Creating ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ with a team of neuroscientists

Theatre Director Sarah Argent finds out why babies giggle and dance, and that she has more in common with the neuroscientists at Birkbeck’s Babylab than she first thoughthome

As someone who dropped all science subjects aged 14 to focus on the arts, I approached the invitation from Pete Glanville (Polka’s Artistic Director) to develop a theatre piece for babies inspired by the work of neuroscientists with a mixture of trepidation and delight (I always like to challenge myself!)

“We all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives”

Having identified the Babylab at Birkbeck as one of the most likely places with which to liaise, we were thrilled at the excitement and generosity with which they welcomed our proposal. We met with Mark Johnson, the Director of the BabyLab, and a number of his colleagues who outlined the fascinating work of the lab and we were thrilled to realise that we all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives. Having talked about our respective interest in and engagement with babies and how we might work together, Pete and I were taken down to the labs themselves where we were fascinated to see tiny bonnets of electrodes that can ascertain exactly how a baby’s brain is being stimulated; to hear more about the eye-tracking machines that can monitor exactly where a baby is looking; and to see various familiar toys etc that are used in experiments about object permanence and time intervals, etc.

Having agreed with the Babylab that we did, indeed, wish to work together, they arranged for Jo Belloli (Polka’s Associate Producer, Early Years) and me to meet with a range of scientists – undergraduates, PhDs and members of staff – to hear more about their individual and joint areas of research in order to identify which I could most readily see as being the inspiration for the creation of a piece of theatre for babies aged 6-18 months and their parents and carers. Everyone with whom we met did a wonderful job of describing their work in laymen’s terms (neither Jo nor I being a scientist) – although we did still have to ask a few very basic questions! After much discussion and deliberation, we chose three scientists with whom to work: Sinead Rocha, Rosy Edey, and Caspar Addyman (who cut his teeth at Birkbeck and, while there, developed the Baby Laughter project but is now on the teaching staff at the Infant Lab at Goldsmiths).

“You could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights”

We then invited the scientists to visit Polka, to see the Adventure Theatre in which the production will be performed, to meet with Polka staff, and for them to find out more about us and for us to find out more about them. At a wonderfully-attended meeting (Polka staff were so intrigued about and excited by hearing more of the work of the scientists), Caspar, Rosy and Sinead outlined their research areas in more detail. Without the need for bonnets of electrodes, you could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights or what makes them laugh. It was also hugely gratifying to realise that so many of the words and terms we use to describe our creative processes were also used by the scientists – maybe we have even more in common than we thought!

We then spent three wonderfully full and creative days in the Adventure Theatre playing with lights and movement and objects – a mixture of inanimate objects and actor, Maisie!

“The level of scientific clarity took things to a deeper level”

On the second day, we invited a number of babies and their mums to join us to observe how they would respond to our initial ideas. As we suspected, Maisie has a natural affinity with babies with a number of them being mesmerised by her from the moment they first clapped eyes on her. What was so exciting about this project was that, while as makers of baby theatre 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 at their particular age took things to a deeper level.

While we’re not asking Maisie to play the character of a baby, we are keen for her movements to mirror or resemble those of a baby – to share some of the characteristics – and so, again, to have the scientists detailing babies’ reasons for moving e.g. the way in which they ‘unlearn’ some of the lessons they’ve learned while crawling or shuffling on their bottoms once they begin toddling on two feet, has played a fascinating role in helping us to develop the movement vocabulary of the piece.

“A wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science”

I have to be honest, the music that Sinead uses in the BabyLab as part of her exploration of rhythm was not music that either myself or Julian Butler (our composer) would have instinctively been drawn to in creating a theatre piece for babies but, in line with the brief of responding to the work of the scientists, we have dutifully explored this – and it has led us to realise that babies respond to much more upbeat and rhythmic music than we had previously imagined! Julian has now created a wonderful track which starts with a heartbeat (evoking the sounds the baby would have heard in the womb) and building to wonderful up-tempo Latin-inspired rhythms – all thanks to Sinead’s research. He has also remixed a track that Sinead had stopped using in her experiments as, while it has the right tempo, it didn’t have a strong enough pulse for the babies to respond to. Sinead is now exploring whether she can use Julian’s remixed track in the BabyLab – a wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science.

Again, confounding our initial instincts, the Adventure Theatre will be transformed into a more aesthetically-pleasing version of the BabyLabs complete with dark curtains and versions of the objects and toys found in the Lab – along with gorgeous carpet and cushions on which the audience can sit.

“Now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way”

Our scientists will be visiting us regularly throughout rehearsals, observing our material as it develops and observing and commenting on babies’ responses each time they visit. Detailed observation of the moments that make babies’ giggle, the moments that make them move spontaneously be that bouncing or waving their arms, the moments that make their already-large eyes open even more widely is always part of our process, but now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way.

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