Lead artist Marion Geoffray reflects on the journey Expecting Something’s young parents embarked on over 10 weeks as part of an expressive arts project to explore their own and their babies’ identities. Through puppetry, the spoken word, mark-making, photography and film participants have explored who we are, how we perceive ourselves and how to share this as something tangible.
I first started to work with Starcatchers in January 2017 as a bursary placement artist on Expecting Something. As a bilingual theatre maker with some previous experience with early years I was particularly interested in exploring language(s) (verbal, non verbal, dance, music, performance, visual arts) and how they occur between the parent and the child, what kind of communication and interaction take place during the session and how do they differ from one parent/child to the next. I was very lucky then to get to work with both Expecting Something groups in Wester Hailes and Lochgelly and alongside Hazel Darwin-Clements and Katy Wilson who were the lead artists.
Verbal language is often taken for granted as adults because speech is one of the first rites of passage in our human life. Then comes written language and the necessity to ortograph, spell and write words properly. Language is a reflection of who we are from our personality traits to our social status, our ethnic and geographical origins to our political views. But what happens when you remove speech and written language? Young children (under 3 ) have very limited, or no control at all over either of these and yet we understand them. What can we learn from their means of communication with their parents, with each other? How can the arts support that communication process? And finally how can we combine these creative languages to verbal and written ones to enhance communication?
My journey with Starcatchers participants and artists was very much centred around these questions and concepts. Eighteen months later I now have the opportunity to lead my own workshops and tailor them to develop participants’ skills and further my artistic reflexion.
One of the very first activities I led was on animals, how they communicate with sounds and physical language as well as how humans perceive these behaviours. For instance, animals do not sound the same in different cultures and languages which proves that animals do have a language that needs to be translated. The same could apply to babies and toddlers. Animals have personalities and social behaviours like humans and mimicking is key in the animal world to learn the do’s and don’ts – there is no textbook or classrooms. The mimicking process for children under 3 is just as important and that is why it is essential that parent/child interactions are encouraged and supported. Throughout the sessions at Lochgelly and Whale Arts Centre, various artistic mediums have been used to facilitate these interactions: mark-making, creating crafts, dancing, physical activity, painting, puppetry, dressing up, role-playing, photography, music, sound-making, baby signing, storytelling, building blocks…mainly inspired by what the participants wanted to explore and what legacy they wanted to leave to their baby and to the group.
While their focus is often on making and creating something concrete out of the workshops for themselves or their baby to use, I wanted to challenge them during this block of sessions and get them to create something that was already existing – them and their baby – but in creative form. We chose to explore ‘Identity’: who are they? how do they perceive themselves and others? who is their baby? how do they manifest their personality? and how might they show this in a tangible, shareable product?
The group was very keen to do more photography and filming. After introducing them to Hollie Mcnish on Youtube, I was keen for them to put into words what we were doing and how they felt inside, which wasn’t easy at first. For once it was easier to do rather than to say it out loud. We began by talking (a lot) about our memories, our names, what we’d like to pass on and how some stories are sometimes hard to share. We used puppetry, storytelling and mark-making as a way to communicate them. We took pictures of what we thought we looked like, what we’d like to look like, what we truly looked like. The babies were always and essentially a part of this process, helping identify who their mum is and therefore who they are. To make our final film more personal and intimate, we decided that children would film the whole process, either the phones were stuck to toys, part of the workshops or simply attached to the child, it gave us all an insight into what life looks like from their point of view. We also gave children the tools that adults usually use to ‘speak’ their mind – pens, letters, make-up, costumes, mirrors – to create their own ‘language’ and vision. It was particularly satisfying to see them use these tools in their own way, without any preconceptions. Spoken word was used as a vehicle to empower the participants. We asked them to write a series of words of their choosing on a piece of paper, fold it then pass it around to the next participant thus creating a collective mosaic of moods and personalities which surprisingly seemed to fit each participant very well. They were all quite proud to read their creation out loud and happy to find themselves in the words of someone else.
As our quest for identity is nearing the end in Lochgelly, we asked filmmaker artist Becky Manson to come and help us capture the sprit of the group. It was important for us all that it felt organic and non-intrusive. Some participants decided to film their spoken word poem, some others only recorded their voice. They are all now very much looking forward to seeing the result of the past few months working on themselves, with their wee ones and the rest of the group. They all communicated in their own way who they are, who their baby is, and have hopefully seen themselves in a different light and attempted to do something new outside their comfort zone.
I’ve enjoyed seeing the babies growing up and growing more confident using one medium over another. I was delighted to hear that some mums reproduced activities we did together at home with their wee one because it worked well for them and I am especially proud of having had the chance to follow the participants for the past 18 months and helping them and their babies grow more confident and more comfortable.
Expecting Something will be sharing the fruits of their work and play later on in the year. Watch this space!
Marion Geoffray is a lead artist for Starcatchers’ community engagement project Expecting Something in Lochgelly, Fife.