Baobab, the rod-puppet tale The Little Old Man, and the projection-and-music spectacle Queen of Colours offer up multisensory theatrical experiences for tykes as young as three and four. But for 2013, for the first time, the fest is going even further. It’s offering a Norwegian-created show, called Sparrow, for babies and toddlers. Yes, you read that right: the newest theatregoers are the diaper set.

      “It is new territory for us and is for a lot of people,” says Lareau of the production by Norway’s Teater Fot. “A lot of mistakes we see as presenters is that some shows may be very avant-garde but the toddlers have to sit there quiet and not move. This company understands that at that age, it’s all about exploration. Babies get to crawl on the playing area and that’s a huge step from just sitting there watching.”

      Lareau says part of the appeal of bringing in Sparrow is it was created by Lise Hovik, who is in the midst of completing her Ph.D. in theatre for babies and knows her audience well.

      Speaking to the Straight from her troupe’s hometown of Trondheim, in central Norway, Hovik explains her home country has a history of boosting toddler arts, including launching an initiative in 1998 to create new work for kids under three. In her own productions, she has found them to be a highly engaged and alert audience.

      “Toddlers are very, very curious, and attentive, and sensory,” Hovik says. “They go into it with their whole bodies; they don’t have this critical distance. They’re not an audience where they just sit back and don’t react.” The show, which uses music, puppets, dance, and lighting to express its unstructured story of sparrows and eggs, might appeal to older children, but it’s important to limit it to those between seven and 24 months, she stresses. “There can’t be these older children taking over the space. Because they’re so small they need to be listened to. We have to listen to the toddlers more.

      “Sometimes they come up on-stage and want to take part and we accept that. It’s a very nice communication. It’s not like it’s disturbing things.” In the show, the children sometimes step in to feed the sparrow puppets little woollen worms; at other moments, they can gather eggs into a nest. The troupe makes the entire show interactive, giving the children little shaker eggs to keep the rhythm. The mood is calm and experiential, with nothing to startle the wee viewers.

      For most of these tots, it’s their first theatre experience. But it’s not just little ones who learn about the world at these shows. According to Hovik, it’s also the adults on-stage.

      “I’ve been working on this for many years now and many performers don’t know anything about this at the beginning, and maybe they’re skeptical or curious. But afterwards they always tell me this is really exciting; they experience something really new for themselves as performers because they have to be so attentive to the audience.”

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