‘Who knows what seeds are now planted in those tiny, amazing brains?’ Alison Croggon on Only a Year, Sarah Austin’s show for babies
After I had my first baby, and was in the haze of exhaustion and shock that the pregnancy on which I had been so focused actually resulted in another human being, my mother told me something I’ve always remembered. “Alison,” she said, “you’re going to find it so interesting.”
To my surprise, she was correct. Parenting a baby is fascinating. It’s probably typical of me that the only book I bought was a scientific tome on child development, and I confess I did perform a few of Piaget’s cognition experiments on my baby son. It’s a unique privilege to watch a human being unfold before your eyes. And 30 years later, it remains so.
A child’s first three years are an explosive time. It’s when we develop the neural pathways that determine our cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor skills. Touch is central, which is why physical affection is so important, but everything counts: every time a carer speaks or sings or plays with a baby, that stimulation forges new connections in the brain. If things go wrong, if a baby is neglected or abused or exposed to violence, it has a concomitantly devastating effect.
I spent a very beautiful 35 minutes watching around 20 babies developing their neural pathways during Sarah Austin’s enchanting show, Only A Year, at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute. It’s a sensory work designed for children from 0-12 months, and the care of its framing shows in every moment.
Before we go into the theatre, director Sarah Austin does a kind of induction, telling a foyer full of parents and babies that there is no wrong way for a baby to enjoy this show, that it is perfectly fine if it sleeps all the way through or cries or needs its nappy changing. Parents, on the other hand, are asked to keep quiet.
This, you sense, is primarily to dispel any anxiety that parents might feel about their kids’ behaviour, although it’s also practical (please don’t let your child wander anywhere near electrical cables). Then we’re led into the space.
It’s a kind of dimly lit grove, with a tree arching over us, dimly lit by Richard Vabre, and is instantly at once welcoming and magical. The parents and babies arrange themselves on the felt mats, where there are xylophone blocks that some babies begin to play with. One baby is fast asleep and remains so for most of the performance. A little girl to my right is sitting bolt upright, her eyes wide. On my other side, a baby that seems to be teething is chewing everything it can get its hands on.
In the centre of the space is an object made of stretchy white fabric. It begins to move, as if something is wrestling inside it, and I realise it’s some kind of egg. As we watch, a man in a pale mauve lyrca costume and long, friendly antennae (Nick Barlow) hatches out, covered in scales or leaves that are attached with large, colourful clothes pegs. Alert Baby on my right was transfixed, Teething Baby continued to chew the xylophone.
The show itself moves gently through the seasons, signalled by a fan turning on, leaves falling, rain sprinkling into an umbrella, a drum. Barlow moves around the space, interacting with all the babies: maybe he puppets a bird made of clothes pegs past their eyes so they snatch at it, or he softly drapes a cloth over their heads. When he noisily eats a pear, Alert Baby’s attention becomes a gimlet. She really wants that pear.
The soundtrack shifted from ambient sounds to fragments of recorded interviews with parents talking about their experiences with babies. It’s a signal that the frame of the show, its gentle narrative, is really for the adults. The babies take notice of whatever they take notice of. What was fascinating was how engaged they were in the space. Hardly anyone cried, and when they did, it was brief. They wanted a feed, or their xylophone back.
When Barlow goes to sleep and awakes as a butterfly with wings, the show is over. But the parents all take up the invitation to stay in the space, moving into the centre, talking to each other. The babies are now either asleep or crawling all over the place.
I wish this had been around when my kids were small. I would have loved to be able to bring them to this enchanting show; and who knows what seeds are now planted in those tiny, amazing brains? Lucky babies.
Only A Year: A theatre show designed for 0-12 moth olds and carers. Directed by Sarah Austin. Design by Rainbow Sweeny, Chris Wenn and Richard Vabre. Performed by Nick Barlow. Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Melbourne Fringe, until September 30.
The venue is wheelchair accessible.