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Cubbin Theatre Company

Performance, Theatre
image Image: Naomi Haussman

Cubbin Theatre Company is the only theatre company in Aotearoa making work for audiences under 5.

Their show for babies, Up and Away created in 2018, was the first of its kind in New Zealand and has been on tour and seen by over 1000 babies up and down the country. The company is dedicated to making quality, age specific theatre and music experiences for toddlers and babies. The founders, Melanie Luckman, Hannah Wheeler and Amy Straker currently work out of their lounges, but are hoping to be in a permanent home soon.

We spoke to Melanie Luckman about Cubbin Theatre…

Tell us about Cubbin Theatre Company…

We make theatre for audiences under 5. We are the only professional company in New Zealand focussed on this age group. We started in 2018 – I had the idea of wanting to do theatre for tiny people – both my sons were premature babies. I spent a lot of time in NICU around baby experts – I knew nothing about babies – I learnt heaps about neuroscience and development. When we got home, we spent some time with the Champion Centre, and they were incredible. My son had a team of people surrounding him making sure he was hitting all his milestones. So I learnt all this stuff about child development and I remember wishing that there were some artistic experiences for little people to help with their development. There wasn’t anything like that in NZ and I just thought ‘I want to do that.’ 

Did you have any experience in theatre?

I have a masters in theatre directing but up until that point I had only been involved with shows for adults. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I became interested in children’s theatre. But I knew I needed other people to help make it happen – and I knew Amy Straker and Hannah Wheeler were incredible musicians and actors. When I told them about the idea, they wanted to hear more and were really intrigued and then we met Andie Brigden who was working at the Theatre Royal at the time and she offered a space at the Gloucester Room and so she really helped in terms of giving us rehearsal and performance space. 

Did it come together easily?

I was surprised at how easily it did come together. It was something I’d been talking about for a while, but when we all got into a room together it actually happened very smoothly.

But you had to test your ideas out on babies.

We did. We tested it on the babies of our friends and family. It was really important for us to find out what they engage with. 

And what do babies engage with – theatre wise? I suppose you can’t really just ask them…

No! They can’t tell you with words – but you can read their cues. We’ve found that things like repetition and making sure the pace is slow enough so they can track what’s happening really engage little babies. 

As a performer, is it hard to learn to be slow?

It is, it really is. We filmed our first show and looking back on it now, “we’re like ‘oh this is too fast!” so it can be tricky. Our speech and language therapist was like – you have to go slower. Very young babies need a slower pace because their brains are still developing. You have to be conscious of that as a performer. 

Is it possible to over stimulate babies?

It’s funny with babies because it can be hard to tell. You can tell with a little baby that it’s had enough because they look away, but you do have to watch for cues. It’s the same with toddlers  – if it’s too loud, or too bright – they can get very over stimulated easily and we’re much more interested in finding out what they really engage with. 

Do you create your own work?

All our work we’ve created from scratch. My background is in scripted work rather than devising things, so that’s been interesting. We’ve had lots of support from the arts community and that has been really helpful. such as Tom and Holly from 2 Productions and Sam Scott at Massive Theatre Company

Have you ever devised a show that hasn’t worked?

The big lesson we’ve learnt is that it’s hard to get it right the first time. The second show we did was called Play Play for pre-schoolers and it was a very physical show and we’ve developed it about three times – the first time we had a full audience and we saw that some parts really engaged them and other parts didn’t hold their attention. So then we got some funding from CNZ and redefined it and really improved it over time – as long as we are testing things we won’t go too far off the mark. This is something that’s not strong in theatre in NZ generally- the idea of redeveloping work. You don’t get the time to do that usually.

How important is music in your shows?

Really important. Hannah and Amy have really strong musical backgrounds. We find that music is a great a language for speaking with young children. You understand music before you understand language, so yes, children really respond well to music and singing.

Is that the same for movement?

I think so. I think that’s what’s so wonderful for shows for young children; we can speak to them in a way that’s innate to them. Physical language is really important and really fascinating to explore. Our recent show for Tinyfest was called Sportsball  – it was about developing a growth mindset and looking at New Zealand sports culture – how you deal with failure  – and we did that through physicality. There was a part in the show when the character in the show feels failure and he explores that physically – and he uses his body in explaining all the emotions – and that really resonated with the kids. 

Do kids ever perform in your shows? 

They’re purely audience at the moment. What’s important is that kids feel really comfortable to come as they are. Our spaces are very much designed to be relaxed  – so if they want to talk or move around, that’s fine.

That must be a huge relief for parents…

If the parents are relaxed then the children are relaxed. We let parents know that it’s okay for their kids to make noise and move around  – we want it to be comfortable for everyone so it’s as easy as possible. It’s often the first time that a person has brought their baby to a show  – we get a lot of first time parents  – and so they don’t necessarily know what to expect. We try to make it easy for them. 

What’s on the horizon for Cubbin?

We began a charitable trust last year and this year we are really trying to get a venue for ourselves and we have some options that we’re exploring – because we find with our audiences it’s so much better if we know the space and we can make it safe. There are some great spaces in Christchurch – but we need certain things for our audiences – not too big, good parking, toilets and changing facilities and most of all, somewhere really safe. If we have our own space we can put on way more shows and start to offer other things like play sessions and music sessions and workshops for adults. Play is not something that automatically comes for every parent, so these kind of workshops can really help parents engage with their children. 

Any new shows in the works?

We have about 10 thousand ideas for shows we want to do! And hopefully we can have another season of Sportsball. Amy and Hannah have both had babies recently so things are a little quiet at the moment but we’ve got hopes and dreams to get on with. We’d really like to do some audio recordings for babies. We have done one album – that came out of Covid lockdowns – so we have some audio stories that we’d like to do.

Having children of your own and working with children so much – do you ever need adult time?

I do! I’m directing That Bloody Woman for Showbiz so that’s my adult time at the moment! But honestly, creating theatre for very young children is so fun and rewarding. It’s work that really fills us with purpose.

What can Christchurch people do to support you?

Well, now we’re a charitable trust you can donate! But really, just buy tickets to our shows, download our music and follow us on social media and of course tell your friends with babies that we’re around. 


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