In 2019, theatremaker Anna Newell began work on an innovative project at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray. Nearly every project that Newell starts can be described as innovative or groundbreaking, focusing as it does on curating an audience’s very first encounter with the live arts: Newell’s audiences are babies, some only days old.
Newell’s work, which she describes as “theatre adventures”, for audiences she describes as “extraordinary”, has been developed over more than a decade of collaboration with the youngest possible cultural citizens and their parents. In that time she has developed the “optimum conditions for connecting with babies: portable performance spaces that cut out all the visual and aural noise that makes it difficult to engage with cognitive processes, a calm environment, a way of talking to and welcoming people [that allows] a personal connection to exist”. This discovery, she explains, has been made possible by the babies themselves, who are “invited to come in as creative consultants from the start, from day two” of any rehearsal period. “Because it is the babies who train us really in what works for them and that is crucial. I can’t imagine making the work [without their input] anymore.”
In 2019, however, Newell decided to turn her focus inside out and investigate the effect of working with babies on the artists making the work for them. Having performed in her own shows since she started making theatre for the very young, Newell had experienced first-hand “the incredible sense of calm and wellbeing you get when you are working with babies. [Performing for babies] is really a two-way street in every way, and I wanted to see how that effect might translate if we worked with performers who would maybe have a lot to gain from that sense of connection and empathy with babies.”
Inspired by the Roots of Empathy project, which brought babies into classrooms across the globe to teach empathy to primary school children, Newell began to think about creating a pilot project for teenagers, who she would train to perform for an audience of infants, using the methodologies she had developed over years of practice. Like babies, she explains, the teenage brain “is at a similar time of neuroplasticity. Adolescence is a period of self-questioning and teenagers are very vulnerable. They are changing all the time.”
Newell had recently returned from South Africa, where she had been working with Magnet Theatre Company to create the country’s first performances for babies. Many of the performers were in their late teens and early 20s, and Newell had observed how transformative working with babies was for the performers themselves. When she arrived back in Dublin, with the support of the Mermaid Arts Centre and Wicklow County Council, she established Connect, a two-week project involving 10 transition-year students. The focus, however, was not on creating a performance piece for babies, but on observing “the impact working with babies had upon them”.
For years, Newell says, she had “magpied bits of neuroscience”, finding in it a way to explain how “relationships and curiosity and neuroscience around connection can change the world”. Now she invited researchers at Trinity College Dublin’s ImmaLab, which specialises in studying the teenage brain, to come on board to help evaluate the programme. “I won’t lie,” she remembers, “it was a rollercoaster.”
The teenagers reported anxiety and fear about working with the babies, as well as fears about feeling judged by their peers, the researchers, even the babies. In the final evaluation, Newell says, “all of the teenagers said that they’d considered leaving the project at some point”. However, it was “when the babies came in [that] it all made sense to them”. The researchers observed an improvement in the participants’ general wellbeing and social connectedness, which in turn affected their creative problem-solving skills. “We learned so much about how much babies can teach us about communicating, about connecting with other people and about connecting with ourselves, that by the end [the participants] felt like different people.”
Connect was one of the last projects that Newell did before the pandemic, although she admits she was extremely lucky to be able to continue touring during 2020 and 2021, thanks to flexible funding and venue support, but also due to “our small capacities, as well as the naturally responsive and flexible nature of the work”. Sing Me to the Sea, for example, a show for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties toured by camper van to audiences’ back gardens.
However, Connect also marked the beginning of a relationship with TCD, and this month Newell has taken up a unique rehearsal residency there for her latest show babyGROOVE, in collaboration with The Cusack Lab’s Foundations of Cognition (Foundcog) project, a longitudinal observational study designed to investigate the exploratory behaviour and visual brain development of infants in their first two years of life. The creative consultation sessions during rehearsal will take place as part of The Global Brain Health Institute’s first Creative Brain Week, a festival designed to highlight the relationship between creativity and neuroscience.
BabyGROOVE was born out of a simple proposition, Newell explains: the desire to make a 1970s happening for babies. As Newell elaborates, a happening is basically determined by “who is there and what they bring to the table and that chimed with me. That is exactly what our shows are about.” In line with its young audience’s needs, the work is sensory-based rather than narrative-based. The performers will sing harmonies composed by David Goodall, while immersed in a video lightshow driven by patterns created by Conan McIvor. These elements will remain throughout the run and as the show tours nationally. However, like a true happening, “everything else changes depending on who is there, as we bring together this tiny temporary community” for the show. In the emerging post-pandemic context, Newell says, the “temporary community” offered by coming together in a creative space is even more important than ever.
Newell is looking forward to the scientific rigour that observers during Creative Brain Week will bring to the work she is doing. However, she is also keen to emphasise the qualitative nature that drives her work. “When you are working with babies, young people, children with special educational needs, people can focus on the quantitative outcomes: developmental outcomes, educational outcomes. But we also need to remember the value of art and beauty for its own sake. Beauty is alchemy, the [aesthetic] quality of our work doesn’t just respect the audience, it’s transformative.”
babyGROOVE runs from March 14th-16th at the Naughton Institute, Trinity College Dublin, as part of Creative Brain Week, before an extensive national tour. See annanewell.ie for full tour dates
Creative Brain Week: How creativity and cognition collide
Creative Brain Week is a new annual interdisciplinary festival dedicated to the exploration of how brain science and creativity collide across all areas of our lives: from social and technological development, to entrepreneurship and culture, and mental and brain health across the life cycle.
Bringing together experts in brain science and leaders across the creative sectors, it aims to promote the interdisciplinary neuroscience of creativity and the brain, and all its practical applications. The inaugural event illustrates and celebrates innovation at the intersection of arts and brain science, with themed seminars exploring The Creative Brain in Business and Innovation, Creativity and Neuroscience; and The Creative Brain in Arts, Health and Wellness.
Art and dementia
There is also an extensive creative programme, which features exhibitions, workshops and performances that celebrate early-years audiences and neurodiverse artists, the ageing brain, and art made by people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Highlights include BrainFM, a series of dance workshops for people with dementia; a danced lecture by dancers, activists and scholars Paul Modjaji and Fearghus Ó Conchúir, who share a somatic conversation about the legacies of trauma carried in our bodies, and Yes, But Do You Care?, a video installation by Marie Brett, about caregiving and capacity. Events are both in person and online.