The Small Human Festival Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

The new theater festival is predicated on the idea that babies might dig abstract art just as much as adults.

By Stefan Milne February 25, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Babies, appreciating the arts.

A large white structure, covered with cloth. Feet pop from holes in the sides. Faces spring from the top. Then voices in mellifluous a cappella: “The more you look, the more you see, the more the world’s a mystery.” What’s happening on stage would not appear severely out of place in any performance art venue, until you glance at the audience and see parents aiming their babies at the show—some delighted, a few distracted, one crying.

In 2018 for her child’s first birthday, local artist Susie Lee produced The More You Look: An Experimental Baby Opera with collaborators Ying Zhou and Emily Greenleaf. Its success gave Lee a bigger idea, and she got in touch with On the Boards in Queen Anne: “Can we make interesting, experimental, and artistically rigorous theater for an age group that a lot of artists tend to overlook?” This April,* The More You Look becomes one of five pieces by local artists in the Small Human Festival, the first contemporary theater festival in the U.S. meant for kids three and under.

Choreographer Mark Haim will bring a “movement-based” installation. Lucia Neare, who among other things creates surreal costumes, will explore what Lee calls “radical comfort and love.” Visual artist Barbara Earl Thomas contributes a print, and singer Debbie Cavitt has enlisted kids (slightly older ones) to join her in song.

The whole ticketed festival runs four days at On the Boards, but artists will also perform in local schools and libraries for free on other dates. Its organizers have been working with researchers to explore live performance’s neural effects in babies and figure out what infants might like in a performance. Lee, though, is less interested in some get-’em-while-they’re-young mission. Rather, she wants to explore the peculiar harmony between an audience that is utterly open (they don’t know anything!) and contemporary art forms, which many find inscrutable.

“Adult audience members will be like, ‘I don’t get this! It doesn’t make any sense!’” Lee says. “Babies don’t have that, right?” They’re free to experience abstract beauty—the work just has to be aesthetically compelling. “Infantilizing babies,” she says, “is actually not the way to go.”

► Small Human Festival, Apr 23–26, On the Boards, $15

*Update: The Small Human Festival has been canceled for the time being due to coronavirus concerns. 

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