I’ve been making theatre professionally since 1989. As I’ve got older and older, my audiences have got younger and younger until all of the shows that I make now are for what I call ‘extraordinary audiences’ – I make shows for babies under one and I make other shows for children with complex needs. Even globally, work for these two audiences is still very much an emerging art form. Even back in the 90’s when I was making more traditional theatre in big theatres for big audiences of big people, I was always drawn to new writing and to breaking new ground – what if I score my shows like films? What if the scene changes are an integral part of the show and have an energy and an explicit choreography that adds to the journey that we take the audience on rather than people shuffling around in the dark carrying chairs? And, way back then, all of that was less the norm than it is now.
So it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve been drawn to breaking new ground even in terms of the audiences that I make work for and, necessarily, the artform development that’s part of that. I’ve thought a lot as well about the language that I use when talking about the experiences that I create for those audiences – they’re experiences where these audiences (who often have little agency in their lives) have genuine agency to find their own utterly individual way through the experience and to have the experience respond to them and meet them where they are, to co-create a world, to co-create a journey. The word ‘show’ sounds like something that is done to you or at you. But what we offer our audiences is not a workshop and it’s not a play session. So I’ve landed on the word ‘adventure’.
Making these adventures, because of the emerging nature of the art form and because of the extraordinary nature of our audiences, is an adventure in itself. Whilst I have always loved and been inexorably drawn to breaking new ground, I’d be lying if I pretended that my version of the writer’s blank starting page isn’t utterly terrifying and fills me with anxiety and dread every time!
As I’ve got older, whilst I’ve not necessarily got wiser, what I have tried to do is find structures and processes that 1/ make the richest possible work that I can and 2/ take as much of the anxiety and dread out of it as possible.
Over the past 10 years or so, by accident rather than design, by funding situations rather than by clever planning, I realised that I was making work in phases, in short bursts spread over a longer time rather than the traditional three week rehearsals followed by performances or by a tour. That was the standard when I first started directing professional theatre 34 years ago. So now I do a week exploring initial ideas then have a fair few months for things to turn over in my head before the next block of development on any project. It means that I can gradually bring in different collaborators rather than the overwhelm of everyone in at once running down the three-week hill to opening night. In the running-down-the-hill model, so many things would have had to have been decided before rehearsals began – the set would be made, the costumes designed and the music written. So little room for manoeuvre, for changing your mind, for genuine creativity – and SO much room for anxiety and dread and that feeling that your feet are going to give way beneath you. Such is the speed at which you are running and such is the steep steep incline of the hill.
Last December, I did a week’s development towards working out an idea for a new dance show for babies that I was planning to put in my 2024 programme. So, this is a development week for a show for babies who weren’t yet even conceived! I went into the five days with two dancers, a suitcase full of random stuff much of which was abandoned within the first few hours and four tiny little fragments of possible ideas. And no pressure to do anything apart from discovering some things. By the end of the week, the ‘adventure’ had revealed itself to me.
And this May, thanks to Wicklow Arts Office funding, I did a week's development starting with similarly undeveloped initial thoughts towards a new show for children with complex needs that I'm hoping to make in 2025. Again, by actively thinking, by practically playing and, by collaborating with other artists, how the show will eventually be, grew substantially in just a few days.
However, one way in which I turned the usual theatre paradigm on its head and an absolutely key part of both of those initial development weeks was active creative consultation with the shows’ respective audiences from day three. Whilst it’s much more comfortable to play in the confines of a closed rehearsal room with other artists, for me and for my audiences, that doesn’t work. The creative consultation sessions do so much more for my work than simply feedback on ideas we’ve been exploring – that’s, of course, crucial, when you find that the thing you all decided was fabulous is of no interest at all to your audience (and the joy of my audiences is that they won’t sit there and read their programmes politely and lie that they thought it was wonderful!) or that the thing that you really weren’t sure about is in fact the most engaging. But it’s much more than that – the audiences actively inspire and inform the work – from its earliest development, through creation and rehearsals and throughout any tour.
The most recent tour we did for our audiences of children and young people with complex needs, Sing Me To The Sea (a blissful watery adventure that takes place in hydrotherapy pools with audience and performers all in the water – initially supported by Wicklow Arts Office funding) has been performed more than 300 times. But every single show is different because of who each audience is, both as individuals and as a tiny temporary community.
The baby dance show development week last December had six open sessions with babies while the development week in May was in residency in St Catherine’s School in County Wicklow who are old friends and collaborators. And through that week, we had six sets of children and young people who came in to consult with us and see what we’d been up to and if it was engaging for them.
Is bringing your audience in so incredibly early terrifying, overwhelming and massively vulnerable-making? ABSOLUTELY. And, despite having worked in this way for years, the anxiety and fear of sharing something so unformed, so early, so only just starting to be thought through never get any less.
But doesn’t this fly in the face of how I started this blog? Talking about how what I have tried to do is find structures and processes to take as much of the anxiety and dread out of it as possible. I guess by changing as much as I can to do that – removing time pressure, giving myself space to think, to process, to genuinely give room for my amazing artistic collaborators to respond/expand my thinking – I also have created a space where I have enough courage and nerve and enough in the anxiety bank to do the one scary thing that I cannot do without – opening up the work to its audiences from the earliest point in the process.
For me, that’s fear that it’s worth feeling and doing it anyway.
Anna Newell has been making theatre adventures for people of all ages to watch and to take part in since 1989. Her work for Early Years audiences has been seen on 6 continents. Human connection is at the very heart of her work.
She created the world’s first BabyDay, introduced home-grown theatre for children and young people with PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties) into Ireland and helped start babytheatre in South Africa. In 2021, she set up The Network For Extraordinary Audiences – www.extraordinaryaudiences.com
She was one of just 11 finalists globally for the international Ellen Stewart Award for theatremakers whose practice has a strong social impact with a focus on young people. She was a recipient of one of the inaugural Tonic Theatre Awards for ‘game-changing women who are redefining theatre and the performing arts’.
She has been described as ‘a hero of children’s theatre’ (The Guardian) and an ‘early years theatre pioneer’ (The Irish Times)
She is based in Bray, Ireland.