Children take to the stage in this year’s Melbourne Festival to present us with their dreams, realities and hopes, in a truly unique production that explores life’s stages and the process of ageing.

Belgian arts centre CAMPO have collaborated with German/UK theatre producer Gob Squad to create a play that is performed by a group of exceptionally talented actors, aged eight to 14. Before Your Very Eyes is set in an enclosed box of one-way mirrors. In this world, the children inhabit a space in which they are reflected back to themselves as their lives are played out in fast-forward.

Before Your Very Eyes is the third and final piece in a series of performances involving children. As Kristof Blom, Artistic Director of CAMPO explains, there was a fascination within the company of the energy of children onstage. “We came up with the idea to discuss the child-adult relationship and harness that energy.”

Now in its fifth year of development, Before Your Very Eyes is, to put it simply, about growing up. The children first auditioned for the project in 2008 and then participated in a number of interviews and allowed producers to film their daily lives. According to Blom, “the idea was to confront them with the material three years later…so when they dedicated themselves to the project we had to keep them engaged and interested.”

The material of the children filmed throughout the development process play an integral role in the final product: the children talk to their younger selves as the videos play on screen. “So we watch 12-year-old Spencer have a conversation with himself on screen when he was 9 years old, talking about the future and also about the past,” Blom explains, “then the children project further about how they will be as a 40 year old, and therefore project these ideas [about growing up] onto the adults watching them perform.”

The concepts of childhood innocence, the realities of life and the fast approach of adulthood and death are all well-travelled themes in the artistic world. What makes Before Your Very Eyes so unique is that these themes are presented through discussions with children who have not yet have to confront their own mortality and loss of innocence. Throughout the process, Blom says, “the children were encouraged to be themselves” so that the themes could be allowed to emerge out of an honest portrayal of childhood rather than a contrite existentialist comment on the human condition.

According to Blom, the aim has been for the children to simply play themselves, rather than characters, which has presented some challenges throughout the process. “At the start, there was a lovely natural energy onstage…but once you repeat the performance over and over it is tempting to start playing the character of yourself, rather than just yourself.”
As the children perform within a box of one-way mirrors, they cannot see the audience and Blom believes this enriches their performance because they tend to forget they are onstage. “The immediate confrontation is minimised,” says Blom. “They can still hear the audience, but cannot see them. This technique makes it easier for them to remain natural.”

The show opened in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength. As the gap between the children on video and their onstage counterparts has grown wider, the conversations between their former selves have developed. “Now we have performers starting puberty talking to themselves when they were still children,” observes Blom. Such a long season, however, has its challenges: “we have to keep the show fresh…the structure has grown organically with the children as they’ve grown older. Little details have been changed between seasons but mostly stayed the same to illustrate the gap [in the children's’ ages]. We have had to make some changes to keep it relevant to them as they grow.”

Before Your Very Eyes has been performed around the world to critical acclaim. According to Blom, the response from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. He attributes the show’s success to its universal theme: “everyone can relate to and reflect on it.” The show will finish in 2013; after a five year engagement with the children, Blom feels there is a limit to the amount of time the children can be expected to commit, especially considering “they have been involved for most of their short childhoods.”

Blom says he is constantly surprised at the high levels of performance from the children. He is proud that the show has been such a success, especially given it tackles such an important topic. “The three performances [in the trilogy] in their own specific way added a new point of view on childhood and the adult/child relationship…I am proud of that.”

The strength of Before Your Very Eyes lies in its ability to spark conversation and new ways of thinking that challenge and confront us in our own lives. “For me the most valuable thing is to really experience the mirror being held up to your face and to see how our adult lives are viewed from a child’s eye,” says Blom. “Everyone can learn something from that process on a personal level which will enrich their lives and their understanding of self.”

“The whole point is that there is not really a lesson to learn…the whole idea rests on the fact that we are growing older and that every age has its values and reasons for being. And we have to learn to embrace that.”