Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. Part Three: The Bounce

Oily Cart’s new show is The Bounce, a show that was developed with the trampoline company Ockham’s Razor. I went to see it at Arts Depot in north London several days after the course in Ashford (Dream: The Joy of Creating, Part Two). The Bounce is performed for children with special needs on large round trampolines.

When I got to the studio, I immediately saw that a colourful space had been screened off from the rest of the building. When Oily Cart moves into a theatre, they create a space outside of the studio, an “airlock”, where children wait before going in to see the show. “Theatre begins when they get off the bus,” says Tim Webb. While waiting in the airlock, the children can listen to music, play with balls, and manipulate design programs on electronic tablets. Slinkys and various “fidgets” (toys that feel good to play with — often squishy or soft plastic plastic) were hanging on strings from the ceiling. Actors in bright orange, white and black costumes were gently interacting with the children.

There are two versions of The Bounce – one for children with PMLD and one for children with ASD, and the actors make adjustments as necessary. The day that I went, The Bounce was being performed for children with PMLD and there were six children in wheelchairs waiting in the airlock area. They were brought into the studio two at a time. The actors, who had been told the children’s names and diagnostic needs in the moments before, spoke and then sang to them, focusing all of their attention on them, addressing them personally and individually.

Each child was lifted (usually with a hydraulic sling) from his/her wheelchair and placed on a trampoline. Those who could walk were helped up a soft ramp and rolled onto the surface. Caregivers tentatively sat in the middle of the trampoline, braced by a bean bag chair. Then two actors joined them on each trampoline and they began to bounce, carefully monitoring the child’s reaction. As they bounced they sang wonderful music inspired by traditional Syrian tunes, accompanied by a musician playing a Kanun (like a zither), a drum and a gong. Different colours and sizes of balls were bounced or rolled for the children. Large round screens became surfaces that balls were rolled on. The child’s face was video projected on the screens in real time. The children smiled, crowed, made all variety of sounds, pushed on the trampolines, rolled and expressed themselves in hundreds of different ways. The caregivers giggled and relaxed, eventually letting themselves enjoy the fun.

Each performance lasted between 15 – 20 minutes and in that time each child was the complete focus of the actors and musicians. Even the stage manager was part of the team. The goodbye songs featured each child’s name, as they were gently placed back into their wheelchairs.

Watching The Bounce gave me a chance to see some of the things we had done in the workshop put into practice (see Dream: The Joy of Creating, part two). A bell was used to create moments of silence and stillness. Design elements were simple – large stripes, balls, circles – and the lighting transitions helped to guide the mood changes. Simple repetition encouraged the kids to understand what was happening and to feel confident. The actors graduated from spoken word to singing to spoken word, helping the children to make the transition in and out of the performance.

Each performer responded to the particular needs of the child, singing or speaking their name, holding them, really seeing them for who they are. The children were not generic. They were individuals, treated with respect and affection. Mark (The Voice) was one of the actors. He held the children’s hands and feet gently on his resonant chest, making everyone laugh.

With thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, Professional Development Grant for making it possible for me to be a part of the dream.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. Part Two: Creating Theatre Magic

Many people have asked me how on earth you create theatre for children with PMLD and ASD. A number have asked me why I would do it. So, for the record, here is a brief outline of what the week looked like and, a few personal reflections about the effect that the project had on our “audience”.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart
Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart, Participants from all over the world came to Ashford

After a day of getting to know each other through theatre games and exercises, we were put into groups of four. Each group was tasked with creating a 15-minute performance piece by the end of the week. Although the groups were randomly chosen, each one had someone with a teaching background, someone who could use sign language, at least one performer/theatre practitioner, and a musician or musical person. In our group, the latter task fell to me. Max thrust a guitar into my hands. “Keep it simple,” he said. “You don’t want to overcomplicate mental processes. Also, you want all of the performers to be able to do it.” Keeping it simple wasn’t a problem for me. I haven’t played guitar in at least 10 years and my fingers were soon rubbed raw on steel guitar strings.

One vital member of our group was an Oily Cart performer. Mark is an adult with special needs and the story is that he went to an Oily Cart performance as a child and never left. One of the first things you learn from Mark is that he has “The Voice”, an amazingly rich, bass voice. He loves to play with his voice, to show you how resonant it is and to use the vibrations to reach other people. “You ever hear a voice like this?” he says. “My voice makes you laugh.” And it does. The sound of Mark’s voice, and his joy in using it, made me laugh with pleasure. I loved watching him work his voice magic on the children, gently placing their hands or feet on his throat so they could feel his voice.

The format for the workshop took us into a residency in Wyvern School, a day school for children with Profound, Severe or Complex learning difficulties. My group was assigned to work with a class of children between the ages of four and eight with PMLD. Most were in wheelchairs, a number were visually impaired. One had a debilitating, terminal disease and was no longer even able to sit.

Our task was to develop a “show” for these twelve children based on the theme of “The Suitcase”.

Tim stressed that it be a piece with actions and sounds, but very few words. Max reminded us not to be tentative with the music, to make sure that we were making moments, not just a stream of chanting. Claire said to keep it simple, to look around and see what we could find, to remember theatricality. “Storyline” was important only to the degree that we felt it was. In other words, if we as actors needed story, that was our concern, but it wasn’t really important for our audience.

Over the course of the week, our group developed a performance about experiencing the senses. We spent one day focusing on smell (“Breathe. Smell”) one day on touch (“Touch. Feel”) and one day on sound (“Listen. Hear”). Mark’s resonant voice became the starting place for our piece. We began by humming and singing each child’s name to make them alert to our presence. We created songs to help transition from one section of the piece to the next. Music scored, and underscored, the entire piece.

Our materials were simple – herbs, small hand fans, cotton balls, little LED lights, fabrics. We quickly coalesced as an ensemble, moving and breathing together, making eye contact and staying attuned to the children’s responses to adjust our performance. We took time to incorporate silence and stillness, using a bell or deep sigh to signal a change. We created moments as we took each object out of a small suitcase with a theatrical flourish. Even our sounds were stored in the suitcase, and quickly returned lest they escape.

At the end of each day we watched videos of all of the groups, so that we could learn from everyone’s experiences. One group was working with an older class of children with PMLD and the other two groups were working with children with ASD. There were magical moments, characters, sounds, snatches of songs, rhythms and bits of story in each piece. They were created in response to the children’s needs and perceptions, and each was unique.

On the second to last morning, we were told that one of the children in our class wouldn’t be there in the afternoon so we decided to do our piece just for her. She was lying on a blanket on the floor, a terminal disease ravishing her system. She was non-communicative with very little eyesight.

As we sang, her eyes opened and she moved her head slightly in the direction of the closest singer. I played the guitar, all of my focus on her and the actors. We sang and made gentle offers of scents (Rosemary) and textures (air from the fan, soft cotton balls). Mark began a “sound poem”, speaking simple words in his wonderful voice. “Listen. Butterfly. Trees. The Forest.” He gave each word time to land. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the lead teacher filming. The girl’s hands were moving. One side of her mouth was half-curled into a smile. She was, for the first time in a very long time, reacting.

We instinctively knew when it was time to leave, and sang our way out of the room. The care givers and teachers were crying. It wasn’t long before we were too.

That afternoon, when we did our performance for the whole class, we heard one of the children wailing as we left the room. She didn’t want us to go. We felt awful. But Tim reminded us that one of the purposes of the work is to give children deep emotional experiences. Crying meant that she was having an emotional moment. That was a good thing. However, it wasn’t really the effect we wanted so we decided not to sing our way out of the room but to say our goodbyes with spoken words. In order to really make sure everyone was really happy, we decided to make treat bags that included elements from each sensory occasion – cotton balls for “touch”, rosemary and oranges for “smell”, hand made shakers for “listen”. It was the right way to end the piece.

Our final performance was filled with responses from the children: a non-verbal, visually impaired boy made a wonderful crowing face at his favourite parts; a young girl reached out for an actor’s hand, inviting her to play with a toy; a non-responsive boy followed us with his eyes; a girl reached up her hands, waving them in quiet recognition. One boy, in complete meltdown in the hall, became silent and quiet as I sang to him. He stopped hitting himself, recognizing his name as I sang.

Fleeting moments perhaps, but some of the strongest moments “audience appreciation” that I have ever experienced.

Leaving the school was very hard. It had been a week of colour, texture, music, aromas, laughter and tears. As we went to our bus we could hear teachers still singing our songs.

Dream: The Joy of Creating was aptly titled. I left with a renewed belief in the power and magic of making art.

Dream: The Joy of Creating with Oily Cart. PART ONE.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as to engage their neurotypical caregivers.

At the beginning of October, 2014, I went to Ashford in Kent, England to dream and create with Oily Cart Theatre http://www.oilycart.org.uk/ Oily Cart has been making unique theatrical experiences for children since 1981. Creating “all kinds of shows for all kinds of kids,” they are world leaders in devising theatre for children with Profound Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The Oily Cart creation team is made up of director Tim Webb, designer Claire de Loon, and composer Max Reinhardt. Together they devise interactive, multi-sensory kinesthetic adventures for children who are very young, and children who have special needs. They make theatre that is close-up and personal.

The week-long course was offered by the London-based Rose Bruford College http://theatrefutures.org.uk/theatre-for-young-audiences-centre/ The decision to offer the course in Ashford was part of a larger social responsibility. Ashford (population approximately 75,000) is in an impoverished pocket of England. It’s a town of restless teenagers, unemployment and streets that roll up at 8:30 in the evening. But there is an international train station in Ashford (you can get to Paris from there in under two hours), regular high-speed connections to London (you can be at Waterloo Station in 30 minutes) and there are people on the town council who believe in renewal through the arts. Hence a new partnership with one of the UK’s premiere dance companies, Jasmin Vardimon, and a fabulous studio space that is used by a variety of arts groups. Away from the intensity of London, Ashford was the perfect place to focus on our task of creating scratch performances for children with PMLD and ASD.

We were a diverse group of sixteen participants from the U.K., U.S., Belgium, and Canada. We were theatre practitioners, arts therapists, and teachers – people who work in schools, hospitals, clinics and theatres. We had all travelled long distances to work with Tim, Claire and Max.

I do not have a specific background in working with children with special needs, so I came to this as an artist, first and foremost. The genre of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) has certain parameters, but the sub genre of TYA for children with PMLD and ASD has its own ethos. Performances are created for small audiences, usually 2 – 8 children, supported by a large team of actors, musicians and caregivers.

As an artist, working within a set of parameters is always an exciting artistic challenge. In this case the parameters included things like working with children in wheelchairs, children who were cognitively impaired, visually impaired or with auditory impairment, non-verbal children, and children who had hyper or hypo sensitivities. We had four days to create four 15-minute performance pieces for them, pieces that would engage them as well as engage their neurotypical caregivers.

It was a joyful week, a week of great bonding, of honest creation. There were no egos, no competitiveness – we were all at the service of the work. It was a week in which I made new discoveries about theatre as an artform, and about myself as an artist. It was, indeed, a joy to create with them.

Beaune, La Joie et La Vineuse

Beaune has been at the heart of Burgundian culture since the days of the druids. During the Middle Ages, Beaune was a city of drapers, and cloth merchants made their fortunes there. Over the centuries, generations of Dukes waged wars, created courts of fame and beauty, and commissioned some of the most exquisite illuminated manuscripts ever produced. English Kings married into the Burgundian courts and helped to secure Beaune’s fame as a place of refinement and culture.

Today, the commoners come for the wine. Grape culture is tantamount to a religion, and I’m an adherent.

We travelled to Beaune (population 22,000) with our cousins Peta and Bryan and friends Annie, Suzanne and Christian. Suzanne and Christian had introduced us to many flavours of the local terroir on our previous visit to France, and so when Christian proposed a day of wine tasting in Beaune, we jumped at the opportunity.

The vineyards of Cote D'Or
The vineyards of Cote D’Or

We drove along the Route des Grands Crus and into the Côte d’Or, fields of placidly graving Charolaise cattle giving way to thousands of acres of densely planted vines. We skirted the edges of Mercurey, Saint-Aubin, Meursault, Pommard – names of the towns are synonymous with varietals. We entered Beaune through the welcoming gate of Saint Nicholas and headed to Cave Patriarache Père et Fils.

The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune
The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune

Cave Patriarache was started by Jean-Baptiste Patriarche in the eighteenth century. In 1796, he purchased the Ancient Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation, which had been confiscated during the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste had outgrown his original building in Savigny-les-Beaune and saw that the convent’s extensive cellars would give him the room he needed for his growing business. Cave Patriarche now has the largest cellars in Burgundy.

Upon entry, we were each given a small, flat silver cup, a “coupelles tastevin” to use for our tasting. The bumpy surface of the tastevin is designed to catch and refract the light to best show off the wine colour.

coupelles tastevin

We descended deep under the streets of the town, through 5 kilometers of dark paths created by rows and rows of dusty bottles. Sections of the cellars date back to the fourteenth century, when they were used by the Monks of Chatreux to age their wines. There are literally millions of bottles in the cave and the walkways stretched out to dark corners far beyond our vision.

Wines for tasting were set up along our route, designated by candles and open bottles placed on barrels. Three whites, twelve reds. Our enthusiasm grew as we wended our way deeper into the cave.

Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche
Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche

In 1995, 350 bottles of an exclusive and promising vintage were put aside to be donated to an annual auction to raise funds for L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune. The bottles are under lock and key, quietly waiting for future discerning oenophiles, to open them as specified – in 2020, 2050, and 2094. We stopped to pay due homage.

The special cellar in Cave Patriarche
The special cellar in Cave Patriarche

Unfortunately, most of the Patriarche wines were out of our price range. We fell in love with a 2000 Pommard, 1st Cru but resisted purchasing a bottle. Instead, we topped up our tastevin just a bit and savoured every drop, before reemerging into the daylight and wended our way to lunch.

Christian had selected L’Air du Temps, for our repas of Burgundian flavours. Our prix fixe was a 3-course meal of local gastronome. I chose the Véritable Persillé de Bourgogne (a wonderful pork and ham pate, marbled with parsley), avec compotée d’éschalotes aux cassis; Bourguignon de Joue de Boeuf et Roseval (a Beef Bourguignon as I have never tasted, with tender morsels of beef slow-baked on thinly sliced potatoes); and Financier aux baies de cassis, sorbet cassis (a soft cake with blackberries and fresh blackberry sorbet). Every mouthful was a masterpiece. I felt like a spoiled Burgundian duchess.

Lunch at L'Air du Temps
Lunch at L’Air du Temps

Our last stop in Beaune was to visit L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune, the shining star of the city.

In 1443, Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins established the Hôtel Dieu as a “palace for the poor”. Nicholas gave a vast amount of his fortune to create and maintain the hospice. It is a stunningly beautiful building, famed for its remarkable roofs of coloured slate.


L'Hôtel Dieu de Beaune
L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune

Nicholas also commissioned artwork and tapestries to give comfort to the patients, including a huge triptych of the last judgment that was kept closed, only to be revealed to dying patients as part of their last rites.

Inside the hospice, thirty beds lined the walls of the “Great Hall of the Poors”. It was a respectful environment – the beds were designed to be private, yet accessible to the nuns who cared for the sick. Along with the nursing sisters, Hôtel Dieu housed doctors and scientists who worked in the laboratory. In the pharmacy, a resident apothecary created medicines from herbs, spices and tinctures. The busy kitchen cooked for everyone and baked 100 loaves a day to give away to the poor in the town.

Hôtel Dieu was like a city all unto itself and since the fifteenth century, it has been the pride of Beaune. Apparently King Louis XIV said, “This hospital is the glory of my kingdom.”

The hospice is still going strong. In 1971 it moved to new facilities, leaving the original building as a museum. Funds raised from the annual 450,000 visitors, and from the exclusive wine auction to which Cave Patriarache contributes, go to the hospital’s charitable works.

We’ve only touched the surface of Beaune when it’s time to leave. “Beaune la Jolie and Beaune la Vineuse conspire to take you up in their adorned and perfumed arms,” wrote Pierre Poupon, a great Burgundian man of letters. As we got into the car I wondered if he might be related to Poupon of the mustard fame? I looked longingly at a flyer for a mustard tasting in Beaune. I definitely need more time in those adorned and perfumed arms…

The gate at Cave Patriarche
The gate at Cave Patriarche

Cross-cultural connections

“Nothing vast enters the world of man without a curse.” Sophocles.

I think of this line often when I work on my computer. Like everyone else, I am oppressed by the Internet. I am burdened by a constant stream of emails and by the overbearing sense that I “should be doing more”. More tweeting, more blogging, more adventuring in to the virtual unknown.

For the most part, I try to resist these impulses. My life is rich, and seldom improved by spending more time on my computer.

But that said, there is the occasional surprise, something that could never have happened without this wonderful and terrible invention.

Recently, I received an email from a woman in South Africa named Zerilda Wessels. Zerilda lives in Stellenbosch, which is about 50 kilometers west of Cape Town. She is a painter and studies at the Marie Stander Art School.

Every year, students from the school are invited to exhibit at Muratie, a winery in the Knorhoek Valley north of Stellenbosch. The Stellenbosch area has been at the centre of South Africa’s wine industry since the eighteenth century – the first wine was pressed in 1659 – and Muratie is on one of the oldest estates in South Africa.

Sales from the Art School exhibit raise funds for local charities. Last year (2013) they raised over $20,000 CAD and the funds went toward various educational institutions, helping with the purchase of school clothes, educational books and material, music instruments, sport equipment for children of need in and around the Stellenbosch area.

For the 2014 exhibit, Zerilda wanted to paint a picnic, something in the style of Renoir, thinking in particular of his “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. So she searched the Internet for images of picnics. Somewhere, amidst the mass of Google images, she found a photograph that I took 3 years ago when Tim and I were canoeing on the Loire. We were with a wonderful group of French friends, enjoying a mid day picnic of exquisite excess.

Picnic on the Loire
Our picnic on the Loire

I had blogged about the adventure, and, in the way that things work on the Internet that I don’t entirely understand, the photograph I took was out there waiting for Zerilda to discover it.

“Your photograph appealed to me due to its beautiful composition, ” Zerilda wrote to me. “The similarities between your photograph and the Renoir painting was to me that no one seemed to be making eye contact, yet there seemed to be an enjoyment of each other’s company and a comforting ease of closeness.”

Zerilda worked with the image to recreate it in oil paint, developing it in an Impressionist style, enhancing the sense of occasion and camaraderie.

Zerilda Wessel's painting of our picnic on the Loire
Zerilda Wessel’s painting of our picnic on the Loire

I am totally enchanted by the idea that a moment of my life has inspired this lovely painting. It’s a thrill to see Tim, Peta, Bryan and Matt in the foreground, to remember our delight at the food, wine and company that afternoon. Somehow the painting makes the memory more permanent. I love seeing us as a Renoir moment.

It is amazing to think that a little part of me, and my memories, exists on someone’s wall on the other side of the world. I doubt that I will ever have the opportunity to travel to South Africa, but I know that if I do I will have a friend there, someone who has spent time trying to see the world as I saw it one sunny afternoon in France. And, at the risk of being entirely too sentimental, I am thrilled to think that I have a small connection to helping a child toward a better educational life, courtesy of Zerilda.

OK, maybe there are some redeeming qualities to the Internet.

Learning How to Hear


Sometimes I get the chance to Step Off the Treadmill close to home. A six-hour drive, and I was in another culture and in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.

I went to Québec City for a week of French immersion classes. One week is ludicrous of course, but it is what I could spare in terms of time. I thought it would give me an introduction, a sense of whether or not I could, eventually, learn la belle langue.

Part of the joy of this adventure was my host. I was billeted with a wonderful and interesting woman with a deep family history in Québec, from whom I learned about the gracious, artistic and intellectually vibrant world of the Ursuline nuns. She’d grown up in the convent and considered it her home. She maintained that I could not understand the history of the city without visiting the convent museum.

The Ursuline Convent in Québec City, founded in 1639, is the oldest school for women in North America. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the school became renowned for the wide and diverse education that it gave young women. The young pupils lived at the convent, shut off from the outside world, until they were ready to enter society. The nuns were a political force in the town, and their artwork, especially their embroidery, is world renowned. In fact, the school was the first women’s arts centre in New France, and the display at the museum showcases the school’s emphasis on music, painting, drawing, sculpture and embroidery. Although the girls were not being raised to be scholars, they received a comprehensive education in literature, languages, astronomy, biology, physics, mathematics and, of course, religion.

If my host is any indication, today’s graduates from the Ursuline Convent School must be amazingly accomplished women. She holds several advanced degrees and has an incisive and enquiring mind. There is a feminist pride in her intellectual upbringing and in her home. Living in her house connected me with a grace and style that reflected the courtly homes of New France. It is a home filled with her family’s possessions, or at least those that she has not already donated to museums. Her family dining table is used in the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill.

Some of this information I received in French. But my responses required English. My host was incredibly patient and continually encouraged me to keep up my simplistic patter of French words. But too often I would explode with a torrent of complex words because I desperately wanted to express a thought that wasn’t in the present tense.

Many people in Québec asked me why I was trying to learn French. They usually asked me right after I had mangled the simplest of verbs. My only reply is that I have always wanted to. I have been embarrassed by my unilingualism for 35 years. Now in my advancing age, working on a new language has an added bonus of being good for my brain. Even if I never learn it, I’m building new pathways in mon vieux cerveau just by trying. It is a good time to start.

There was a student in my class, a man slightly older than I who, after having a stroke, had been given six months to live. “You might possibly make it a bit longer if you tried to learn a new language, and learned to play the violin,” he was told. Over two years later, he bounded at every new word like a lifeline. He became my inspiration for forging ahead.

The Edu-Inter School where I was enrolled has a new intake every Monday. I arrived with three other “newbies” into a class in progress. There were students of all ages from Mexico, the Philippines, the U.S., China, Vietnam and Canada, most of whom had been at the school for at least a few weeks. Many were staying for the entire summer. I had no idea what we would be focusing on during my brief stay, but as luck would have it, the week that I landed in was dedicated to the subjunctive – a verb that I am not sure I understand in English. I was confronted with a wealth of grammatical minutiae … the subjunctive is always used for matters of the heart, for opinion, for commands, but never used of issues of fact or objectivity. Always use the base form of the verb, except when Nous and Vous are irregular. Only in sentences with two subjects. Always for impermanence. “Gardé la différence à “je” et “nous” donc le présent.” Etc.

I wish I understood what it actually meant. Never having had grammar in school (ah, the days of “free” school and expressive learning), I was always many steps behind. And yet I had great fun. In the afternoons we played games and discussed current affairs and issues – free speech, freedom of religion, what constitutes art. I found myself pushing aside my terror and diving into the discussion with half-baked opinions and barely formed sentences. One afternoon, the professor proposed a game of “Speed Dating”. We were each given a photo and told to invent a character. This I knew how to do! Drama exercise 101 – create a backstory! With our backstory in place, we moved from person to person trying to find the perfect match. My French might have been the worst in the room, but I reveled in the acting exercise, mangling verbs but giving a stellar performance.

By Wednesday afternoon, however, my brain was total frozen. Tous les mots ont été perdu. Our guided tour of the Citadel, in French, was too much for me and I wept with the frustration of not being able to ask a burning question. (“Why did the Ursuline nuns, put up the Scottish regiment who were fighting France for the possession of Québec?” Mon Dieu, they even knit the Scottish lads some socks. Answer – by playing nice they got to keep their convent after the war, and were favoured by the English. Those socks are probably the reason that the convent still exists today.) I had to keep asking for facts to be repeated, thinking that I hadn’t understood what was said. That canon took 12 years to assemble? Really? It shoots a canon ball 5 kilometres? C’est vrai?

The canon at the Citadel, aimed at Upper Canada
The canon at the Citadel, aimed at Upper Canada

But my exhaustion was a turning point. I began to realize that I was hearing things correctly. My ears were getting stronger, much stronger than my ability to speak. And this, actually, was my great triumph. I decided that my goal for the week was to hear better. To understand what I was hearing. And although I may have laughed a bit late at the jokes, my brain was interpreting sound into meaning, by-passing translation. I looked down at my page of notes and discovered that I was writing them in French. C’est extraordinaire. I am still at the very bottom of the mountain of learning French. Going forward will require a daily commitment. But à ce moment, je suis très heureuse. I have dipped into Canada’s other solitude, and for a few brief moments could hear a harmony.

Je me souviens... à la citadelle
Je me souviens…

Colour and Light, Part Three: Markets and Martyrs

faces on the organ pipes
faces on the organ pipes in Tlacochahuaya

You learn about a culture through food and religion. We continued our exploration of the cultural life of Oaxaca (“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura”) in markets and churches.

My guide book tells me that Etla is a county-sized region encompassing a number of villages, the centre of which is sometimes referred to as the Villa de Etla, or sometimes Reyes Etla, or as one guide book tells me should be more correctly called the town of San Pedro y San Pablo Etla. But everyone just calls it Etla. It is the site of a massive market on Wednesdays, selling produce, cheeses, meats, herbs, sheepskins, pottery etc.

We went to the Etla market with our friend Lynda on a Thursday, missing the crowds and giving us time to enjoy a local desayuno (breakfast), a stroll through the market and a visit to both San Pedro and San Pablo.

Pan dolce at the market in Etla
Pan dolce at the market in Etla

Breakfast was chiliquilles of several varieties. My breakfast tortillas were swimming in a mole sauce of dark ancho chilies, sprinkled with fresh queso and chopped sweet onion. I am not an egg person, so I opted for chicken, and was given mounds of gorgeous shredded chicken, which I swirled in the sauce. My mother and Lynda had green tomatillo sauce on their tortillas, topped with soft fried eggs.

The cooks at the market in Etla, stirring a pot of mole
The cooks at the market in Etla, stirring a pot of mole

We cradled cups of fresh coffee and delicious sweet cocoa. Outside, just past our table, a woman sat on the ground tying together bundles of seed pods to sell alongside her roasted squash seeds and chilies. “They are Huaje seeds,” said Lynda, “The name ‘Oaxaca’ comes from the nahuatl Huaxyacac, which apparently means ‘the place of many huaje trees’”. The practice of gathering and selling the Huaje seeds has been going on for many centuries. The trees grow everywhere.

Sated, we walked through the market. There were gorgeous breads, bright yellow chickens (one chopped open and proudly displayed with egg yolks still inside), cheeses, and people cooking quesadillas with ingredients I couldn’t identify. I bought a bottled chili sauce with chapulines (grasshoppers) and some chili powder ground with toasted worms. It’s the best powder for dipping slices of oranges and limes into, to have with your Mescal. It will definitely brighten up a dreary winter day in Canada!

The town was filled with whizzing 3-wheeled vehicles. They are collectivos (shared transit) and they were transporting people to and from the rural areas around the town.

The colectivos outside the Etla market on a quiet Thursday
The colectivos outside the Etla market on a quiet Thursday

In the centre of town is the church and former monastery of San Pedro y San Pablo.

Outside the church of San Pedro y San Pablo
Outside the church of San Pedro y San Pablo

The statue of San Pablo is in the courtyard. A 12th century Venetian martyr, San Pablo was assassinated on the road to Milan when someone put an ax through his head. He looks remarkably calm about it.

San Pablo in the church of San Pedro y San Pablo
San Pablo in the church of San Pedro y San Pablo

Less than 2 kilometres away, on the outskirts of the village, is the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas. Legend has it that when God was making the world, He sat down to rest here, and that the mark that He made has become petrified into rock (Peña). The chapel is built on an old Zapotec archeological site that has yet to be dug. It’s a magote – a hummock in the landscape that implies a pre-historic structure beneath. The Oaxacan valley is filled with unexplored magotes, overgrown evidence of a thriving culture.

Santuario del Señor de las Peñas
Santuario del Señor de las Peñas

The chapel is a place of pilgrimage, where people go during Lent to be cured. The church is filled with painted decorations, simplification of 16th century “white vine illuminations” commonly seen in Spanish manuscripts of the time. Here, though, they seem to be painted from memory, from a vague sense of what they must have looked like in the old world.

painting inside Santuario del Señor de las Peñas
painting inside Santuario del Señor de las Peñas

A few kilometres down the road, in the village of Tlacochahuaya, is the massive Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, one of the first Dominican Churches built in the new world, begun in 1586.

the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, in Tlacochahuaya
the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, in Tlacochahuaya

A huge fig tree grows in the vast front courtyard. The yard was built to be large enough to hold 5000 people, who could be preached to in the open air. It was built with 3 open-air arched-roofed chapels or pozas where conversions took place. San Jerónimo still looks down on the courtyard below, his left hand on a skull, the voice of God coming to him through what looks suspiciously like a megaphone.

Detail of San Jerónimo. He is in the centre alcove of the facade.
Detail of San Jerónimo. He is in the centre alcove of the facade.

Inside, the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo is filled with paintings of flowers and happy angel faces. We were greeted by two men, one of whom spoke some English and offered to take us up to see the church’s treasured organ – for the price of 10 pesos each. Andres lived in the United States for 30 years, working to support his family here in Tlacochahuaya. He wants to stay home now – his daughters have all married and he tells us, passionately, that he wants to stay in Tlacochahuaya with his wife. After 30 years of living away, we couldn’t help but wonder what his wife thought.

Andres unlocked a low door and we followed him up a narrow stone staircase to the choir stall above.

Heading up the stone steps to the organ stall
Heading up the stone steps to the organ stall

The organ is magnificent, covered in decoration, the pipes painted with wonderful faces and the stops hand lettered.

The Baroque Organ in Tlacochahuaya
The Baroque Organ in Tlacochahuaya

It was build in 1789 and restored in 1991. The bellows look very clean and new. Being up in the choir stall afforded us a detailed view of the painted decorations, and an overview of the smoky church below.

Looking down into the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo in Tlacochahuaya
Looking down into the smoky Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo in Tlacochahuaya

From Tlacochahuaya we headed to the town of Tlacolula and one of Oaxaca’s largest and oldest markets. Tlacolula was founded by Zapotecs around 1250, and their culture still dominates here. Originally called Guichiibaa (“place between Heaven and Earth”), Tlacolula has a population of 15000 – most of whom come to the Sunday market. We drove down the main street behind a Mexican cowboy on horseback, and oxen in yokes. A cow stood idly in the middle of the road.

People leaving the market in Tlacochahuaya
People leaving the market in Tlacochahuaya

In the market, live turkeys and goats compete with stands of cheeses, chapulines, fruits, nuts, vegetables, breads, tortillas, Tlayudas, herbs and spices. I contented myself with a small package of toasted pipitos, squash seeds. We headed for comida at Comodor Mary’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the village. A photo on the wall shows people building the restaurant in 1929 – it’s been run by the same family ever since. We were brought a basket of fresh radishes, Chepil (an herb used in molès, soups and salads) and Huaje bean pods. The beans, which I had been longing to sample since we were in Etla, were a bit bitter raw. Still, a fresh and interesting taste, and the radishes were the best I’ve tasted in my life.

fresh radishes, Chepil and Huaje bean pods at Comodor Mary’s
fresh radishes, Chepil and Huaje bean pods at Comodor Mary’s

For my comida I had a perfectly cooked chili rellanos (chili stuffed with cheese), sitting in a sea of coloradita molès and refried beans. I sipped cold beer as I watched market women in brightly coloured clothing pass by with baskets on their heads.

Beside the market is the Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción.

Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción in Tlacolula
Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción in Tlacolula

It is lavishly decorated in carved ornaments, paintings and sculptures. Not one inch has been left bare. These urbane paintings and sculptures of Tlacolula were a striking contrast to the simplicity that we saw in the country setting of the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas.

We headed to the chapel, Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula, which is known for its assemblage of martyrs who have died gruesome deaths. And it is here that I again found San Pablo. Amongst martyrs who have been shot with arrows, had their entrails pulled out, left with large holes in the bodies, San Pablo’s body leaned over calmly, his fully decapitated head sitting serenely below.

San Pablo in the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula
San Pablo in the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula

I heard a soft sound behind me. A woman was weeping in a pew. I became aware of intruding in her space. I am, of course, a tourist, a gringa with a camera, insensitive to the sanctuary that this chapel offers to the inhabitants of Tlcacolula.

We left the vibrant colours and tastes of the Etla Valley and headed back to the city lights of Oaxaca.

Our table in the Zocolo
Our table in the Zocolo

Colour and Light, Part Two: A Cultural Vanguard

“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura.” (Oaxaca is in the vanguard of culture.)  So states a special report in our morning paper. http://www.noticiasnet.mx/portal/oaxaca/general/gobiernos/195390-oaxaca-la-vanguardia-en-cultura

The statement reflects everything I have been experiencing this week. The state of Oaxaca blends a respect for tradition with an awareness of contemporary issues, politics and ecology. Rural towns specialize in indigenous crafts of pottery, rugs, alebrijes (brightly painted fanciful wooden creatures) and mescal, but the valley also houses artists of the new Mexico, whose work is exhibited in urban galleries. Within moments you can travel back in time, or leap forward with new approaches and creative solutions to new problems.

Our friend Lynda Wilde is a photographer and writer who lives in Mexico during the fall and winter months www.lyndawilde.com. Lynda offered to take us on an adventure to discover some of the range of Oaxacan culture. Our first stop was  a tiny village three quarters of an hour out of the city, San Marcos Tlapazola, where she wanted to get  a new cooking pot from los Mujers del Barro Roja.

The road to Tlapazola
The road to San Marcos Tlapazola

The signpost outside of Tlapazola lists the population as 1500, but I think that this may be generous. The village is tucked into the side of a mountain, as are many of the rural villages.  An old reference book mentions the tourist Yu’u in Tlapazloa as a place to get a guide, and to stay the night. As we passed, it was clear that it has been deserted for many years – woe betide any tourist who heads there looking for accommodation!

But in the heart of San Marcos Tlapazola is an extraordinary family of women – the Mujers del Barro Roja – who have been making extraordinary red clay pots, plates and jugs for several generations.

Mujeres del Barro Rojo
Mujeres del Barro Rojo

The women work in a completely non-mechanized way, spinning their pots on pieces of leather stuck in the ground and firing them in a kiln coated with wood and donkey dung. Lynda visits them every year, and has made a film of their firing process. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mpk_XcFPks  When we arrived the women greeted her with great hugs and smiles.

Their pottery is simple, elegant, light weight and incredibly functional. Polished and shiny, you can cook with them on the stovetop or in the oven. We sat in their small storage room and pulled pots from the shelves, comparing sizes and shapes, and searching to find lids that matched our favourites. If I weren’t flying home I would buy them all. I loved their feel and glow.

the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola
the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola

The sister’s warmth and humour was infectious, their way of life honest and indigenous. Their beautiful elderly mother sat polishing a small bowl. A young niece worked over an open fire preparing comida. Chickens scratched in the yard. There are no men in their world, and they seemed entirely happy and at peace.

With our purchases made, they sent us on our way with freshly made Tlayuda (a regional crispy, thin tortilla about 20” in diameter).

Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo
Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo

Lynda also wanted to show us the other, contemporary Mexico. Any excursion into the arts of Oaxaca must pay tribute to Francisco Toledo. Toledo is renowned for his artwork and his encouragement of the contemporary arts of Oaxaca. He was instrumental in starting an art library at the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca and in founding the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO). He was also one of the driving forces behind the Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla http://www.cenart.gob.mx/vida-academica/centros-de-las-artes-estatales/centro-de-las-artes-de-san-agustin-etla/.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

Founded in 2006, the centre is the first ecological arts centre of Latin America. Housed in a former spinning and weaving factory outside the small town of San Agustín Etla, it sits in atop Vista Hermosa, Beautiful View, looking over the valley of Oaxaca. The Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla was created to encourage training, experimentation and collaboration amongst artists in all disciplines. The classrooms, display halls, residences and libraries are an inspiration to national and international artists.

The Vista is indeed beautiful, as are the renovated buildings of the centre.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

On the day we arrived, there were no classes going on, but we were able to wander through the facilities to our heart’s content. A new display showed us that the next phase of the project is to build a home for the study of mathematics, which to me seems thrillingly creative. There was also an exhibit of new work by Francisco Toledo– a wonderful show of drawings and watercolours created as an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical animals. Ribald, sexual, surprising, the show revealed Toledo’s collaborative approach and incredibly artistry.

A steady stream of water flowing down from the top of the mountain made the location ideal for the nineteenth century factory, and in the twenty-first the flow of water encouraged the creation of Arte Papel Vista Hermosa. An artisanal paper making facility just down the mountain from the Centro de los Artes, Arte Papel encourages the use of natural fibers and techniques, using ecologically motivated production processes and contemporary artistry. The discipline and craft of the institute’s paper artists are reflected in the sheets of hand made paper and paper creations (jewelry, kites, hand bound books) offered for sale. Paper, I thought to myself, is easier to carry home than pots.

A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa
A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa

From the peace and beauty of Vista Hermosa, Lynda said she’d like to take us to an industrial park. An industrial park? “We’re going to visit a glass factory,” she said. “I need some new glasses.”

We drove through a gate surrounding a number of sterile looking buildings.

Xa Quixe, the glass factory
Xa Quixe, the glass factory

Walking through a yard of machinery and broken bottles we entered Xa Quixe, a Zapotec word meaning, amongst other things, “a time for transparency”. http://www.xaquixe.com/. Inside the factory we were greeted by Padro, who informed us that they were not blowing glass that day but we welcome to look through the showroom and factory.

While lacking the natural scenic beauty of Centro de los Artes, Xa Quixe is equally inspiring in terms of artistry. Founded in 2002 by Salime Harp Cruces and Christian Thornton, Xa Quixe has a mission to produce original designs while being commited to environmental and social ideals. “Xaquite is a calling to a disciplined process manifested through creative action with fire and glass,” says the translated web site. The web site is a wonderful combination of poetry, imagery and information, blending Zapotec history with contemporary sensibilities.

Glass pieces in Xa Quixe
Glass pieces in Xa Quixe

Standing in the slightly dusty showroom, I was hooked. Sleek forms had been stretched into bird like sculptures. They nestled beside functional glasses in organic forms that begged to be held, admired and sipped from. And what a range of colours! The pieces were vibrant and full of life.

Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe
Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe

Padro introduced us to Salvador, who spoke fluent English – which was necessary in order for us to fully comprehend the innovations that Xa Quixe is undertaking. Environmentally conscious, he explained, they use recycled glass. Recycled glass doesn’t take colours well, but Christian Thornton has developed a new way of working, a new secret chemical process that allows their recycled glass to accept colour.

Salvador also explained that a glass factory uses an incredible amount of energy – the furnace is constantly burning at 1300° centigrade. In order to save on energy, they have converted the furnace to use vegetable oil recycled from restaurants. They are able to get it to burn hot enough, and to have no bi-product. Looking forward, they know that there will be a huge competition for recycled oil, so they are working to develop a solar heating system. Solar? I ask. Solar up to 1300°? Yes. They think they are about 3 years away from that, Salvador says. Solar, plus an ecologically friendly combination of hydrogen and methane.

Inspiring. Blending modern technology with ancient craft and social consciousness. Salvador and Pedro are people who bubble over with the love of their profession and their art. This was a new Mexico for me, a forward-thinking Mexico of innovation.

Now I if I can just find some bubble wrap to pack up my hand blown mezcal glasses…

On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca
On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca

Colour and Light, Part One: Smashing Watermelons

Tim shovelling us out

Anyone who lives in our part of Canada will tell you it’s been a hard winter. Long cold spells, mounds of snow. Not without its beauty, of course. We’ve had lots of opportunities to snow shoe and explore our woods.

But I’ve escaped for a couple of weeks to an easier world, a world of colour and light. I’m visiting my mother in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has one of the most benign climates imaginable. Mornings of warm sunshine, just right for coffee on the patio. Hot at midday, but a heat that is easily escaped by moving to the shade. Cool in the evenings, perfect for long, air soaked sleeps. Every day predictably the same.

The transition from Canada to Mexico is a jolt. My first days have been overwhelming, the sensory overload almost unbearable. Sounds, smells, colours everywhere. Soft breezes, warm sun. The beauty and struggle with language. The laughter and frustration, as I try to dust off old vocabulary.

It is a gorgeous immersion. I started my first the day with a breakfast of quesadillas, made with soft corn flour tortillas, filled with black beans, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms, grilled over a wood fire.

Breakfast with my mother on the patio of Las Mariposas

Sated, we headed to the market just up the street at Llano Park. The stalls sell everything imaginable: clothing and shoes of all varieties; hardware and kitchen utensils; toys and electronic games; fruits and vegetables; cheeses and meats; jewelry and makeup.

Market vegetables. Note the size of the green onions!

There are grills throughout the market where endless amounts and varieties of tacos are being prepared. We walked long enough to work up a bit of an appetite, and rewarded ourselves with a plate of arranchera tacos – soft, tiny tortillas filled with shredded, grilled and chopped meat, onions, peppers, cheese. We topped them with fresh salsa and the most amazing blend of raw onions and hot peppers. Each plate has 3 tacos on it and costs 10 pesos, about 80 cents. We shared a huge glass of hibiscus water and were both stuffed.

Food stand at the Llano Park market

My mother invited me to join in her one-on-one Spanish class, where her teacher hugged me and thanked me for sharing my mother with her. My mother has that effect on people. The class consisted of a lot of hugging and laughing, my mother working on subtleties of the subjunctive that I don’t understand in English, let alone Spanish. I signed on for some private sessions next week, if only just to exercise my brain, wondering, as always, why I didn’t do this sooner in my life.

A poster caught my eye. There was to be a performance on the atrium of Templo Santa Domingo. Viva la Vida, it was called. It seemed to have something to do with dancing and watermelons. Of course I was intrigued. So at 5:00, as the sun was just hitting the front of the church, we assembled to await whatever adventure would befall.

A program told me that I would see pre-Hispanic rituals, religious symbols and images from the fiesta de Quinceañera, a celebration for girls when they turn 15 years old. I also was reminded that the title comes from a work by Frida Kahlo. Sounds interesting, I thought. I was open to whatever was to come.

Santa Domingo

Hundreds of spectators milled around, with cameras at the ready. Eventually a space cleared. A drummer and keyboard player played something that was vaguely liturgical  and a woman lay prostrate in front of the church. Suddenly about 25 children ran into the space carrying watermelons and they began to run in formation with the woman. Then they set the watermelons down and it was time for a costume change. The crowd waited, the sun moved down the church façade and the drummer did a 15 minute drum solo.

And the drummer kept on drumming…

When the woman finally reappeared, she was wearing a wedding gown and wielding a very sharp machete.

She was inches from me, looking quite menacing, the knife clanging and creating sparks as she whacked the flagstones in front of me. This is not something we could do on a Canadian stage, I thought. Health and Safety standards would have protected me.

Viva la Vida with the menacing machete

The musicians played something that sounded vaguely like Pink Floyd. The woman picked up a watermelon and held it high before splitting it open with the machete. She gouged out the red flesh and began to wolf it down carnivorously, the seeds splattering her dress. Holding a fresh chunk, she then circulated through the crowd offering portions as a kind of perverse communion.

Viva la Vida. The communion watermelon

On it went. Watermelon pieces passed to the children, to the audience. Music and vague menace. Then the woman raised a watermelon high in the air and smashed it on the flagstones. This is what I had been waiting for! Smashing watermelons. At least 30 of them! Mexicans never waste food, so the throng dashed forward to rescue what they could. Photographers swarmed like paparazzi. I have no idea if they were part of the performance, or just part of the audience longing for a spectacle they could record.

Spent from her watermelon frenzy, the woman again lay prostrate in front of the church in her soiled wedding gown. Then she sat up and was joined by a young girl. The woman took off her golden shoes and put them on the girl. Then they both stood up and screamed. They screamed at each other, they screamed at the church, they screamed at the crowd.

Viva la Vida screaming

Surely this is the end, I thought. The sun had left the Churchyard and we began to feel the pull of the downhill walk to the Zocalo, to a glass of chilled wine and the happy contemplation of the universe. We turned from Viva la Vida, from costume changes and drum solos and plunged ourselves back into the world of un-programmed surprises, of street musicians and performers, of families joyfully reuniting after work and school, of shy young lovers snatching a few moments together, of tourists buying brightly coloured hats and rebosas that will look out of place in Minnesota, of ancient indigenous beggars with outstretched hands hoping for a centavo.

Sometimes art cannot hope to compete with life.


Theatre and Autism, Part two: Collaboration

One of the reasons that I love working in theatre is that it is a collaborative art form. It challenges me and makes me come outside of my private writer’s head. The synergy of a creative team is always inspiring.

The Red Kite Toronto Project was one of the most exciting collaborations I have worked on. My role was to work with Theatre Direct Canada as the project coordinator and dramaturge on a week of training and creating, leading to a workshop production of a new play for children with autism. The entire Theatre Direct team  of actors, technicians, production and education staff was to be involved with the creation of the project.

Red Kite, Brown Box was created as a devised piece of theatre, led by director Jacqui Russell from The Chicago Children’s Theatre. What was truly unique to this process was role of designer Andy Miller. Because the play used few words and was planned as a sensory experience of colour, texture, light and sound, Andy’s job was to create a physical world the stimulated all of the senses. This was not just a play that would be seen. It was a play that would be experienced.

The first world for Andy to create was “The House”. This was where our play would take place. The theatre was set up as a bedroom in the house, filled with packing boxes containing many surprises.

The House, filled with packing boxes.
The House, filled with packing boxes.

The second world that she needed to create was “The Garden”. The Garden was an installation, a “pre-show” in the lobby outside the theatre. The purpose of the installation was to create an unstructured world for the children to explore so that they would have a transition from their world into ours.

For the Garden, Andy started us off with a basic structure and a sketch. We’d close off an area of the lobby and  decorate it with huge paper flowers. We’d set up a tent. We’d make a series of sensory boxes filled with things to discover.

Three multi-talented theatre artists and instructors, Michelle Silagy, Carys Lewis and Jessica Runge, came to observe the project and help create the installation. Backstage became a whirlwind of activity, with everyone contributing creative ideas. Hundreds of tissue paper petals were cut to make flowers for the garden.

Carys & Michelle making flowers
Making flowers in the dressing room

Andy sewed, and sewed, and sewed, making blankets, a tent covering for the garden tent, a huge sheet (large enough to cover the audience), and soft pillows in all shapes and sizes for the pillow fight. She made gobos (design disks that create a pattern when you shine a light though them) for flashlights. The kids would sit under the sheet and shine the flashlight patterns on the fabric. She made a bed for teddy bears and oversized cardboard blocks for stacking. For three intense days Jacqui and the actors improvised the play, and Andy and her team responded.

As happens in an exciting collaboration, the process took on a life of its own. The creation of the garden became a performance piece, a play that was like a-choose-your-own-adventure.

Dean seting up the pipe and drape for the Garden
Dean seting up the pipe and drape for the Garden

No sooner had Theatre Direct technician Dean put up the pipe and drape for our fabric garden walls, than Carys was there affixing the paper flowers, Michelle was making tape drawings on the floor, and Jessica was putting down blocks of bumpy foam and astro turf to make a sidewalk to lead to the tent.

We draped soft fabrics and hung corrugated paper that bounced and made a soft sound. There was a clothesline with tiny children’s clothing, and a spray bottle to spray them. There was a tub of water and everyone took turns folding paper boats. Andy made the three sensory boxes: one was foam with slits to “plant” soft plush vegetables; one was a box of dried leaves, with hidden treasures; one was a box of strips of green paper hiding dried pine cones. If you searched you would find two cats in the yard of our house.

Our garden was small, but there was much to discover.

Andy in the Garden Tent
Andy in the Garden Tent

Looking back on it, my strongest memory of this whirlwind is of the sense of dedication in the room. Everyone was doing this for the children. We wanted to make something special for these special children.

Our audience were sixteen children with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. Some were non-verbal, some had physical handicaps, they had acute anxiety reactions, and a general inability to maintain contact or relationships. No one could predict how they would respond. The only rule was that all behaviours were acceptable.

When the children arrived, everything was predictably unpredictable, just as Jacqui said it would be. One child dove into the tent and  happily threw crayons for fifteen minutes. Another became totally engrossed in crumbling small pine cones and listening to the hard crackle they made. One child ran erratically through the space, while another had a meltdown and needed to hide. One shredded all of the paper boats in the water pool. One walked around the edges, observing and commenting. One drew, tracing around Carys’ hand again and again, laughing joyfully although unable to say a single word. What appealed to one child was often disregarded by another. We were fascinated by what captured their attention, and what did not.

Watching the children was my first small glimpse into the inside of their world.

Our actors, the “Smile Family”, came into the garden to meet the children. They sang “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and guided them into the theatre.

The door to Our House, Red Kite, Brown Box
The door to Our House: Red Kite, Brown Box

Inside the theatre there was a bed for each audience member to curl up in (made out of a cardboard box and soft blankets), or more likely just to use as a base. Sitting and watching was not necessarily going to be part of the experience.

Beds for the audience
Beds for the audience

The structure of the play was simple – the actors keep getting into mischief and “Papa Tim” keeps trying to get them to sleep. It was a series of sensory events: a pillow fight, a dance party, flashlights in a tent, a pretend car wash, a lullabye and everyone finally gets to rest beneath the stars. But nothing was predictable in this world. The actors’ responses were dictated by the involvement and engagement of the audience. The unpredictability of the children’s responses was incorporated into the action. Red Kite, Brown Box was a piece of performance art – one of the most intense, exacting pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

After the children left, everyone on the team overflowed with excitement. We wanted to see those kids again, right away, to have the opportunity to perform  and create for them, be surprised by them, learn from them. From the perspective of their teachers and caregivers, the students were amazingly engaged, and had had a number of breakthroughs in which they expanded their repertoire of responses.

It is hard to convey how unique and moving this project was. It was work that stretched us all as artists, and more importantly, as people.

The Red Kite Toronto Project was made possible through support from the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario. My participation was also made possible through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program, funded by the Ontario Arts Council.

Jacqui Russell & me
Jacqui Russell & me
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