PLAYtime! is an interactive theatre series for children aged two to four years old produced and presented by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Designed to spark children’s creativity and to encourage learning through stories, music and movement, the plays are all original works created by the Esplanade’s director and creative team. Children are encouraged to sing, dance and interact with the actors as the story unfolds.
Since 2016, Esplanade has been staging sensory-friendly works for their PLAYtime! series, so that children and families affected by autism spectrum disorders and other sensory, social, and cognitive disabilities can also enjoy the shows. These sensory-friendly features include:
Brighter lights: No complete blackouts. House lights are slightly brighter at all times.
Adjusted sound levels: Sounds are kept at a consistent level. There’s no surprising and loud sounds.
A relaxed environment: Audience members can enter and exit the theatre space freely. The audience size is smaller to allow for more space and movement.
Calming spaces: You can take your child to a space outside the theatre to calm down. Fidget toys are available for loan.
Pre-event preparation: The Esplanade provides a pre-visit guide, containing a visual story to helps prepare children for what to expect for their visit to Esplanade and the production itself. It also has pictures of characters, costumes, sets, sound clips of songs. This pre-visit guide can be downloaded from the website as early as a week before the first sensory-friendly performance.
The organisers also arrange for 1 or 2 teachers from schools that book performances, so that they are fully aware what the show is about, and know how to prepare their students ahead of time.
We spoke with Ms Chua Lik Ling, Head of Children & Youth at The Esplanade Co Ltd to find out more about their sensory-friendly plays.
EV: What was the inspiration behind this series of sensory-friendly programming?
CLL: As an arts centre for everyone, Esplanade is always conscious of where and how we can serve the different segments of our community better. So, having established a following for our PLAYtime! performances, we looked at what more we could do to bring the arts to even more young audiences.
In 2016, we started presenting sensory friendly performances for our PLAYtime! productions. We wanted to create an environment where families with kids with special needs feel safe and welcomed, and can attend a performance together. The performances are particularly suited for those on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities.
EV: Is the creative team (writers, cast, etc) behind PLAYtime! an inhouse team, or does the Esplanade partner with theatre companies?
CLL: Since the beginning, Esplanade has created all its own productions for the PLAYtime! series. We bring together various members to form the creative team: the director, lighting designer, set designer, musicians and actors.
When we started in 2007, there were not many companies or individuals that worked in theatre for very young audiences. The scene saw mostly works that were heavy on text and aimed at children aged 5 and above.
We felt this was a gap that the Esplanade could plug, and started producing works for 2 to 4 year olds. We felt that children of this age group was perfect for us to work with: they’re at a stage of rapid physical and intellectual development; they’re curious, exploring their environment, and learning to walk and communicate.
EV: How does the Esplanade decide which works to put on stage? Is it by themes, or playwrights, etc?
CLL: We’re very aware that our performances are often a child’s first foray into theatre, and the experience can have an impact on the child’s lifelong attitude towards the arts. We consider carefully what our young audiences get exposed to as they watch. While the storyline and setting of each production differs, PLAYtime! aims to provide learning opportunities and to convey positive values to our young audiences.
There is a wealth of literature for young children written by Singapore authors, but not many know this. We wanted to create greater awareness of our local literary talents and felt that bringing some of these stories to life through PLAYtime!, Esplanade’s self-produced series of interactive theatre productions for two to four year olds, would enable us to do this.
So, in 2016, we adapted Bunny Finds the Right Stuff by Emily Lim, and The Bird Who was Afraid of Heights by Farah Bagharib-Kaltz. In February this year, we staged Rochee The Friendliest Cockroach by Gavin Goo. Fatimah and Her Magic Socks by Zizi Azah just ended its run earlier in May. Our next show is in August, based on Koko the Great by Natalie Hennedige.
These stories were chosen for their imaginative and endearing qualities, and strong narratives, and we also thought they had good theatrical potential, when adapted for the stage. There is also a browsing library of such books free for everyone to enjoy at PIP’s PLAYbox, our children’s space at Esplanade.
We hope that our efforts will encourage more parents to introduce stories by our Singapore artists to their young ones.
EV: How has the series evolved since it first started?
CLL: It has only been a year since Esplanade introduced sensory friendly PLAYtime! performances for children with special needs. We are still in the process of learning, seeking suggestions and feedback from parents and teachers at rehearsals and shows.
For our first sensory-friendly PLAYtime! performance Bunny Finds the Right Stuff in 2016, we organised a small focus group comprising people familiar with the special needs community: parents, therapists and teachers. We also studied what some theatre companies in the UK and US did to create sensory-friendly performances. In addition, we invited a few teachers and therapists to the opening shows of the production, to get feedback on what and how we could adjust the environment, for the sensory friendly performances that took place later in the run.
We also provide our performers with basic knowledge about the requirements of special needs children, and provide them opportunities to observe and interact with them.
EV: Details of the next PLAYtime! production?
CLL: The next PLAYtime! performance will be Koko the Great which is adapted from the book of the same name. Koko the Great will run from 11 – 27 Aug, with sensory-friendly performances on 23 Aug, 11am & 2pm and 26 Aug, 11am. More details can be found via www.esplanade.com/playtime.