Tough crowd? Theatre for babies and a concert for snoozers

At a ‘Sleep Concert’, snores are a sign of success, and they are not taken as an insult at Graffiti’s theatre for babies either

Theatre for the very young: ‘White Blossoms’ by Graffiti Theatre

‘A sea of snoring” from audiences is the mark of success for one musician, while a theatre practitioner is hoping to lull babies and toddlers into a calm, receptive and sometimes sleepy state.

You could call it soporific art. It's about artistic engagement on a subconscious level, although the babies don't know that. However, the audience for The Sleep Concert, to be presented by Nexus Arts on Friday as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, is signing up for a night of communal sleeping, induced by Steven Stapleton, also known as Nurse with Wound. He will play some of Nurse with Wound's records in a darkened venue, using 16 channels, acting as a DJ and manipulator of dreams. As Nurse with Wound, Stapleton was among the pioneers of the niche British industrial music scene. But there will be no grating sounds at the Irish premiere of The Sleep Concert. Instead, Stapleton will play "ambient, floating, atmospheric music that is based on the human heartbeat. It's music that has been specifically recorded for these events," he says.

The sleepover, involving an audience of about 50 people, will take place in “a stunning secret location” in Drogheda’s rural heartland. Participants will be given airbeds and blankets. They will be ferried to and from the venue and given breakfast after the communal slumber.

Co Clare-based Stapleton has been performing The Sleep Concert internationally since 2000. With his band, he has noted that "the most interesting parts of the improvised concerts are the parts where there's almost nothing happening. The silences between the floating tones put you in a very different spirit of mind. I decided to expand on that and get people comfortable and really relaxed. I show them soporific film images and combining them with the music means I can actually influence the audience's dreams a little bit."


Sleep after two hours
The Sleep Concert has been performed all over Europe and in Australia at unusual venues such as aquariums and museums. Audiences typically fall asleep after about two hours of music, which Stapleton continues to play after they've nodded off.

“The music in its own way is quite hallucinogenic. The concerts are trippy and atmospheric. I’m like an obscure MC in the corner. I don’t say anything but I can manipulate the feelings of people quite nicely.”

For Stapleton, the experience is quite powerful, “but not in a megalomaniacal way. It’s a good, happy, positive feeling.

“One of the good things about these events is that the audience isn’t all made up of fans of my music. Families with young children often turn up. It’s a kind of community thing.”

People talk about their dreams the next morning. “I don’t know of anyone who’s had a bad experience at these events.

“You get the occasional person who’ll purposely stay awake all night. One amusing thing happened in a Berlin train museum. Everyone was asleep. I played a long, 20-minute fade, and just when it got to the end, someone said: ‘Is that it?’ So I had to start all over again.”

Theatre for the very young
Sleep can be an offshoot of the growing area of theatre for babies, or "theatre for the very young". Now in its 30th year, Cork-based Graffiti Theatre Company is developing a new piece of theatre for babies at New Visions/New Voices, the 13th biennial workshop of new plays and musicals for young audiences at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

The company has already produced a 23-minute play for babies called White Blossoms, which is loosely based on The Children of Lir. It's a gentle, peaceful work that features a young actor dressed in dove-grey silk, caressing toy swans and playing with clear water in a stream, as white blossoms fall from silver trees. The actor breaks the silence with occasional singing as Gaeilge.

But what do babies really get from such a performance, and does their attention span stretch to more than 20 minutes? Emelie FitzGibbon, artistic director of Graffiti, says: “The theory behind everything we do is called reception theory. It’s a way of looking at and analysing our audiences, seeing when they’re engaged and when they’re not engaged.”

In recent years, “there has been a lot of research, particularly in Scotland, on the development of the child’s brain in the very early years”, says FitzGibbon.

"Music, beautiful objects and respect for the intelligence and receptivity of very small children is built into this type of work. In White Blossoms, we wanted big emotions because babies have big emotions and their parents, watching the piece, can also experience big emotions. It's quite lovely to hear a very small child with just a few words getting exactly the emotions that the actor is conveying. I've seen babies picking up on the sadness or happiness of what is being portrayed."

FitzGibbon says that, in her experience, babies of between three and six months seem to be able to concentrate for the duration. “You think they won’t stay with it, but they do. Of course, every child is very individual in their responses. You get some babies who are completely absorbed. Others want to move around. The youngest ever member of our audience was just two weeks old. I’m not saying that baby was awake all the time, but you could see her eyes flickering in response to the lights and the music.”

Sometimes babies cry during a performance but FitzGibbon says this is rare. At the New Visions/New Voices workshop, Fitzgibbon and her team will showcase a reading of their new piece for babies to a small number of invited children.

“It’s a story that involves a fisherman trying but failing to get to the moon. It’s about thresholds between the sea, the sky, the stars and a human. Thresholds and liminalities are what babies are about. After all, they’ve recently crossed the first ultimate threshold.”

The Sleep Concert is on Friday as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival,