These aren’t your typical theater-goers. They call out during the play. They try to join into the performance.
And some are sucking on pacifiers.
This is entertainment for the very young — baby theater.
It’s hours before noon and a couple dozen babies are sitting on their parents' laps on the floor of a darkened theater. They’re watching a trio of actors move around on the stage while chasing a laser light. In this performance, the actors interact with the light in different ways. It’s a short and simple show, and the babies love it.
Children have gone to the theater as long as it has existed, usually attending performances intended for adults. In recent decades, theater specifically made for younger audiences has become commonplace. Think everything from Hansel and Gretel to Smurfs on Ice. But in the last 10 years, theater for the very young has gained in popularity.
"Over the last decade, children’s theater has really started to transform and to find its own pace," said Pamela Komar, the manager of Children’s Theater Programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. She worked to bring this group, Teatro Al Vacio, in for the EQT Children’s Theater Festival held in mid-May.
"Theater artists are specializing in children’s theater, versus years ago when you would go into children’s theater if you were petite or maybe not so good at acting," Komar said. "But now the work is created specifically for young audiences."
Mary Crossley brought her 19-month-old daughter Zella to the first show.
"I think she was fascinated at first, a little bit reserved about it all, just taking it all in," Crossley said. "And then once she started to feel comfortable, she just became so engaged and wanted to know what everything was and what everyone was doing."
By the end of the show, Zella had waddled unto the stage area with all of the other children, chasing the light, playing with a ball and hugging the actors. And her mother felt that her daughter, who loves music, had grown from the experience.
"I think it's good for her to see other little children appreciating the same things she does, so she can get confident interacting with others especially little kids she doesn’t know," Crossley said.
Teatro Al Vacio’s show Umbo was written for children from six months to four years. They’re the first Mexican theater company to purposely perform for the very young. Seven years ago the actors — the same ones on stage — wrote Umbo with a developmental psychologist.
The actors don’t speak English, but that doesn’t matter. The show uses the language of music and movement, which is useful when the company performs the show internationally, as they have in Poland and Italy, and now Pittsburgh.
Theater company co-founder Jose Aguerro said everywhere they go, babies, and their parents, show up for the shows.
"There’s a lot of demand," he said. "There’s a lot of children at those ages who don’t have other artistic activities and their parents are looking for places to take them, where to take them for artistic activities and it has been very well-received. There aren’t many cultural offerings for children so young."
His co-founder, Adrián Hernández, said doing this type of theater supports a belief they share that people of all ages have a right to the arts.
"It's evident that children of 0-3 years are also people, are also citizens and also have rights," he said.
That’s apparent, they say, in the ways their theater-goers react. And while they are actors, they also say there’s benefit in knowing their performance is helping in the development of their audience.
Melissa Filipovic brought her one-and-a-half-year-old son William to the show.
"I noticed that when I was pregnant with him at the Symphony Pops, that was when he was most active in my womb, enjoying the music and kind of kicking or dancing along, and he loves the theater especially music, musical theater, so I believe it's very important to him and his overall development and to be well-rounded," she said.
That development perk is why baby theater is gaining in popularity with theater companies devoted to performances for the very young in Minneapolis and Atlanta. It's already been popular for decades in Europe.
Christina Farrell runs a local theater company that primarily works with children ages 3-5. She said theater for the very young has several defining characteristics. There is less of a distinction between the stage and the audience. It’s interactive.
"There’s a lot of social, emotional development that is a natural connection to the theater, so by taking a struggle of a character, a character that’s trying to make a choice or trying to solve a problem and unfold that in a way that a young child can understand and see how a character might have to show persistence through a story or overcome obstacles in a story," she said.
Language isn’t as important at that age, she said, because communication is so multi-faceted in those early years.
"Children that age are exploring the world through all of their senses," Farrell said. "They don’t have the language capabilities yet, so they explore through touch, through sound, by moving through space, by seeing how objects interact in the world."
At that age they are developing language skills. The way they develop those is by building a wide vocabulary, an encyclopedia of sounds and patterns that they can explore in the world around them. Farrell said by bringing them to a theater, they’ll be exposed to a wild variety of sensory input that’s going to help them develop language skills and early math skills, such as patterning and noticing connections between objects.
"What they’re taking in through all of their senses, to notice things, to really make observations, before it quickly disappears, that’s one of the problems with TV you sort of see it and it's gone, you don’t have time to really observe what your seeing," she said.
That’s a big part of why Courtney Weikle-Mills brought her four-year-old son Soren Mills to see Umbo.
"A lot of times it's interactive, which you don’t really get with television," she said. "So I think the idea that one would kind of see kind of the backstage version of culture and interact with it, as opposed to just passively taking it in, is something we also want for him."