Upstairs at Blanchardstown’s Draíocht Theatre, a sea-green tent has been pitched in the middle of a room. Outside is a cluster of buggies, bags and shoes. Inside, three barefoot female performers, dressed in the same sea-green, sit among three babies and their mothers. One of the performers rings a Tibetan bell and the babies turn towards the sound.
As one of the women begins to sing, a light appears on her chest. The other performers join the music, their chests aglow. For the next 20 minutes, the babies remain enthralled as in between bell chimes, the performers harmonise in and out of a sung score, producing mirrors, lights, and scarves that they move around their audience.
This is a workshop rehearsal for I Am Baba, a theatrical experience for babies commissioned by Dublin's four local authorities and devised by director Anna Newell with composer David Goodall, in association with Tallaght's Civic Theatre.
The show, featuring performers Nuala Davies, Muireann D'Arcy and Leah Moore, is currently on tour. It is described as "a gentle theatre adventure for babies aged 0-12 months, full of magical sounds, lights and textures". The audience is limited to six babies, each of whom can bring one adult guest.
Post-show, as cast and audience play together, the performers explain they adapt to the age and response of each baby. “Some groups can be very interactive and energetic. Other groups can be very calm.”
"Every show is very different depending on the personalities of the babies," says Newell, "which is what the show is all about, how individual they are and how extraordinary they are, and how different they are from a very very early age. Some of them want to be very vocal, some may want to sit and watch quietly."
Eleven-month-old Jonah Donaldson is a quiet watcher. "He is a bit clingy to me," says his mum Anita. However, when a mirrored centrepiece is unveiled in the final minutes, the lure is too strong, and Jonah crawls over for a closer look. Was Anita surprised by how he responded? "I thought they all would grab more, but he was just sitting back looking."
Six-month-old Lauren, meanwhile, sits mesmerised from the start. Even before the first chime, she has reached out to performer Muireann. "She liked it straight away. She likes music and lights and people, so she loved this" says her mum Caroline Dillon.
One-year-old Amara Margarete Kreutzer-Abramowicz usually loves to explore new places, reports her mother Nína. However, while Amara is fascinated by proceedings, her first venture away from her mother’s lap comes only when the performers produce mirrors and she moves to investigate.
Newell, currently based in Bray, Co Wicklow, has an impressive CV of theatrical and community experience in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. So why babies?
“I think they’re really interesting. There’s also very little being made for babies, even globally.
“A lot of what I do is very implicitly informed by neuroscience, and science tells us that what happens to you in the first three years of your life changes your brain, makes you who you are, and that can be a negative thing. There’s a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that indicates how those kind of experiences in childhood form particular pathways, and so for me it just makes sense that some of those experiences should be magical and lyrical and beautiful, and that they can genuinely engage even at that very young age.”
Newell's work with Belfast's Sure Start programme, including the world's first "Baby Day", even earned her an invitation to sit on the city's Infant Mental Health Action Plan Working Group. "The health and social-care board recognised that there was a place for this type of work."
She and Goodall have collaborated for 27 years, and she favours portable performance spaces like the tent designed for I Am Baba by Jen Shepherd. "It creates a distraction-free space. But also it means that wherever we take the show it's the same. One of the things that I'm proudest of in my life is that a show that was booked off-Broadway in New York was exactly the same show performed to babies and mums in a church hall in Magherafelt. " A baby theatre show devised in South Africa, meanwhile, was adapted for a performance around incubators at Belfast Children's Hospital.
I Am Baba is an International Early Childhood Arts Commission funded by Arts Council Ireland. Liz Colman is assistant arts officer with Dublin City Council, part of the local-authority partnership which commissioned Newell. "We wanted to support artist ambition in the research and development of new work in early childhood," she explains. "Available evidence and research shows the importance of the early years for learning, emotional and social development, security and self confidence. In babyhood, it's all about eating and sleeping, but the opportunity to have creativity, and to be stimulated and inspired aurally and visually, is another need.
“Part of Anna’s successful proposal was that she would work at developing her show in the four local-authority areas and then she would tour that work in the four areas. She is an exceptional artist, very skilled at working with families and communities who are not used to going to formal theatre spaces. She has been connecting with local families in a different way in each area and neighbourhood.”
More than 100 babies participated in workshop rehearsals for I Am Baba. "The babies train the performers," explains Newell. "We've had babies who've been a couple of weeks old, the youngest was four days old. Their reactions are really tiny, but they are reactions nonetheless. Again the science shows us that a 10-minute-old baby can mimic what you do with your face. And what I think is lovely is sometimes babies reveal themselves to their adults, because rarely do their adults get a chance to sit back and watch them interact with other people, and with people who are complete strangers."
For the moment, the final performances of I Am Baba take place this week at Dún Laoghaire Lexicon; the Samuel Beckett Civic Centre, Ballyogan; and Shanganagh Park House, Shankill.
Newell, however, hopes to obtain funding to tour in 2018 and reach a wider audience of babies, and their adults. “Adults are surprised by it, in terms of the complexity of the music and the level of engagement,” she says. And the verdict of Jonah’s adult, Anita? “It was beautiful!”