Saturday, February 20, 2016

Theatre for the Very Young

“Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.”

That’s not a quote from me: it’s part of Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child.

This important right was pointed out to me by two very talented people who between them have nearly 50 years of theater background, primarily working with and for children.

Which is why their latest partnership to create a Bay Area “first” is bound to attract attention.

Nina Meehan runs the successful Bay Area Children’s Theatre; Doyle Ott is Fairyland’s Children’s Theatre Director. Over the last six years they’ve partnered on productions geared toward the pre-K set, with professional actors performing such contemporary classics as “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Day the Crayons Quit.”

Now they’re reaching out to an even younger audience.

Nina and Doyle were initially inspired by what they learned through the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ). It’s an affiliation of organizations, some of whose members produce Theatre for the Very Young (TVY), also called Theatre for the Early Years or Baby Theatre, which originated in the 1970s in London (which explains the British spelling of “theater”).

TVY is generally defined as professional theater led by adults performing for an audience of months-old babies to toddlers, accompanied by parents or adult companions. Shows typically last about 40 minutes and are held in quiet, enclosed spaces without seats.

TVY shows have been enjoyed by youngsters all around the world: England, Sweden, Australia, Scotland and elsewhere. Here in the U.S., Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and Seattle have taken the lead.

Why Theatre for the Very Young, and why a premiere now in the Bay Area?
“This is an opportunity to open imaginations at a very young age, exploring early language, which we know enhances opportunities to learn,” says Nina. “It’s also a memorable experience that connects adults with children.” 

Adds Doyle: “Kids can have a kinetic response even if they’re pre-verbal – they want to explore their world.”

The two point out that there are lots of multisensory types of learning, and they believe that the theme of the collaborative piece they’ve come up with is perfect. “Bloom Kaboom!” asks the question: How does your imaginary garden grow? It’s billed as “a story experience for munchkins from 6 months to 4 years old,” and opens Feb. 20 at BACT’s new space in Montclair.

Adults and children are invited to explore a delightful, make-believe garden where giant flowers unfurl, squirrels scamper for acorns, butterflies flutter from flower to flower and it’s OK to hop around in puddles.

Nina and Doyle could not be more excited about the show’s two featured players, both of whom are accomplished performers as well as teachers.  

Slater Penny has a degree in theater arts, has won an Emmy and specializes in ensemble physical theatre. He’s also worked extensively with children for the past 17 years.
Laura Ricci has a master’s in education from Harvard and teaches circus arts.

Doyle and Nina say Bay Area parents will embrace this new form of theater. “Our parents are committed to finding cultural experiences for their children,” says Nina. “Once people know this exists, we think they’ll be thrilled.”

The duo mused about what they want kids and parents to walk away with after the show. Kids: the feeling you have when you’ve gone through a stack of picture books, creating all sorts of new things to talk about, and you say ‘Again!’ Parents and caregivers: a new appreciation for the many things that can captivate a child, and new questions to ask when they’re out and about in the world.

At TVY, there is no wrong way to respond to the performances. Kids aren’t asked to sit still and be quiet.

And neither are parents. In fact, Nina and Doyle say they hope that once parents experience this first-ever Bay Area Theatre for the Very Young experience, they’ll loudly spread the word that this is a great way to respect the rights of our children.

For information on “Bloom Kaboom!” go to

-C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry.  C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

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