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Children, young people and families

Shake, rattle and roll on the stage

Ella Rhodes reports on an innovative collaboration.

28 September 2016

What makes babies laugh? What makes them spontaneously break into dance? Psychologists at Birkbeck, University of London's Babylab have helped the director of new theatre production, made especially for babies aged between six and 18 months, answer these questions and more in a truly collaborative project.

Shake Rattle and Roll is one of several plays being premiered at London's Polka Theatre and the Brit School as part of their Brain Waves festival. Its programme of events also includes an aerial show Depths of My Mind which is based on recent research on the development of the teenage brain, as well as Animating the Brain which has been developed with help from neuroscientists from King's College London, puppeteers and filmmakers.

We spoke to Sarah Argent, Director of Shake, Rattle and Roll along with Caspar Addyman (Goldsmiths University of London and formerly of Birkbeck). He's one of three academics from the Babylab who has helped the theatre's creative team throughout production. Also on hand to advise were Sinead Rocha, a PhD student whose research looks at how babies learn to dance and Rosy Edey, a PhD student looking at biological motion perception and social difficulties in people with autism.

Argent has been working to create theatre experiences for babies since 2007: her first show Out of the Blue has toured for eight years and had performances as far afield as the Sydney Opera House. Peter Glanville, artistic director of Polka, asked her to collaborate with neuroscientists on a new piece for the Brain Waves Festival – she admitted she was slightly terrified at the prospect.

Argent said she visited Birkbeck Babylab academics to find out which researchers may be best placed to advise on the project and was intrigued by the experimental setting. She told us: 'We went into the depths of the building and saw the labs, we were fascinated by the electric bonnets and eye tracking machines, and the incongruity of all the little plastic toys… in amongst all this very high tech equipment were these slightly nasty plastic toys!'

This first trip to the Babylab became inspiration for the play itself – a single performer, Maisie Whitehead, takes the babies through a metaphorical trip to the lab, with all of its novelty, unexpected lights, toys and music. Addyman, Rocha and Edey were on hand to give advice on what makes babies laugh, what music is most likely to make babies spontaneously dance and how they read emotion in body language and objects.

Argent said the whole process of producing theatre with scientists on hand to help had been a fascinating experience which might inform how she works in future. She said: 'My first piece of theatre for babies, on the whole, had quite gentle, lyrical music. I'd thought a play for babies needed to be quite sonically gentle and lyrical but when Sinead gave me the playlist that she uses with the babies in the lab it was all Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez. It made us realise babies are a lot more robust than we'd given them credit for!'  

Dr Addyman, despite having now left Birkbeck's Babylab, was asked to come along to a meeting with Argent to tell her about some of his work. She and Associate Director for Early Years at Polka Jo Belloli honed in on the projects of Addyman, Rocha and Edey. All three went along to Polka Theatre in Wimbledon to tell the creative team what might work onstage, based on their research.

Addyman said taking the role of science-advisor was intimidating at first. He said: 'You do quite quickly start to take on that role though. We gave advice about the speed of certain movements or the number of repetitions needed to engage the babies or make them laugh. One video we have is a father holding his daughter tapping on a window with a coin, maybe scraping paint off the frame… he taps the window then blows and that makes her laugh. So the show starts with the performer tapping on the door to the theatre and blowing. The first few audiences - of babies and parents - were pretty amused!'

Addyman said he has learned a great deal working with Argent, and was particularly surprised at how she manages to hold the babies' attention for more than 30 minutes. 'When we've got babies coming to the lab we'd give any amount of money to have them that engrossed in the tasks! I think we could make it a bit more of a performance in the future.'

The Brain Waves Festival runs until Saturday 2 October in Wimbledon's Polka Theatre and the Brit Theatre in Croydon.