CHILDREN'S THEATRE We are what we play

What makes babies laugh? Why “the terrible twos”? Are teenagers programmed to be difficult? Making children’s theatre is more than entertaining young audiences. Polka Theatre, founded almost 50 years ago in Wimbledon, is also linking up with scientists to explore the audience with its festival Brain Waves

The Babylab sounds like a particularly nasty science fiction horror, but discovering it has inspired Peter Glanville, artistic director of Polka Theatre, to inaugurate Brain Waves, a two week festival that uses drama and performance to explore child brain development.

Glanville arrived at Polka from the Little Angel Theatre three years ago with a mission to continue to produce seven new productions a year for children aged 0 to 14, but also to expand the artistic vision to think about aspects of childhood in more detail. He also wanted his theatre to be a place where adults, educationalists and theatre practitioners could interact, taking an aspect of childhood and examining it in more detail.

“I’d seen many interesting articles about neuroscience and the extraordinary research using techniques such as MRI scans – which only started in the 1990s” he says. “Then I found out about the Babylab at Birkbeck College, where they fit babies with cute little bonnets fitted with electrodes to do brain experiments testing how their eyes react to images, how they respond to different noises including music, why babies laugh, and I thought that this could be a really interesting project.”

Babylab is an international multi-disciplinary centre that allows neu- roscientists to experiment so as to understand how babies learn and develop – how they recognise faces, learn to pay attention, how they come to understand what other people do and think and how their language and understanding of the world develops.

“Infancy is the most crucial time. It’s when the brain changes the most, it’s when the brain is also the most plastic, so we really need to under- stand that period” says Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a research fellow in Birkbeck’s developmental neurorecognition lab of which Babylab is a part. Babylab’s Sinead-Eloise Rocha explains that wireless surface sensors are placed on the children’s skin like stickers to transmit signals that tell her how cells communicate with each other; using motion capture to track movements; tracking baby eye movements to find out exactly what they are looking at. The special neurospectroscopy headgear has octodes that read how light affects the brainwaves and the flow of blood in brain. 

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But Glanville and Polka’s theatre producer Zoe Robinson are working with scientists from other institutions to create the programme, including Cambridge University, King’s College London and University College London, as well as the Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology.

“It’s really ambitious but really exciting, attracting people from the arts and science worlds” says Zoe Robinson, who arrived at Polka in March from West End producer Bill Kenwright, having started her career as a television production assistant at CBBC. “The reasoning is that by working through drama you don’t come in from angle of strictly science, and it becomes more like a game opening out the research.”

The first show, Shake, Rattle and Roll, is for babies aged six to 18 months, created by theatre director Sarah Argent with the Babylab team, looking at what makes kids giggle and jiggle. “While as makers of ba- bytheatre we are well-versed in close and detailed observation of babies while they are observing rehearsals or performances, the level of scientific clarity with which our scientists could describe the babies’ responses and analyse why the babies were responding in a particular way is taking things to a deeper level,” Argent says, and Sinead-Eloise Rocha will be in the foyer with her bonnets to check on the responses of the audience’s brains as they emerge from the show.

Glanville himself is co-directing the Scarabeus Aerial Theatre production of Depths of My Mind which follows research by Cambridge’s U- Change project looking into teenage emotional development, to be performed at the Brit School.

Fiskit Theatre uses comedy in a new play, Bright Sparks, to look at how both sides of the brain must be balanced to allow us to see, move and speak.

And working with King’s College, Theatre-Rites will examine the paral- lels in methods used by scientists to manipulate the brain, and by pup- peteers to manipulate people’s imagi- nations – the “Pinocchio Effect” - in a piece called Animating the Brain in which puppeteers become scientists trying to develop a brain from scratch.

There will also be after-show discussions, lectures and workshops around the programme.

“It’s all about raising awareness of current research, but also provoking debate and raising lots of questions, where theatre is sometimes at its best” says Glanville, who has a four-year-old himself and three-month-old baby. “Four different groups of artists have been working with scientists on it for well over a year, and for me it’s going to interesting to see how it might inform the way parents think about their relations with children. I’m hoping lots of parents and will attend the talks as well as the plays, but also educationalists and scientists, because it’s about the arts as well as science.”

Polka Theatre is an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation which was started by Richard Gill in 1967
as a touring company. It got its first Arts Council grant in 1971, and was attracting audiences of 250,000 a year. In 1979 Polka found a permanent
base in the old Holy Trinity Halls in Wimbledon which opened in 1979. It has a 300-seat main auditorium and
a 90-seat studio, a café, playground, toyshop and gallery space. Gill was followed by Vicky Ireland, Anne Wood and then Jonathan Lloyd,
who handed over to Peter Glanville
in 2013. The theatre is expanding, with a fundraising campaign under way to match the Arts Council’s promised £2.5m Catalyst grant for
a £5m extension that will provide a bigger second venue and rehearsal space, and expand the front-of-house facilities. The work is due to be begin in summer 2018, and Polka will continue production through the period. The second festival following Brain Waves will be in
the spring of 2018 and will explore technology. While Polka continues to be supported by ACE, funding from Merton Borough Council has been shrinking so that fundraising is an increasingly vital activity, Peter Glanville says, as they keep
a healthy average 70% audience level. “There is a vision of the
work we want to do and we’ve got a strong development team that works hard to find corporations and foundations that say yes so that we can support work as we try to reach a wider audience” he says. Brain Waves is supported by the Wellcome Trust.

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