Dramatically Different

…the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location…

Recently, I was asked to do an interview with theHumm. theHumm is a great journal, both in print and online, that is dedicated to the arts in the Ottawa Valley. The questions that they asked gave me a chance to think about the process that we’ve gone through at OCT to make our conversion to online programming. Below is a transcript of the interview, but you can also read it online at: https://mailchi.mp/thehumm/h9si4v29uh-2052385?e=fb3712bb99

Dramatically Different: an interview with Amanda West Lewis

theHumm is reaching out to members of our Ottawa Valley community to ask how they are finding ways to use their gifts and skills in these challenging times. Today’s subject is Amanda West Lewis — actor, author, and founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre (OCT). We contacted her to find out how the OCT is rising to the challenge of providing creative instruction to kids during this time of social distancing.

theHumm: You live in Brooke Valley but have been active in the Ottawa youth theatre scene for many years now. Are you finally getting to work from home? If so, what have you enjoyed about it, and what are you missing?

I’ve been lucky to have Brooke Valley as my base for the last 30 years. But I’ve also lived in Ottawa off and on, which has allowed me to be part of the vibrant arts community in that city. For the past six years running The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, I’ve worked from home during the week then gone to Ottawa to work in the studios with the kids on the weekends. It’s really been the best of all possible worlds.

Now, with isolation, my schedule is basically the same, except that everything happens from my Brooke studio. I’m not travelling anywhere. I love that I’ve lowered my environmental footprint and that I have a bit more time to get into my garden.

But I do miss being in the same physical space with people – I miss the spontaneity and energy that is generated by the live space. Before Covid, we had twenty-seven classes happening every weekend. The studios buzzed with energy! I loved seeing what all of the different groups were doing. There is nothing more inspiring than watching kids create and share their stories! But now that the courses are taking place on virtually platforms, I don’t get a chance to pop in and watch what others are doing. I’m excited by the classes I am teaching, but there is that sad moment when I hit “end meeting for all” button, and everyone disappears.

I also miss talking to parents. We were very much an extended family, all dedicated to giving the children and youth the best experience we could. I miss those personal interactions.

You and your team of instructors have been busy pivoting from live classes to “LIVE Online” classes. What can people expect from this new format?

I’m working with the same core team of dedicated instructors that I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve developed a really strong curriculum that is both fun and teaches specific skills. None of that has changed. Converting to online has meant we’ve made the class sizes smaller so that we can focus on each child as an individual. We’re making sure to take time to listen to each child’s needs.

We’re running Musical Theatre, Drama, Acting, Improvisation and Writing camps this summer. We’ve designed the camps to be really interactive. There is a lot of physical and vocal activity. There is a lot of ensemble and shared work. Even the breaks keep kids occupied ––we’ve designed off-screen breaks where campers do theatre crafts. No one is just sitting and watching.

How has the technology been treating you? Have there been unexpected benefits, or major challenges you and your team have had to overcome?

The great advantage of teaching drama from home has been how personal it is. I have weekly Zoom meetings with my instructors, and it’s made us really close. We are sharing all of the joys and frustrations of our lives in isolation, as well as brainstorming how to teach drama online. It’s pushed us to be really creative problem-solvers. Also, the virtual medium is more intimate –– we’re talking to each other from our homes, with our art on the walls, our books on our bookshelves, and our pets, children, and partners in the background.

Some of this immediacy carries over to our relationships with students. You need to be attentive at all times when you are teaching online. There isn’t a moment of downtime. So the classes take on a different kind of bonding.

But the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location. I have some fabulous actors, writers and composers from New York City teaching for us this summer! They are inspiring all of us with their talent, passion and commitment.

The technological challenge in Lanark County, however, is bandwidth. I get my internet via a satellite and as those of us who live in the country know, it isn’t exactly a consistent signal. I cross my fingers every day that there won’t be a storm while I’m teaching. I’ve also had to make a decision to buy a new computer. I’ve been working on a 10-year old laptop which was fine for admin but not the best for online teaching!

Why is it important to try and keep young people engaged in artistic activities and pursuits even when we can’t physically get together?

Oh, my goodness, where do I start? Drama is all about communication. We work with language and gesture. We work with our voices, bodies and our minds to tell our stories. Is there anything more important for young people than the ability to communicate their ideas, fears, hopes and dreams? Especially now, when their voices are diminished because of isolation, young people need the opportunity to be seen by someone who isn’t a parent or teacher. Someone who can hear them and give them tools to express themselves. Someone who can help them to keep their heart and mind open.

Do you think that both children and adults will continue to perform (and watch others perform) while we are not allowed to gather in person?

I think that stories are more important than ever. I think we will always need to watch and listen to other people’s stories. Through story, we come to understand who we are. Story gives us a way to put the puzzle pieces of life into some kind of coherent whole. And I think that people will always need to share their stories, as they have done since the beginning of human times. We became a story telling species the moment we created language, the moment that we understood the concept of time, of birth and of death. I don’t think that isolation will stop that. In fact, I think the need has been exponentially increased.

What are you personally most concerned about at this time?

I’m concerned about the children who have fallen through the cracks. There are countless children who have no access to computers, let alone the kinds of opportunities I am talking about. When we were on site, I was able to give scholarships and bursaries to kids of need. But now? Who is looking after those children? Who is enriching their lives? There are so many children whose isolation is a nightmare. They are falling behind socially and academically. It is taking a terrible toll on their formative years.

There is a huge disparity between people in terms of how they are able to navigate the pandemic. This inequality in society will, I think, become even more apparent as we transition to the next phase, whatever that phase is.

What are you optimistic about in terms of what happens to the arts during and after the pandemic?

As I’ve said, I think the arts are necessary to give people the skills to understand and appreciate the world around them. I’m incredibly moved by what artists are doing online right now – the kinds of things that are being shared are powerful testaments to the resilience and empathy of human beings.

We are going to have huge challenges coming out of the pandemic. We won’t be going back to the way things used to be. Covid and the deep inequalities of our society require us to make major changes. Re-imagining our lives is not going to be easy. But I think that the arts will give us a voice to build that new world.

Teaching Drama Online

Learning together and staying connected

We’ve just finished our first week of Online Spring Semester classes at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. What a whirlwind! In the past 3 weeks we’ve designed new programming, got it up online, offered it and filled it! There are 183 creative and energized children aged 3 – 18 taking drama classes, acting classes, musical theatre, writing for theatre, theatre criticism and more.

I’m learning so much! It’s been really exciting to see which of our drama exercises translate onto the Zoom medium. The artist/instructors are doing warmups: breathing, articulation and resonance. We’re playing “Pass the Face,” “What am I Doing?”and the “Tableau Game.” We’re teaching dance moves, character development, scene studies and vocal techniques. We’re re-imagining our spaces and creating individual set designs. Most importantly we’re laughing, and we’re moved to tears by the power of theatre.

It isn’t all working perfectly. Sometimes the internet goes down. Sometimes someone gets accidentally shut out in the waiting room. Devices behave differently and sometimes in mysterious ways. The time delay makes teaching singing really challenging! We miss being together and miss the way that we were able to create stories with our bodies and voices in the same space.

But we’re doing this together – artist/instructors and students – helping each other. Our students have great ideas. They are getting to know each other and to trust this new way of working. We are all learning and playing, experimenting and discovering.

We’re staying connected. One Zoom box at a time.

pass the face Emily's Acting up

 

Creative Adaptations

“Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg … The show, indeed, must go on …”

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. My life fluctuates between my role as the Artistic Director of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and my life as a working writer. I get confused sometimes on how much I should, or shouldn’t, mix my worlds. But right now, in the midst of self-isolation, I am trying to work on wearing multiple hats at the same time. So with that understanding, I am going to publish my Ottawa Children’t Theatre blogs here, on my Stepping off the Treadmill site. Granted, OCT can be a bit of a treadmill for me, but it’s my treadmill and it is decorated just how I would want a treadmill to look.

For those of you who don’t know that part of my world, here’s a taste of the transitions that have encouraged me to dig deep and find a new approach to my creativity.

On March 16, when I realized that we had to postpone, or perhaps cancel, our studio classes, I wanted to curl into a ball and stick my fingers in my ears. We’d just finished fabulous open house presentations and were looking forward to a spring with the highest enrolment ever. My immediate response to the Covid crisis was that I wanted to give up.
 
“Well, you could do that mom,” said my eldest son, “OR you could get together with your instructors and see if they have any ideas.”
 
And thus, our first Zoom instructor meeting took place and OCT Online was born.
OCT zoom photo 1
 
Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg, know how to give our best performances in the middle of a snowstorm with only two people in the audience. The show, indeed, must go on, and we spend our lives training for these moments. So, it should have come as no surprise to me that our instructors were ready to leap in with new ideas and new approaches.
 
None of us had ever taught online before, but within a week, we had 11 trial classes up and running. The stipulation was that they had to be interactive. I thought that it was important that kids stuck at home in isolation see familiar faces, sing familiar songs and do familiar drama games. We basically approached our Zoom studios as we do our on-site studios. We soon discovered that we could “Pass the Face” from Zoom window to Zoom window; we could throw and catch imaginary balls; we could meet everyone’s pets and stuffties and act out animal scenes; we could write and perform monologues; we could teach choreography, songs, scene study and improvisation. In short, we could run our regular drama classes, albeit with new ways of working.
 
This week, we’ve launched 30 online courses filled with dramatic fun. We’ve adapted existing courses and created entirely new ones. In the space of 3 weeks, we’ve reinvented our business. And best yet, we’re still able to continue to work with our students!
 
Our online classes will have the same qualities that you’ve come to expect from Ottawa Children’s Theatre –– professionalism, empathy and creativity. But we’ll have something else, too: a renewed excitement about the value of drama skills to teach adaptability. We and our students are the proof.
Musical theatre1

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.

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.

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