• Sophie Fox

Improvisation and the giving of space

The following is a transcript of the presentation of "In-Between Spaces: Improvisation and the giving of temporal and physical space" at EUNet MERYC conference, hosted by University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, on 23rd February 2022, co-authored by Sophie Fox, Charlotte Arculus and Jessica Pitt.


Conference proceedings including abstracts can be found here https://www.mdw.ac.at/meryc2022/program/


In-Between Spaces was an artistic residency by Magic Acorns. We are an early years arts development organisation, based in the East of England, with over 20 years experience of working creatively with very young children and their families, particularly in Great Yarmouth , which is a coastal town with low levels of opportunity for the community.


Our ethos is to encounter the world with children, learn what children can do from children, and learn what art and music can do by listening to children.


This project, funded by Arts Council England, took place in a huge empty department store which community arts organisation originalprojects; had repurposed as artist’s studios, gallery and community space.



Magic Acorns had just taken on a small storage and workspace here and were inspired by its vast emptiness - as a group of artists, musicians, dancers we wanted to play.


We also wanted to re-engage with local communities in the aftermath of children centre funding cuts and to find ways to offer opportunities for play and creativity for the local families in the context of ongoing covid lockdowns.


In mid April 2021 an ensemble of five artists gathered for a two week residency in the empty shop along with 4 emerging artists who we shared the process with.




Responding to the huge space, the first week of the residency was for forming as a group of artists and to prepare the environment . The second week we invited family bubbles to visit the space - one family bubble at a time with 45 minute windows for exploration.


During the preparation week we explored practices of deeply listening to tiny sounds, finding ways to move together, developing complicité as a group, using unspoken sensing, using our voices by vocalising into the space, and by using objects to ‘play’ the space.


The space took on the role of a giant immersive musical instrument and enabled a playing with sound, light and shadow. This play became the foundation of our residency.





The context of covid heightened our awareness for the need for an ‘ethics of care’ as fundamental in this publicly funded project.


This manifested in many ways. As an attentiveness to care for the artists, the families and children - all of whom had been, and continued to, face uncertainty.


In addition, this notion of care also attended to an awareness for the processes of creating open-ended work - art as play, play as art - and holding in high regard the needs of the artists to enable many forms of playfulness to enter into the space.


There was an imperative to hold this lightly, so as not to cause or create undue pressure.


And in the context of covid transmission and the backdrop of changing restrictions, we needed to consider materials that could not be touched as a way to enable the residency to take place.


We thought about the potential of movement, sound, light and shadow. With this palette of materials we could play with changing the aesthetics of the space dramatically whilst minimising touchable surfaces, and embrace the affordances of the empty space itself.




In considering the material properties of light, shadow, movement and sound we drew on loose parts play theory, proposing the materials in the space to be variables that can be played around with to create connections, without fixed outcomes or specified goals.


Taking the loose parts mindset to include sound, our voices, our bodies as our materials of play, we created temporal space for improvisatory encounters with children, where artists could shift roles, fluidly, sensitively and dynamically, between spectator, performer, facilitator.




As a group of artists and researchers In-Between Spaces was shaped by exploring artistic and pedagogical approach of not-talking or wordless musicking.


Not-talking as a conscious gesture in musical play spaces can change the aesthetic sphere of everyday encounters.


These approaches into musical play were also explored during the SALTmusic research project where adults ‘not-talking’ was found to be an effective and affective way to notice and to foreground other modes of expression and communication.


Bronwyn Davis urges us to ‘listen to children with all our senses’


In order to do this we need to minimise adult talk, and be ready to put ourselves into the moving spaces that children inhabit.


We need to think about how we move with children, to join in with them in playful dialogical exchanges that mirror, imitate and extend.


By being open to new possible lines of enquiry we welcomed the unexpected and unplanned as a pedagogy of improvisation.


Every In -Between Spaces family session was different, every child or baby provoked radically different conversations and experiments with the artists and with the installation space we had created.


The position of not knowing what will happen next forced us to reside in the present moment, and the present moment unfolded into a space of connection and encounter.




In-Between Spaces, in part, was the creation of an opening, a gap, a space as an opportunity or invitation in a challenging time and environment.


It was a creation of both physical and temporal space, as a provocation for improvised play to emerge.


Charlotte Arculus reflected "The doing of hardly anything as an act of improvisation, the giving of space, physically and temporally to our family groups was absolutely critical. The doing of hardly anything became our expression of complicité. Sensing connections through present time and allowing space, stillness, attentive distance. Space to listen, stillness to move into. An outbreath, an expansion of present time. A ping pong ball in a vast space, rhythmic bursts of running feet. Out of hardly anything arose a rich polyphony of playful connection and experimentation”




Jessica Pitt reflects - the separation that this ‘other’, this ‘in-between space’ afforded demarcated time and space differently.


Movements, sounds, and actions were rituals that changed the quality of the time.


A flow state emerges that transcends time and place, with a tangible sense of harmony between the participants as they played together in musical play pieces of several different ‘movements’ that had shade, light, dynamics, all in improvisation.




17 family bubbles visited over 4 days. The constraints of only being able to work with one family bubble at a time and limiting touchable materials became an enquiry in this space - along with working together as a group of artists, exploring our senses of complicité, care and improvisation. This work has informed and continues to inform our regular ongoing musical play work with artists and families with very young children.




We will add a link to the full paper once it is published.



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