On May 9, Chicago Children’s Theatre will give the city its first taste of a trend that’s started to catch on elsewhere: plays for babies as young as six months. CCT’s artistic director, Jacqueline Russell, promises a highly interactive show where crying, nursing, and running around the room will be pretty much A-OK.
The play, Dot and Ziggy—about a ladybug and a skunk discovering their “differences and similarities”—is a world premiere, written and directed by Linda Hartzell, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre. Hartzell and company enjoyed a hit last year with another baby-and-toddler-friendly production, The Green Sheep. I talked to her by phone.
How did you decide to start making theater for babies?
I was directing in Australia, and the artistic director of the theater had the idea to do a toddler piece based on a book called Where Is the Green Sheep? It was just wonderful, and we brought it to Seattle.
And Dot and Ziggy is the first toddler piece that you’re developing from scratch yourself?
I’ve been directing since ’82, and this is one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had in my life, because I’m just not a playwright. I can’t even write a thank-you note. But I workshopped this with two really brilliant, funny actors.
How did you decide that this would be your debut as a playwright?
Jacqui [Russell] was going to have us bring our production of Green Sheep to Chicago, and some things came up right after the New Year, where that was not going to be possible. And she said, “Please, do you have anything?” So the month of January I spent every Saturday and Sunday making this little puppy up. We’ll see what you think. We’ve had three audiences now, and I can tell you the kids were really engaged. But we sort of put this together so that Jacqui would have something to put into her season.
Because negotiating for the rights to another book would take too long? How involved is that kind of thing?
It used to be easy. When I first started, I called Judy Blume up at home, and we got her book Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. It’s not as easy to get book rights these days, but it’s different in every case. Sometimes you call somebody and they’re really open to it, and sometimes it’s three years of dealing with people who don’t even know who owns the rights anymore.
What should people expect when they bring their little ones to see Dot and Ziggy?
You guys are going to park your strollers and walk your little ones into the room. You’re going to sit on these four bright triangles of carpet, and the action happens all around you.
It’s very interactive, and the child participates with the adult. The parent’s not dropping the child off and hoping they’ll be able to get them to talk about their experience when they pick them up.There’s music in it, there’s movement, there’s three delightful puppets. But I think what’s really working is how the child is guided into creative play. They participate in a kinesthetic way. We engage them, so there are times when they have to respond with gestures or get up and dance.
I also wanted there to be one behavioral thing that they learn: sharing. It’s based on a line from a friend of mine. Her little boy had been at home with her until he was about four, and he went to preschool the first day, and when he came home she said, “How was it? Did you like it?” And he said, “No, I didn’t like it.” And she said, “Why not?” And he said, “Well—share, share, share. That’s all we did!”
We do some practical things. We don’t darken the room—sometimes the little-little ones are afraid of the dark—and we don’t have amplified sound. Sometimes loud sounds intimidate the little ones. That also allows the cost to be lower, so the experience is less expensive.
Not darkening the room keeps the cost down?
You don’t have to pay anyone [to run lights or sound]. We’re not trying to deny work to anybody, but it’s more inviting to the little ones this way.
So you could do this in a school cafeteria.
In Australia, where it’s sunny all the time, we were doing it outside.
What happens if there’s a meltdown in the room?
Well, no one has so far. But it’s an open space, so if the parent wants to pick up the baby and take them to the corner of the room, that’s OK. If the little one wants to get up and wander and follow the action, they can. But the way we’ve inserted movement seems to keep everybody engaged and focus their physical energy.
How long is the show?
35 minutes. See, that’s the thing—it’s short.