Guest Blog: Roxana Haines On Scottish Opera's FOX-TOT! and Online Family Activities
Every child deserves unconditional love. That love is a feeling of safety and security, the knowledge that they will be cared for and cherished by those around them, no matter who they are. This is what Fox-tot! is about. It's a bold moral for a children's show - not that the toddlers are supposed to pick up on it, of course.
When I'm not making projects for children or working on main stage shows at Scottish Opera, I deliver training in child psychology for people who work in social care settings. We work on making their practice more child-centred, involving the young person and working out what their experience is. It's just like making a show for children.
In 2018, the head of Scottish Opera's Outreach and Education Department, Jane Davidson, commissioned composer Lliam Paterson and I to make a companion piece for BambinO, their previous opera for 0-6-month babies, this time for 1-2-year-olds. We decided to develop a narrative about identity - a fox moves through the world, exploring itself and trying to discover what it's made of. Stumbling through each physical and cognitive developmental marker, it's aimed at helping every toddler who is trying to find their place in the world too.
Some elements of Fox-tot! were clear from the start. Designers Giuseppe and Emma Belli, who also worked on BambinO, wanted to create a set design that allowed toddlers to feel free but safe, using tactile and interactive props. The Sun and Moon were inflatable gym balls, one yellow and fluffy and the other in blues, with knobbly craters and dangly anemones. It was a highlight in every performance as children flocked to help Mother Vixen move the sun round the space, leaving their adult at the periphery of their journey.
Puppetry also appeared in our early conversations. All you need is the head and tail to imagine the rest of the Fox, so when Mother Vixen presents various objects as a body, Fox is able to transform. A cushion changes Fox into a cat, a rucksack into a frog, and a scarf into a butterfly. Seeing the sheer joy as little hands stroked Fox's tail, or even tried to shove leaves inside the Fox's mouth, show the innate creativity of children in environments where they feel safe.
British Sign Language also became a key part of the show, and we based much of the movement and choreography on signing. Not only does it make the narrative more accessible, but it's such a clear and precise language that it works perfectly when making stories for this age group too.
Toddlers were at the centre of the show throughout; it was rare that there was a day of rehearsals without a child present. We were lucky to have dramaturges Jennifer K. Bates and her 18-month daughter, Caitlin, for the show. We also invited a local playgroup in each week so that toddlers were constantly forming and shaping the piece and the cast were always responding to them. The Fox-tot! rehearsal room was covered in toddler photos of the cast, creative team, and wider company members. Even then, I saw therapeutic roots poking through, as though we were making the show for the child of ourselves.
But it's not just these operas for little people that the Education Department produce. The breadth of work is staggering; I didn't fully appreciate the scope of it until I later became part of Scottish Opera. There are pop-up shows - which are performed in in a specially adapted trailer, offering short operas in remote areas across Scotland - the two Youth Companies with young people from 14 to 25, the Community Choir, a project with Disney for young people, Memory Spinners for people living with dementia, and Spinning Songs, an intergenerational musical project. And that only touches on what was due to happen through spring - there are many more projects across the year.
So when projects and productions started to be postponed across the company, it became clear that we would have to think outside the box to find ways to continue to engage with those audiences and communities. The education department immediately began devising activities and ways to invite engagement online.
So, if you've got a little one who is under five, there will soon be Fox-Tot! activities that you can take part in (keep an eye on our website in the next couple of weeks for more information). Each member of the Fox-tot! team has contributed to exploring the melodies, rhythms and movement in the opera as characterised by the animals in the story. There's a wonderful combination of cats and kitchen utensils, dancing foxes and frog sounds to enjoy.
For older children, there's a primary schools' opera they can learn and rehearse in weekly instalments. Beginning from 11 May, they can download music, guide vocals and teaching videos to help them take part in an opera with a very relevant theme. Fever! tells the story of boy rushed to hospital with a mystery illness. As the medical team struggle to find a cure, a fantastical battle is taking place inside his body as Good and Bad Bacteria fight to take control of his immune system.
In the final week of the project, there will be a nationwide virtual performance led by our singers and featuring hundreds of young performers at home. And who knows - maybe you'll be so impressed by the acting, singing and dancing of your offspring that you'll be inspired to join the cast for the final show. It's never too late to get involved, especially now, when it's important to remember to be as kind and loving to the child that we once were, as to our own children.
We hope our Fox-tot! content will be exciting and engaging for children across the world, and we look forward to bringing the show to you in the future. In the meantime, we hope you have the space to be creative with the children you have in your own home, as well as finding patience for the child version of yourself during these uncertain times.
Roxana Haines is Staff Director at Scottish Opera, and the director of Fox-tot!
Photo credit: James Glossop