Inspiring (very) young minds: 15 years of Starcatchers

For the last 15 years, Edinburgh-based Starcatchers have been making pioneering theatre work for children aged five and under, but chief executive Rhona Matheson believes they’ve still “barely scratched the surface” of what’s possible. Interview by Mark Fisher

Jennifer Steele in Spike! A Dinosaur Tale PIC: Brian Hartley
Jennifer Steele in Spike! A Dinosaur Tale PIC: Brian Hartley

A 15th anniversary is a significant milestone for any theatre company. But for Edinburgh' s Starcatchers, it is doubly so. This is the company that caters for the youngest audiences – anything from babies up to five years old. That means the very first children it played to at the start of 2007, with a show called Little Light, will now be coming of age. For the tots who saw Andy Manley and Venessa Rigg perform this sensory adventure about a glowing ball of light, Starcatchers set them up for life.

Chief executive Rhona Matheson smiles as she recalls the company's baby steps. At the time of Little Light, Starcatchers was a two-year pilot project based at North Edinburgh Arts Centre. Nobody knew whether an arts organisation dedicated to toddlers had a chance of succeeding.

"In 2006, when I told people I was going to manage this baby theatre project they looked at me like I'd grown horns," she says. "'Why on earth do babies need theatre?' What we've done over the last 15 years is show people why they need it and why they should have it."

Succeed it did. Matheson now leads a permanent team of 12 who have steered Starcatchers through more than 40 productions and installations, reaching nearly 100,000 children plus their parents and carers. That's in addition to 41 community engagement projects, plus conferences, workshops and campaigns.

And let's not forget the training of artists and childcare professionals who have gone on to take the company's philosophy further afield.

"The right that babies have to access arts and cultural life is ingrained," says Matheson, who is working on a master's degree in children's rights. "They are citizens of the world that are contributing to society and why shouldn’t they have access to these experiences? We're trying to offer them experiences that enrich their childhood."

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There has been a lot to learn. Little Light was a gorgeous show that used the sparest amount of language to explore shapes, smells and textures for a dreamy half hour. It was loved by audiences and critics – and by Matheson too – but she looks back on it as a toe in the water.

"People think work for babies is very simple because it appears simple," she says. "I talk a lot about the complexity of simplicity. To distil the concepts that the artist has into a piece of work that connects with babies and also their parents takes huge amounts of time and energy. Little Light was very much a first attempt. It had everything and the kitchen sink: repetition, balloons, a glitter ball, feathers, bubbles, puppetry. People loved it, but artists grow in confidence in understanding the audience."

Productions Starcatchers has staged over the past 15 years include Blue Block Studio, a creative play space for babies; Hup, featuring two violins, one cello and one very mischievous raccoon; and Little Top, a circus show for those still learning to stand upright.

"You have to let the babies guide you at every stage," says Matheson. "They are the most responsive audience you can have as a maker because if you haven't got it right, you know straight away. At the same time, the experience of having 30 babies engaged for half an hour is incredible."

Something about playing to an audience that is so open encourages artists to discard traditional boundaries. In a Starcatchers show, performers will happily ignore the lines between theatre, dance, art and music. If the need arises, they will incorporate touch, taste and smell, dancing and colouring in, blurring the divide between themselves and the audience. Whether the children are delighted, mesmerised, cautious or intrigued, they show every bit as much receptivity as the grown-ups whose knees they are sitting on.

"We've always worked responsively, either to the needs of the babies and their parents and carers or to opportunities that come up," she says. "We've always felt quite dynamic in that sense."

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That flexibility came in handy when the pandemic hit, even though it was impossible to stage shows or to switch to online activities for children so young. Instead, the engagement team focused their attention on parents and carers, suggesting activities they could do at home, and as soon as was possible, Starcatchers moved outdoors.

"The pandemic threw everything we had planned for last year up in the air and we had to start from scratch," she says. "But we were well placed to do that. We're not really going to understand the impact of Covid on our youngest children for quite a long time and whatever we can be doing to offer lovely arts-based experiences that people can be using at home can only be a good thing."

Coming up in 2022 is the return of Spike! A Dinosaur Tale by Andy Cannon and David Trouton, which earned a recent four-star review in The Scotsman. "Touring a show for young children about dinosaurs is just fantastic – seeing kids coming dressed as dinosaurs with their dinosaur teddies and their dinosaur T-shirts and being transported by this fantastic storyteller and dancer."

Anniversary or not, Matheson's to-do list is as long as it ever was. "I remember thinking when we had come to the end of the first pilot project that we’d barely scratched the surface in terms of what we could be doing," she says. "And 15 years later, we've still barely scratched the surface."

For more on Starcatchers, see https://starcatchers.org.uk/

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