The Tree Song – theatre without boundaries

By Heather Dugmore

For 25 minutes, an audience of children mainly between the ages of one and four, with varying degrees of hearing, some completely deaf, were completely engrossed in The Tree Song – a physical theatre and dance performance about two friends under a tree enjoying sounds, shapes, journeys and movement on a magical set with striking colours and a large tree at the centre.

This performance was held in October 2021 at the University of Pretoria’s Masker Theatre for the children and their teachers from the Whispers Speech and Hearing Centre in Pretoria. ‘It was specifically created for children between the ages of one and four years old who are deaf or have very little hearing, some of whom use hearing technologies,’ says Kristina Johnstone, a drama lecturer at the University of Pretoria (UP) School of the Arts. She created the show with independent choreographer Nicola Elliott, who has numerous works for young children to her name.

The Tree Song was originally created in 2019 with support from the National Arts Council of South Africa. It was subsequently reimagined in 2021 with the support of a grant from the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) and Nedbank Arts Affinity. The performers were Silumko Koyana, a University of Cape Town dance graduate and independent artist; and UP drama honours student, Carrick Keating. Professor Marth Munro joined the team as a voice and movement specialist. ‘She worked with us on developmental movement and sound, and we incorporated this in the choreography to mimic the developmental progression of children,’ says Johnstone.

During the performance children wander onto the stage and participate, and the performers spontaneously respond to this co-creation. ‘We’ve even had babies crawling onto the stage and moving around the tree,’ says Johnstone. ‘The whole idea is that there is no right or wrong way to experience theatre. It’s hard for teachers and parents who are conditioned to tell children to sit down and be quiet in the theatre, but we encourage them to let their child explore; we’ve had children singing and dancing chaotically around the tree with the performers, and it’s wonderful.’

Children with hearing issues experience the world very differently and Johnstone set out to create a work with special needs as a unique perspective and that appeals to children of all ages, regardless of their hearing ability. ‘Generally, performances are made for mainstream audiences and then sometimes adapted for special-needs audiences, but I wanted to start the other way around,’ Johnstone explains. ‘I want show there is something very unique about difference and if we manage to build a bridge between our different experiences of the world, one step at a time, it enriches us all.’

Johnstone’s son Finn was the inspiration for the work. ‘He was born with very little hearing and I didn’t know anything about children with hearing loss or who are deaf, or what learning language entails for these children. Very early on, when he was diagnosed, I made the decision to pursue spoken language with him, first with hearing aids and then with a cochlear implant, so he now hears with technology and is at the Whispers Speech and Hearing Centre.’ 

Johnstone hopes to revisit The Tree Story in 2022 and further explore how early-years performance offers possibilities for children’s agency and growth. ‘My dream would be to travel with The Tree Song to schools around the country and, where possible, to bring schools to the Masker Theatre on campus to experience it. Apart from the delight it brings to children, it’s also excellent for language research and researching the way in which children attend and participate in theatre, so I would love to share this with more audiences.’

About the Nedbank Arts Affinity

The Nedbank Arts Affinity, in partnership with the Arts & Culture Trust, have supported the development of the arts over the past 27 years. Since it has started in 1994, Nedbank, together with its Arts Affinity clients, have donated more than R25 million to the Arts & Culture Trust for over 800 arts, culture and heritage development projects in South Africa, at no cost to clients.

You can also support inspiring artists by banking and investing with Nedbank. Simply open a Nedbank Arts Affinity-linked credit card, current, savings or investment account. Then link your Nedbank Greenbacks to the Nedbank Arts Affinity via the app to support the development of arts, at no cost to you.Visit any Nedbank branch or call the Nedbank Contact Centre on 0860 555 111 for more information.



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