WeeFestival of arts is big on ideas and long on benefits

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Lynda Hill (photo by Dahlia Katz)

One of Toronto’s newest festivals just happens to be for its littlest theatregoers. The International WeeFestival of Theatre and Culture for Early Years returns for its 3rd edition, just in time for the Mother’s Day weekend. Each component has been curated by Theatre Direct Canada’s Artistic and Executive Director Lynda Hill. With the promise of a “stress-free, tear free festival,” WeeFestival is ready to inspire a new generation of arts adorers – right from infancy.

In Ms Hill’s experience as an artist-educator, many parents have never encountered theatre created especially for children in their early years. The first thing she wants to do is correct a common preconception about the experience. It is – emphatically – not “fluff”. “This festival is curated from work of the highest standards from some of the most exceptional theatre artists who are creating this work,” she explains. “It is well-researched, tested and created for the developmental stage of the child in mind, first and foremost to engage them with beautiful art.” And happily for the skeptical parent, this means that “the works are both aesthetically complex and stimulating, engaging, and inspiring for the child and for the adult.” In fact, as one proof of its quality, two productions from the previous festival, Hup (Scotland) and Nest (Belgium), have earned Dora Award nominations.

Theatre Direct launched The WeeFestival in 2014 with the intention to connect Canada with an international network of professional theatres that create works especially for young audiences. But it was also a way to advocate the cultural rights of all children by promoting “Arts from the Start”. After a mere four years, this biennial (and not so “wee” any more) festival has enjoyed a robust growth in size, scope and popularity. This edition features performances spanning music, theatre, dance, installation/performance, puppetry and aerial arts — all designed for the early developmental stages of childhood, along with events and activities for the whole family. There are so many offerings that the festival now spans 10 days as opposed to 7.

Flying Hearts (Theatre Direct); photo by Dahlia Katz

Three additional developments distinguish this third edition. First is the balance between international and Canadian works. There will be 2 premieres of new works that the festival has supported and developed: Tweet Tweet! a combination of aerial arts, dance and circus by Femme de Feu; and Flying Hearts, a multi-sensory and interactive dance-theatre creation by Theatre Direct. Ms Hill sees this as the direct result of a maturing market: “Based on the response of ticket sales and excitement over social media, there’s now a real hunger for not just international work, but local work. That in itself is a really exciting development for the festival because just importing international work isn’t sufficient. What we’re trying to do is motivate and inspire a truly Canadian movement around arts for early years.”

A second distinction of this year’s festival is the participation of Magnet Theatre from Cape Town, South Africa, based on a partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A seven-member troupe will perform Knock! in both Hamilton and Toronto, and Scoop, a “gorgeous piece for babies” of 6 weeks to 12 months of age, which uses South African polyphonic singing, sounds and rhythms. As part of the festival’s commitment to community outreach, infants and their caregivers from various social service organizations and initiatives serving young parents will attend Scoop free of charge. Children from local daycares and kindergartens will also attend performances throughout the week. Local theatre artists will also have the chance to learn and create for young audiences with Magnet Theatre, and 25 early childhood educators will participate in professional-development workshops and attend performances.

The third innovation this year is the development of a “huge range of partnerships and collaborations,” which include four productions with French Language Programming Partner Théâtre français de Toronto: OGO (Théâtre des petites âmes, Montréal, QC), Mots de Jeux (Vox Théâtre, Ottawa, ON), Mokofina (LagunArte, Pays Basque, France) and Sisters, the Warm Embrace | Les choses berçantes (Théâtre des Confettis, Quebec). In addition, the Canadian Opera Company (COC) is providing space for a teachers conference and a new music-theatre work, Baby Berio by Xin Wang. The COC is also sponsoring an all-ages performance of Millan & Faye present: The Opera! From Twinkle to Stardom. Finally, WeeFestival is in the early days of a regional partnership with the Hamilton Kinderfest, with three productions from WeeFestival traveling to Hamilton during the same window of time as their teachers’ festivals. This affiliation means a broader network that includes Hamilton, Burlington, and Mississauga.

In addition to all of this, the festival offers a full delegate programme of conference activity for those interested in exploring themes of access, inclusion, and reconciliation in arts for early childhood. All festivalgoers are invited to Biinoojiinyag Gitgaanmiwaa -“Children’s Garden” – a relaxed performative space where young children and families can explore and engage in Indigenous culture through interactive experiences. WeeFestival’s commission of Biinoojiinyag Gitgaanmiwaa is the first of its kind at a children’s festival.

Knock! (Magnet Theatre)

If this all sounds huge, it is! Ms Hill acknowledges that creating a festival of such scale is a massive – and crucial – undertaking. Her motivations are several: “professional, personal and political”. Her company Theatre Direct is, first and foremost, a creation and production company. Their full-time job is creating theatre for young audiences: both performances and arts programs in schools. “Because we know that large sector of young audiences from kindergarten to youth, we see particularly within the kindergarten, that there just aren’t sufficient arts opportunities or excursion opportunities created especially for kindergarten children,” she observes. She asserts the imperative of engaging the youngest in the public schools with “excellent theatre”. Taking them into shows that are “above their age level or not at all appropriate for them” can make it difficult to engage them later on, so “we really want to spark that love of art and theatre very early on.”

It’s no accident that WeeFestival was born in Toronto, says Ms Hill: Firstly, “there’s a festival happening every week in the summer. That feeling of celebration and community is certainly present every normative corner of our festival.” And the festival has filled an important gap, since Toronto has been without an international children’s festival since the Milk International Festival wrapped up in 2006. Ms Hill felt this absence keenly: as a missed opportunity for both children and artists, who lacked exposure to high-quality work from overseas to influence and inspire their local approach. “As artists, we were feeling isolated from the rest of the movement internationally,” she explains:  “Also when I started attending festivals in 2007 and 2008, I saw the early stages of what was called the small-sized movement in Europe funded by the European Union. I was so inspired by the quality of the work, and also how passionately engaged these accomplished artists were in producing and presenting theatre for the early years.”

In keeping with the rights of the child and Article 27 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this European work was rooted in the belief that arts in the early years is a fundamental right, and one critical to the health and well-being of children. This resonated deeply with her as a potent contrast with the preference of Ontario’s public education system for funding standardized testing and formulaic class sizes over arts education. “We’re not paying attention to the most important contributor to a child’s overall health,” she notes sadly: “Arts and culture play a central role in early childhood.”

Kristof Hiriart in Mokofina (LagunArte)

So where, exactly, does the indefatigable Ms Hill get the energy and drive to bring such a multi-faceted and vibrant 10-day festival to life? Motherhood, it turns out, has made her both tireless and relentless. It has prompted  her pursuit of excellence in every aspect of Theatre Direct and WeeFestival. To ensure a high-calibre experience, she personally attends to and approves each detail by measuring it against her standards as a mother who wants only the best for children. “The minute that it’s your children, your standards skyrocket,” she asserts. “I can’t imagine feeding my children junk food. And I can’t imagine bringing my children to something that insults their intelligence or underestimates their capacity to engage with complex art and ideas.” Sure enough, although her children are now teenagers, they were raised in and with the arts. Seeing the gratifying effects of an artistic upbringing firsthand has brought unwavering clarity: “I won’t select anything other than the highest standards, and I think every mother would understand that,” she maintains. “We want the best for our children.”

And finally . . . what about the grown ups bringing the little ones to the show? Will they merely tolerate shows that captivate young minds at the expense of their adult attentions?  Thanks to her careful curation, she expects this will not be the case at WeeFestival. Festivalgoers of all ages can anticipate the enjoyment of a shared, vivid, vibrant experience that captivates the senses, strengthens the parent-child bond, and improves overall well-being.

Yes, such a carefully curated festival of contemporary, experimental, and excellent theatre and performance is a herculean and serious undertaking. But for Ms Hill — and for parents and youngsters who sample the festival – the lifelong dividends it yields are without price and beyond compare.

What to see? A starting point, courtesy of Lynda Hill:

1. Mokofina (LagunArte, Pays Basque, France) May 18 – May 20, 2018
Small World Music, 180 Shaw St, Studio 101, Toronto; Music/Performance for audiences 9 months – 5 years
“It’s an absolutely magical experience.”

2. Ssst! (florschütz & döhnert, Germany) May 18th – May 20th, 2018 Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto, ON; Puppetry/Music/Clown for audiences 2 – 5 years
“It’s just so delicious and fun and playful! These are two artists who tour everywhere with their productions.”

3. Knock (Magnet Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa) May 19th – May 20th, 2018, The Theatre Centre Mainstage, 1115 Queen St W, Toronto, ON; Music/Theatre for audiences 2 – 5 years
“It’s just so special to see a work rooted in South African Rhythm and music and created especially for Young children and their families. I would say those shows on the long weekend are not to be missed.”

4. Millan & Faye present: The Opera! From Twinkle to Stardom Thursday, May 17, 6:30 PM Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley St, Toronto, ON; audiences of all ages
“We chose this evening performance especially for families who may be away on the weekend and families that have children that span a range. It’s an all-ages, really fun family experience. If you can’t make it to anything else and only have an evening, come out to see this delightful concert. I think it’s for Opera lovers and for Opera phobes. Opera 101 – so much fun!”

News You Can Use

Image courtesy of WeeFestival.ca

What: The 3rd International WeeFestival of Theatre and Culture for Early Years, curated and presented by Theatre Direct Canada

Who: Audiences 0 months to 5 years of age and their caregivers

When: May 11-21, 2018

Where: See schedule for venues 

Info and Schedule: WeeFestival.ca

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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