Susie Lee and the Small Human Festival, a Festival for Actual Babies

Hi Susie Lee, welcome to the Lonely Arts Club! What was the first spark of inspiration for the Small Human Festival, a festival for babies!?

At 44, I had just become a mother to my daughter, Hana. I was struggling to understand how to be creative with this new identity and how to integrate what felt like very different worlds of art and motherhood. At the same time, a creative collaborator Ying Zhou, had just come back from Beijing, where she had founded and ran a company to produce forward-thinking theater for children. She started that company because she hadn’t been inspired by what was available for her children until she saw a production by Danish artists for babies, a work which was poetic, experimental, and artistically rigorous. 

As Hana approached her first birthday, I asked Ying and another close collaborator Emily Greenleaf, if we could create a baby-centered piece in the spirit of poetic, experimental and artistically rigorous, and they totally jumped in. Lesley Hazleton, writer and friend wrote the central concept. We workshopped our piece, The More You Look: An Experimental Baby Opera, wondering if there was any interest in this type of work here, and the response was a resounding yes.

From there, the vision of the Small Human Festival emerged and we accelerated quickly when On the Boards enthusiastically agreed to be creative partners. Thingyverse is now joined by Jenn Brandon, a creative community convener, as well as Achil Jackson and Lisa Mackie with the shared vision that children of all ages need art. We create high-level theater for small humans. 

Image by Thingyverse Productions

Why is exposing babies to this kind of performance art important in your opinion? This can be an emotional or scientific answer, of course!

Babies and contemporary performance might seem like totally different worlds, but they are really a natural fit. Both are about risk-taking, boundary testing, and meaning-making; at the core both are driven by curiosity and imagination. Learning happens, and perhaps even more meaningfully, in the ‘not knowing’ space, a space where observation, experimentation, and creativity exist. It’s where artists thrive. It’s where babies live. 

Courtney Sale, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theater, also shared with me the recent findings* of TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) on the impact of live performance on children: 

–Children exposed to live theater are much more able to imagine the lives of others.

–Children exposed to live theater before the age of 8 reports that “Theater is for someone like me.” (The study found that trend to decline in children who are not exposed to live theater before the age of 8).

–Children demonstrate a range of intrinsic impacts after seeing live theater performance, including personal relevance, social bridging, aesthetic growth, and motivation to action.

And an unexpected and moving outcome: Young people discover and develop hope through the performing arts.

What could be more vital and essential for a child in this world right now? 

Image by Priya Alehan

Since this is such a one-of-a-kind event, I imagine it might bring some challenges. Any unique experiences while creating this festival come up?

Most adult festivals are “endurance experiences for enthusiasts” but that doesn’t work for a festival for babies. A sea of tired, hungry babies and desperate caregivers would be terrible…We have to thoughtfully consider times for naps and meals and assume that most audience members will see only one show a day. 

And so many parents know that the best of days, getting out the door with a baby can be a little like juggling a chainsaw, a kitten, and a dirty diaper. Add city traffic, a patchwork of public transportation or a dearth of parking, and one quickly sees the significant access barriers for a small human and their ride (aka caregiver). For this reason, we also have a free to the public tour of the performances in the community centers around Seattle and King County.  The tours make the work accessible and welcoming to a larger audience for whom this festival is likely their first live performance experience. 

Even though this is for babies – can adults enjoy going to this festival too? 

Adults who are curious to both watch artistically rigorous, short, new works by some of Seattle’s most beloved artists AND the openly engaged, non-judgmental and just-want-to-soak-it-all-in chubby-cheeked audience members getting their minds blown by what is likely their first live theater experience — those adults will totally enjoy the experience. 

These are not the creepy want-to-bang-your-head garish cartoons with annoying songs and the life sucked out of them. These are deeply moving and artistically rigorous works with a little humor, tenderness, and empathy. It’s like the best reminder of why humans are innately drawn to the human-to-human energy that emerges from live performance. 

Image by Edelmar Obenza

What is something that is magically unexpected that people should look forward to? Any particular highlights you’d like to point out?

Lucia Neare, Mark Haim, Debbie Cavitt and Thingyverse are creating contemporary works that unapologetically explore joy, a radical gentleness, and love. Which is how the very young are. When toddlers perceive an object or person is hurt, given the chance, they will rush to comfort. When babies hear other babies cry, they begin to cry. When they are engaged, their whole face lights up and their bodies leap forward. When you give space in your own body for these experiences and you’re open to witnessing the very young as they truly are, (and not just tired cliches about toddlers and babies) you discover that they can be unexpectedly moving.

Many of us talk about community, but children really bring into sharp relief the belief that humans are absolutely supposed to share life, in a multigenerational, extended, and generous way. We know that newborns are helpless, but I have also never felt so vulnerable to the hostilities and vagaries when Hana was born. The baby festival counters the trend of many forms of technology and increasing wealth encourages easy consumption and individual alienation over complicated human interactions. We are like a metaphorical courtyard, a place where many people can witness and share experiences, and where there is no substitute for human connection.

Want to see The Small Human Festival in Action on April 23rd – 26th? Learn More Here! 

Susie Lee is an artist, entrepreneur, convener of community and small human nurturer. She is the executive director and co-founder of Thingyverse Productions, an arts organization dedicated to creating smart contemporary performance for the very young.



Interviewed by Sarah E. Miller, Editor-in-Chief of Lonely Arts Club

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