I sit on a cloud and watch as the audience starts to trickle into the space in small groups.
The big ones are fussing over where to sit and dealing with coats and personal items, chatting away to the small ones about these details, but the small ones are full of wonder at this strange place they’ve suddenly arrived at. There is some nervousness and a bit of fearfulness in their eyes as they look around and I’m making split-second decisions about whether eye contact with me would make things better or worse for them at this stage.
I’m here for them – the small ones. The young ones, a lot of whom have never been here before and have no real idea what is going to happen next. They are being asked to huddle together with a bunch of people they’ve never seen before on the side of the room that has all the chairs, while the side with no chairs has a big fluffy duvet cloud thing under two people strangely dressed holding little tiny fluffy cloud shapes.
We always have one or two who burst into tears. They find the wrench into this strange place to0 much to bear, perhaps not fully prepared for the experience yet. Most cope really well. They have understood enough or have been here before and hang on to see what is going to happen. They’ve picked up on the grown ups’ excitement that something special is going to take place. Curiosity is piqued.
We go out among them and offer little tiny fluffy clouds for them to take. I always wait for their hands to come to me before finishing the offer. Sometimes I can’t even make eye contact then, but rarely. They’ve relaxed enough by now to settle and accept our little gifts.
Since beginning our tour of Cloud Child we’ve been playing to sell-out houses. It’s wonderful and humbling to be given that level of confidence and trust by our audiences, and also the theatres and arts centres that booked this first tour of the show on very little information. Cloud Child is captivating the attention of the young children, first putting them at ease and making them giggle, then absorbing them in a deeply fascinating (to them) tale told purely by action. Only six words are spoken, all of them signed, and four of those are feelings. ‘Happy’, ‘sad’, ‘worried’ and ‘cross’. The others are ‘hungry’ and ‘sleepy’. What happens on stage appeals not only to young minds but also to parents and carers as it explores the parenting of a child that is a bit unusual and is from a different culture, physical set of abilities, and mental space than the parent. However much love, attention and care that is showered upon them, it is still sometimes hard to acknowledge their inner nature and outward requirements. This is all told in a highly symbolic, but deeply touching way.
The projects we have developed over the last few years for early years have tended to involve quite a lot more participation and hands on activities and learning than is usual for a theatre show, but in the research and development for Cloud Child we were surprised to be confidently deciding that this work was fully capable of being presented to this age group without so much participatory activity on their part. This was for two main reasons: our puppet was beautifully designed and made for young children and turned out to be quite captivating, also the narrative was so strong that we trusted it to hold their attention.
We of course developed some excellent participatory activities based upon the research and development, but we offered them as a separate session called ‘Clouds’ for groups of up to 25 children. The show itself could play to much larger numbers. We played Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, West London to an audience size of nearly 250 and the audience was quiet and concentrated. A feat for this age range.
It is still early in the tour and I’m sure we have quite a lot more discoveries to make and challenges to overcome, but it’s been a great start and this performance personally is a dream for me – I have a puppet in my hands from 7 minutes in and get to operate it continuously as a character for about 30 minutes solid, developing the depths of action and emotion, exploring the physical and expressive capabilities. As a puppeteer, I live for shows like these. Some of you may have seen ‘The Lost and Moated Land’ by Theatre Rites. I had a similar opportunity as a puppeteer then. Lots of crouching, but wonderful, intense puppet work.