15 Jan 2018 15:13 IST

Baby loves drama

A theatre director who specialises in performances for infants explores ways to communicate at their eye level

Barbara Kölling loves to laugh. It’s among the first things you notice about her. Her hands move as she speaks, she goes red as she laughs, and she nods her head a lot while speaking. And yet, when she watches a performance, it is with an extraordinary stillness, a complete focus that is reflected in her ability to recall, step by step, every moment of seven performances seen over the course of a morning. No one could doubt then, even for a moment, that she is indeed a very serious person. In India to conduct a two-week workshop on Material Theatre, hosted by Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, Kölling is most in her element while recounting moments of joy and discovery as she deconstructs each and every performance put together by the participants. Luckily for all of us, there are many such moments.

The participants are a motley group of actors, puppeteers and dancers from across India. They represent major drama companies such as Gillo, Tram, Tadpole and Yellowcat, apart from Katkatha, as well as individual drama practitioners, alumni of the National School of Drama’s TiE Repertory, and a graduate of the Freedom Theatre of Palestine. Not all have worked with children before, and some laugh ruefully as they share that young children in the audience are usually to be feared! The artistic director of Helios Theatre, from Hamm, Germany, Kölling acknowledges this in all seriousness as she explains her journey over the past 10 years.

“In Germany 15 years ago, theatre for the youngest was really not known — we would usually play for children who were at least four or five years old. Nobody really trusted that theatre for younger children was possible. Then I was asked to curate a festival, and I travelled and saw some amazing work happening for the really small ones. I thought I would really like to do this kind of work.”

Helios’ productions — H2O and Woodbeat — have been touring Indian cities over the past three years. These shows are different as they are intended for very young children — infants and toddlers.

What attracted her to children’s theatre?

“I like little children a lot, but it was not as though I had a particular agenda,” she says, smiling. “I simply wanted to communicate with them. But I was also interested in abstract work, and my question was, how abstract could I be with very little children? And one of the first surprises for me was that you can speak with very little children in a very abstract way, because they perceive the world in a very abstract way. As they grow older, when they start to find words for things, they begin to think in more concrete terms, but at the early stages, their world is quite abstract. It’s quite logical, if you think about it.”

Having watched Helios Theatre’s H2O as a parent in 2015, I connect with this surprise. Once the show was over, my husband and I discussed what we had seen. Can it be called a play? We wondered. There was certainly drama in it, and for 30 minutes the adults, along with children ranging from 1.5 to seven years, were engrossed in watching… water. There were no words, very little music — most of it was the sounds and actions of water, curated (I cannot think of a better word) by three performers. Could it be called an art installation? Water was the “hero” of the piece, of that we were sure. There was comedy in it, and moments of deep reflection. We came away feeling healed, somehow. And this, says Kölling, is the universal experience.

“I have been trying to understand how it works for 10 years, and I still haven’t understood it!” She laughs. “The response comes from too deep within.”

As I watch the participants grapple with different materials, I feel this subliminal response. Sand evokes reflection, memories, the passage of time and even, in one case, colonialism! Clay is about shaping, forming, existence. Paper can be playful, or noisy, evoke the desire to make and engage with the world. Wool can be about angles and softness, shapes and beings. And each one of these can speak and convey much more if you can, as Kölling puts it, “meet the material” on its own terms — connect with it, let it lead you, explore it, play with it.

This exploration is not, however, guided by ideas about children and what they would like to see. “I never think about children while rehearsing my performances,” says Kölling. “We discuss what we want to do, the philosophical ideas and motivations; and when we go to children with it, it makes perfect sense to them… you can see the response in their body language, their expressions.”

There is much to look forward to, much to be excited about, says Katkatha’s director, Anurupa Roy. “We’re looking at the creation of seven plays for very young children by mid-January,” she says. “Considering the dearth of work in India, that in itself is huge.”

I can’t help but agree. And when I look at the quality of work that has emerged in one week, I am excited for what is to come. What would Kölling want to see emerge from the workshop, though? “I would really like to see shows that go into the material, that are honest to the research. Works that explore the visual aesthetics and possibilities of the material, and performances that are able to reach out to the children in the right way. Children need to see works that are honest, where artistes meet them at eye level, that are beautiful, with possibilities for deeper understanding, and very different from each other. Hopefully, we will see all of this!” The productions will be staged at the IIC, New Delhi, on January 18 and 19, at 3 pm.

(Manjima Chatterjee is a playwright and drama teacher at Shiv Nadar School, Noida. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)