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Designing a theater performance from child’s play

ASU professor, students collaborate with Child Development Lab to create theater for preschool kids

Person stands on staircase blowing bubbles and children below reach up to catch them.

Opening with bubbles and a guitar serenade, the performance of “in the way down deep" used a fun array of props and one-liners that brought laughter, smiles and shrieks of joy to the audience. Photo courtesy Kassandra Gradillas

May 03, 2023

It's not often children ages 2–6 get the opportunity to become creative partners for aspiring theater professionals. But this spring, that's exactly what happened at the Child Development Lab (CDL). 

As part of a new class at the Herberger Institute, Arizona State University Assistant Professor Amanda Pintore and her students partnered with the CDL to devise a play for preschool-aged children. The show, called “in the way down deep,” centered on the mysteries of exploring deep-sea ocean life, a fascinating and almost magical topic for children growing up in the arid landscape of Arizona.

To create the show, Pintore and her students conducted a series of research “Play Labs” that involved visiting each of the CDL’s classrooms three times and recording the children as they pretended to be ocean explorers, talked about sea life and played together. The theater students asked questions like “What do starfish do at night?” and “Do whales have friends?” and then explored the children’s ideas through improvised play. They also used show props like parachutes and water misters. 

The theater students then went through hours of footage from the Play Labs to identify and code common behaviors, movements and emotions that they could adapt to a performance for this age group. 

“The goal is to work with children as artistic collaborators,” said Pintore, who joined ASU as a faculty member last fall after founding the Theatre and Dance for the Very Young program at Lawrence Arts Center. “This is a show built from scratch using their ideas. They are the experts here.”

An abstract deep-sea experience for kids

After creating the show, Pintore and her students spent the final three weeks of class performing live, with an exclusive showing for the CDL on April 19. 

The performance clearly reflected the research that went into it, engaging the young audience on several levels. Opening with bubbles and a guitar serenade, the performance used a fun array of props and one-liners that brought laughter, smiles and shrieks of joy to the audience. The performing students were enthusiastic and silly, wearing colorful neon outfits, asking open-ended questions and channeling the unbridled spontaneity of children experiencing the world in their early years.

Best of all was the children’s fascination with seeing their behaviors reflected back at them.

“This show with the CDL is special because they get to see themselves and recognize where the performance parts came from,” Pintore said. “Our goal is to meet them where they are, then show their ideas back to them while being entertaining and sparking curiosity.”

A two-way learning opportunity

The partnership was a win-win for both the students and children in the CDL. This was a unique chance for Pintore’s aspiring performers and creators to stretch their skills, while the children got to explore new topics, contribute their insights and see the results of their participation live.

“The CDL’s values of student-centered learning fit beautifully with this theater method of valuing young people as thinkers and makers,” Pintore said. “We got to learn from them while facilitating and translating their ideas. It was a great opportunity to build a baseline of appreciation of very young people while flexing our muscles as artists and building something from scratch.”

Pintore hopes to work with the CDL again in future semesters. She said her class will alternate between themes, so there will be another opportunity to repeat a similar project. 

This project was funded by a grant from the Herberger Institute’s Design and Arts Corps, an integrated community-engaged design and arts program serving all Herberger Institute students, faculty and staff.

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