The baby as a creative consultant


In 2019, director Anna Newell began working on an innovative project at the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray. Almost all of Newell’s projects can be described as innovative or groundbreaking, focusing as they do on an audience’s very first encounter with the performing arts: Newell’s audiences are babies, some only a few days old .

Newell’s work, which she describes as “theatrical adventures”, for audiences she calls “extraordinary”, has developed over more than a decade of working with the youngest possible cultural citizens. and their parents. During this time, she has developed the “optimal conditions for connecting with babies: portable performance spaces that eliminate all visual and auditory noise that makes it difficult to engage in cognitive processes, a quiet environment, a way to talk and greet people [that allows] a personal bond to exist”. This discovery, she explains, was made possible by the babies themselves, who are “invited to come in as creative consultants from the start, from day two” of any rehearsal period. “Because babies are the ones who really train us in what works for them and that’s crucial. I can’t imagine doing the job [without their input] more.”

In 2019, however, Newell decided to turn the focus upside down and investigate the effect of working with babies on artists doing the work for them. Having acted in her own shows since she started doing theater for the very young, Newell had experienced firsthand “the incredible sense of calm and well-being you get when working with babies. [Performing for babies] is really a two-way street in every way, and I wanted to see how that effect might translate if we were working with artists who might have a lot to gain from that sense of connection and empathy with babies.

Pilot project

Inspired by the Roots of Empathy project, which brought babies into classrooms around the world to teach empathy to elementary school children, Newell began thinking about creating a pilot project for teenagers, which she would train to perform in front of an audience of infants, using the methodologies she had developed over years of practice. Like babies, she explains, adolescent brains “are at a similar point of neuroplasticity. Adolescence is a time of questioning and adolescents are very vulnerable. They change all the time.

Newell had recently returned from South Africa, where she had worked with Magnet Theater Company to create the country’s first baby performances. Many of the performers were in their late teens and early twenties, and Newell had observed how transformative working with babies was for the performers themselves. On her return to Dublin, with support from the Mermaid Arts Center and Wicklow County Council, she set up Connect, a two-week project involving 10 transitioning students. However, the focus was not on creating a performance piece for babies, but on observing “the impact that working with babies had on them”.

For years, Newell says, she had “bits of trapped neuroscience,” finding a way to explain how “relationships, curiosity, and neuroscience around connection can change the world.” Now she has invited researchers from Trinity College Dublin’s ImmaLab, which specializes in studying the adolescent brain, to help evaluate the program. “I’m not going to lie,” she recalls, “it was a roller coaster.”

Teenagers reported anxiety and fear about working with babies, as well as fears of feeling judged by peers, researchers, and even babies. In the final evaluation, Newell says, “all of the teens said they had considered leaving the project at some point.” However, it was “when the babies arrived [that] everything had a meaning for them”. The researchers observed an improvement in participants’ general well-being and social connections, which in turn affected their creative problem-solving skills. “We’ve learned so much about all that babies can teach us about communication, about connecting with others, and about connecting with ourselves, that in the end [the participants] felt like different people.

“Small Abilities”

Connect was one of the last projects Newell did before the pandemic, although she admits she was extremely lucky to be able to continue filming in 2020 and 2021, thanks to flexible funding and support at the venue, but also in because of “our small abilities, as well as the naturally reactive and flexible nature of the work”. Sing Me to the Sea, for example, a show for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities on a motorhome tour of the audience’s backyards.

However, Connect also marked the start of a relationship with TCD, and this month Newell completed a unique rehearsal residency there for his latest show babyGROOVE, in collaboration with Cusack Lab’s Foundations of Cognition (Foundcog) project. , a longitudinal observational study designed to investigate the exploratory behavior and visual brain development of infants during their first two years of life. Creative consultation sessions during rehearsals will take place as part of the Global Brain Health Institute’s first Creative Brain Week, a festival designed to highlight the relationship between creativity and neuroscience.

BabyGROOVE was born out of a simple proposition, Newell explains: the desire to create a 1970s event for babies. As Newell explains, an event is essentially determined by “who is there and what they bring to the table and I liked it. That’s exactly what our shows are about. In keeping with the needs of its young audience, the work is sensory-based rather than narrative-based. Performers will sing harmonies composed by David Goodall, while immersed in a video light show driven by patterns created by Conan McIvor. These elements will remain throughout the run and during the national tour of the show. However, like a real happening, “everything else changes depending on who’s there, as we bring this little temporary community together” for the show. In the emerging post-pandemic context, says Newell, the “temporary community” offered by coming together in a creative space is even more important than ever.

Newell looks forward to the scientific rigor that Creative Brain Week observers will bring to the work she does. However, she also wishes to underline the qualitative character that animates her work. “When working with babies, young people, children with special educational needs, people can focus on quantitative outcomes: developmental outcomes, educational outcomes. But we must also remember the value of art and beauty for themselves. Beauty is alchemy, [aesthetic] the quality of our work not only respects the public, it is transformative. »

babyGROOVE takes place March 14-16 at the Naughton Institute, Trinity College Dublin, as part of Creative Brain Week, before an extensive national tour. See for full tour dates

Creative Brain Week: How Creativity and Cognition Collide

Creative Brain Week is a new annual interdisciplinary festival dedicated to exploring how brain science and creativity intersect in all areas of our lives: from social and technological development to entrepreneurship and culture, in through mental and brain health throughout the life cycle.

Bringing together brain science experts and leaders from the creative industries, it aims to promote interdisciplinary neuroscience of creativity and the brain, and all of its practical applications. The inaugural event illustrates and celebrates innovation at the intersection of arts and brain sciences, with thematic seminars exploring the creative brain in business and innovation, creativity and neuroscience; and The Creative Brain in the Arts, Health and Wellness.

Art and dementia

There is also an extensive creative program, which includes exhibitions, workshops and performances that celebrate early childhood audiences and neurodiverse artists, the aging brain and art made by people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Highlights include BrainFM, a series of dance workshops for people with dementia; a lecture danced by dancers, activists and scholars Paul Modjaji and Fearghus Ó Conchúir, who share a somatic conversation about the legacy of trauma carried by our bodies, and Yes, But Do You Care?, a video installation by Marie Brett, on caregiving and capacity. Events are both in person and online.


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