Barbara Kölling on Theatre for Young Audiences

Published on 14 June 2022

Barbara Kölling is a very impressive woman, running three masterclasses at Bibu and working as one of two artistic directors of Helios Theater. She, along with Michael Lurse, founded Helios Theatre in 1989, and the theatre has been a member of the Small Size network since 2005.

Helios Theater had always made shows for young audiences, but came to theatre for early years after they were asked to host an international festival for children and young people. “We went to France, and there for the first time we saw performances for the youngest, because it didn’t exist in Germany at the time. It was usual to start theatre at age four, so for the first time we saw work for two year olds, maybe even younger.”

“It was artistically fascinating because it was very unexpected,” she continued. “It was very abstract, it was work that made you think is this really for young children and so it made me curious to see more of these performances.”

“For me, the process of researching the material and finding moments where it is interesting to make a performance with that was a completely new artistic approach.”

When Kölling and Lurse began making shows for early years, they were already working with natural elements. Lurse has a background in puppetry so he was very familiar with bringing elements and materials to life. “When we started to make these shows, Michael was very interested in material because he already worked with objects. He said, if we begin to work for the little ones, I would like to try it with soil. I was so fascinated by working with material that I said let’s have another one with wood, and let’s have another one with water.”

“For me, the process of researching the material and finding moments where it is interesting to make a performance with that was a completely new artistic approach.”

A lot of Helios Theater’s performances involve working with materials such as wood, water, or clay and providing sensory experiences with the earth’s raw materials. Indeed, Kölling says this is one of her favourite parts of the creative process when making shows for very young audiences. “It’s very nice to start thinking about the next material because I work with materials for the little ones like water or clay,” she explained.

“It was very abstract, it was work that made you think is this really for young children and so it made me curious to see more of these performances.”

“Then I like to start to go into improvisations and research together with the performance because we always start at zero, there is no real concept. It’s just my thoughts about the material, about the possibilities, and then I give them exercises and they are completely free. I also like to watch this, very much,” she continued.

Although they now have a lot of experience with theatre for young audiences, in 2005 when they first joined Small Size, the process was very new. “It was a nice moment because everything was new for us – how to come into contact with kindergartens, how to make educators have an understanding of this theatre form, and sharing the different education systems in different European countries, and also meeting other artists with different ways of thinking and sharing this, it helped to make it a lot bigger.”

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been discussion about the role of zoom and online spaces in theatre for young audiences. As an expert in the field, I asked Kölling what her thoughts on the issue were, and if she saw it as being part of the future of the discipline.

“I was so fascinated by working with material that I said let’s have another one with wood, and let’s have another one with water.”

“With performances, it has to be in the room,” she said. “We tried it with our festival, we had to make it digital, and [kindergartens] tried it and we spoke with them afterwards and they said it was better than nothing, but at the end of the day it was like watching television.”

“From the performance point of view I would say it has to be in the room; for discussions, for all kinds of meetings between people in different cities and countries, for all the adult stuff, it’s very useful and we should do it more,” she stated.

As for the future of Helios Theater? Kölling said she didn’t know exactly where they would be in 10 years, they’d have to see where their next shows and research lead them.

“Every two years we make a new performance for the little ones and we try to move on, so now it’s no longer research on one material, it’s research on material and something else coming together. The artistic way is also changing a little bit, and it will be interesting just to see where it goes because I cannot imagine it right now.”

Helios Theater can be found on Facebook and Instagram at @heliostheater.