REP’s Children, a project offering free theatre tickets for babies and their families for ten years, was so successful first time round that it had to be repeated, says Steve Ball.
When I joined Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2003 I was struck by our audience profile. Like many city centre theatres, the nearer you lived to the theatre the less likely you were to buy tickets to see our productions. So we developed a number of community engagement initiatives, including work with inner-city schools and local residents. We also took inspiration from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s Godchild project and launched an initiative known as REP’s Children. The concept is simple: every baby born in Birmingham’s City and Sandwell hospitals in October 2004 received a free theatre experience every year for ten years. The benefits to us were twofold: first, it engaged families from our neighbourhood in the life of the theatre, and second, it inspired us to produce theatre for babies and very young children.
The nearer you lived to the theatre the less likely you were to buy tickets to see our productions
In early 2004 a steering group was formed which included members from the hospital trust, Surestart, the Primary Care Trust, Birmingham City Council’s Family Learning Service and the University of Birmingham. Community midwives recruited parents to the project – a total of 230 families. Some of the parents took part in backstage tours before their babies were born and others attended the theatre with their newborn babies.
The first dedicated production for the REP’s Children babies was ‘Open House’, a multi-sensory installation featuring a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and garden with three actors who performed and interacted with the babies and their parents. In 2006, when the REP’s Children were 18 months old, we commissioned Flipside to produce ‘Dreams Come out to Play’ and in 2007 Peter Wynn-Willson worked alongside a designer on a six-month family playmakers project (pictured above) turning ideas and stories collected from the children into a professional production entitled ‘Princess and Ginger’. In 2008 Mark Storor directed ‘Lick’, a multi-sensory production for the three and half year old children, and in 2009 they saw our main stage production of ‘The Snowman’. From the age of five onwards the families received free tickets for our main stage Christmas shows.
The project was enhanced by the appointment of an early years officer who continues to provide year-round drama and arts provision for the under four year olds and their parents in nurseries and early years settings in Birmingham and Telford. Annual birthday parties brought the families together and last December the first cohort of REP’s Children, now aged ten, attended a graduation ceremony, collected certificates and saw a production of The BFG on our main stage.
Professor Jane Coad from the University of Birmingham externally evaluated the project. She took a sample of the babies and their parents and involved them in the research and observed their interaction with their babies. The research concluded that the project had been successful in reducing preconceived ideas about theatre and the arts. Parents identified benefits including improving their child’s personal, cognitive, motor, speech and language, social, educational and creative development skills.
Such was the success of the project that we repeated it in 2013 to coincide with our centenary celebrations. Every baby born in our birthday week (11 to 17 February) in City Hospital and Heartlands Hospital was offered a free theatre experience for the first ten years of their lives. It provides us with an excellent opportunity to learn from the first project and continue to engage with families across the city.
Central to this project has been a commitment to some core principles that surround our learning and participation activities. These include ensuring that the work is of the highest possible standard; a commitment to social inclusion, cultural diversity and lifelong learning; and most importantly with this project in particular, recognition of the value associated with working in partnership with individuals, families and agencies. We believe that we can offer young children and their families life-enhancing opportunities, but we also recognise that we have just as much to learn from our own communities.
Steve Ball is Associate Director at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.