“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.” Chris Killi
The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite places to visit in London. It is a gallery of humanity, of how we see ourselves and understand each other. If you have never been to the Portrait Gallery, you may think of it as a stuffy place that shows paintings commissioned by stuffy people to show off their status. I know I did. But The Portrait Gallery is filled with images of people from all walks of life. When done well, these portraits reveal inner lives, truths, and sensibilities. Whenever I come to London, it is top on my list of places to go.
So I was broken-hearted to learn that it is closed for renovation until June 2023. However, I resolved that this was a good excuse to discover something new.
The Photographer’s Gallery is not far from The Portrait Gallery. I’m passionate about photography, especially black and white. My father was a photographer in the 1950s and I have spent much of the last two years pouring over his portraits of people and places in New York. The protagonist in my next book, Focus. Click. Wind, is an aspiring photographer. Yet I have never gone to The Photographer’s Gallery in London.
When I turned down Ramillies street, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of people, queuing. Were there really that many people lined up to go to photography exhibits? I cursed myself for not buying a ticket online and began to turn away. But I found it hard to believe that so many people had come out to see “Chris Killip: A Retrospective.” So I ventured on a bit further and saw the sign for the gallery with no line up out front.
Inside, it was calm. People were enjoying Sunday morning coffee and cakes. “What’s going on out there?” I asked as I bought my ticket. “Auditions,” a young man smiled. I thought briefly about how years ago I would have eagerly joined that line up. And I thought about how much happier I was to be doing what I was doing.
I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the Manx photographer Chris Killip (1946 – 2020.) He is known as the chronicler of the “English De-industrial Revolution,” and his photographs that show the stories of those who, in his words, had history “done to them” –– the men, women and children who lived in North Yorkshire, Northumbria, Tyneside and other harsh rural landscapes in the 1970s and 80s.
“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.”
Killip spent years with people he photographed, and their trust in him is evidenced by the honesty of these pictures. They allowed him to access inner truths. These are profoundly moving portraits of isolated communities devastated by change.
I came away from the exhibit changed and deeply grateful for the ease and good fortune of my life. And for the serendipity that led me to discover a new Portrait Gallery.
Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time T.S. Eliot
The miracle of travel is something I don’t want to take as commonplace ever again. It is miraculous. In a relatively short amount of time I have journeyed to another world, a world both foreign and familiar.
Because of the impossibility of travel during the pandemic, it feels as though I have slipped into a place that only existed in my imagination for the past three years. Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you. I’ve read enough quantum theory this year to know that this is probably true, but this is the first time it feels true.
What I’ve found in this new world, whether it has sprung from my imagination or not, is that we have been on parallel paths for these past three years. We share commonalities of our experiences in a way that we’ve never done before. Different sides of the planet, with different political forces, yet we’ve been experiencing the same trauma. It’s made me feel closer than ever with family and friends as we share our experiences, our losses, our scars, our small victories. Our histories, which previously had been different, are now the same.
No doubt it is a unique moment. This will pass. But I don’t want to ever take for granted the good fortune that has allowed me to be here, experiencing the rawness of the pandemic experience. The shared humanity on the streets is the legacy of our survival.
And so we celebrate. We arrived in time for a double birthday party for Bryan and me, shared with Robbie Burns. A Burns night complete with Haggis, neeps and tatties, (turnips and potatoes), and Cranachan (an amazing dessert of toasted oats, whipping cream, raspberries and a glug of whisky). We don’t party as if there is no tomorrow, but because there was yesterday.
I feel as though the needle on the record skipped. I am birthday years older. But I’ve picked up the needle and placed it down again carefully, ready to start again.
We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip.
Tim and I did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip. We know that Covid still haunts us and are taking precautions. But the hardest decision about travel has to do with environmental concerns. It feels irresponsible to take to the skies these days.
We weighed our social responsibility against our need to reconnect with family in England. It’s been over three long years. Children have grown, elders have become elder. The joy of being hugged by friends and family is a powerful magnet.
As I write, we are sitting in the airport lounge. We have balanced some of our guilt by giving a donation to the Guatemala Stove Project, which reduces carbon by building efficient, non-toxic stoves for rural populations in Guatemala –– thus improving the lives of the people who cook over these stoves and reducing carbon in the atmosphere one stove at a time. It isn’t much, but it’s what we can do.
We also decided to spend a lot of time in the UK –– five and a half weeks –– to maximize our visit and reduce our guilt. If the last three years has taught us anything, it is that we can’t predict what is around the corner. Who knows when we will next have a chance to make a trip like this.
Eleven years ago, we went for a year-long excursion. I was fleeing job burn out, Tim was pining with a deep nostalgia for England, and we both wanted to dig our hearts into European culture. It was a trip that changed us both profoundly as humans and artists. While this journey is much shorter it feels as monumental. Fighting the inertia of the last years has been hard. We’ve sheltered in place and been safe. But now we are stepping out into the wide world again, opening ourselves to the fates. It is exciting, thrilling, and somewhat terrifying.
I look forward to sharing the road with you. And I look forward to the changes in store.
All of my life, I have believed in the power of arts education. I know that we develop empathy and understanding through the arts. We strengthen our all-important, intuitive right brains. We learn specific and tangible skills that benefit every aspect of our lives. As an artist instructor, I have taught calligraphy, writing and theatre arts and in each discipline, I’ve witnessed a tangible difference toward making the world a better place.
I’ve worked in theatre arts education in Ottawa for over twenty years. In 2013, I began the Ottawa Children’s Theatre with four classes on Saturdays at The Avalon Theatre on Bank Street. We had 28 students. In 2017, the school found a wonderful home at Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. Over the years enrolment grew, we expanded our role as representative for Trinity College London, we learned how to teach online during the pandemic, then bounced back from the pandemic and celebrated live performances. This past spring we had 211 students, ranging in age from 5 – 17, in 25 different classes. A few of those students have been with us since 2013, many were with us pre-pandemic, and all are now part of the wonderful OCT family.
Through it all, I have had tremendous support. I have come to know parents, students, and instructors and to develop friendships that have deeply enriched my life. I have watched young people grow, solve problems, and thrive as they embrace the world of drama. It has been enormously gratifying, and I am deeply proud of everything OCT has accomplished.
But these years have been busy for me personally, aside from OCT. Over the course of the last eight years, I produced a play that went on to be produced at The National Arts Centre (Up to Low), I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I published three novels and have another three books under contract. And I have happily entered the world of grandparenthood.
I’ve decided it is now time for me to pass along the torch at Ottawa Children’s Theatre and focus on my family, my books and my garden.
I have worked with Nick Miller for 18 years. When I was Artistic Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, Nick was one of the first new artists I hired. He came to OSSD with exciting ideas about drama, clowning, improvisation, and circus skills. Over the years I have deeply valued his collaborative spirit, generosity and creativity. As I began to look for a successor to the work that I have done, I realized that Nick was the perfect person to take on this role. He has already had a tremendous impact on the development of OCT, and I am thrilled to announce that he will be taking over the reins. While it is very hard to leave, I know I am leaving OCT in wonderful hands.
This is not “retirement” as some people label it. It is a new phase. It’s been a great run and now it’s time to exit this particular stage.
These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.
I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.
What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.
Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.
Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.
Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.
It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.
Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.
I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.
I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.
I created a book trailer forThese Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.
Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.
I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.
…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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“Red Kite” is the title of an exciting series of multi-sensory theatrical experiences for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developed by Jacqueline Russell, Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre. Red Kite performances are created for small audiences of no more than 10 children and encourage direct interaction between the audience and the performers. You can find out more about Jacqui and Red Kite at http://www.theredkiteproject.org/about.html
In the fall of 2013, Theatre Direct Canada partnered with The Chicago Children’s Theatre to bring Jacqui Russell and production manager Dawn Akelis to Toronto with the aim of creating a workshop performance for children with ASD. The project was made possible through funding support from the Arts Education department of the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario. I was the project coordinator and dramaturg on project, and as such was able to help to create one of the most moving and important theatrical events I have ever experienced.
Children with autism rarely have the opportunity to experience artwork that is created especially for them. Both Jacqui and Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct, site Article 31 in United Nations Charter on the Rights of Children: “Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.” All children have these rights but there are few people creating artistic activities for children with ASD. Our goal was to bring Jacqui and Dawn from Chicago to train a group of Toronto artists in the methodology behind creating a Red Kite play.
A complex and multifaceted disorder, autism presents differently in each person who is on the spectrum. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism” as the saying goes. One generalization that can be made is that children with ASD usually respond to sensory experiences. Because of this, Red Kite projects are built of sensory events, with little dialogue or narrative story.
In the weeks leading up to Jacqui and Dawn’s arrival, our designer Andy Miller worked busily collecting materials to respond to Jacqui’s artistic vision. Jacqui wanted to explore a theme suggested by the children’s book “This is Not a Box”, by Antoinette Portis. Emails flew back and forth between Andy and Jacqui. How can boxes be a starting point for the imagination? What could be in the boxes? What could they become? Andy didn’t need to come up with a set so much as she needed to think creatively about what possibilities boxes offer.
Because this piece was to be based on sensory experiences, the designer’s role became primary. Andy’s sensibilities immediately gravitated toward textures and tactile responses. There would be only 4 performances, so she didn’t have to worry about the longevity of supplies. She could create things from cardboard boxes, knowing that they only had to last for a brief time. But she also was going to have to work fast. It was to be a week of intense collaboration, a quickly devised piece in which every member of the creative team was involved. Andy would create the physical presence of the piece as ideas were generated. This gave an incredible vibrancy and immediacy to the project.
A cast of four actors was assembled, chosen for their physicality, musical abilities and honest playfulness. From their perspective, they were going to be building a show with no script and few words. There were no characters – each actor was addressed by name and brought his or her personality into the world they created. They were themselves, singing, moving, guiding, communicating.
We had five days to create a unique piece of theatre for a group of children who manifested a wide spectrum of ASD behaviours.
When Jacqui and Dawn arrived at Theatre Direct they immediately engendered an open and generous environment, one in which everyone was encouraged to contribute. Few on the team had any previous experience with autism, however, so the first day was spent in trying to learn about our audience.
Beverley School is a Toronto public school dedicated to supporting the needs of children with developmental and/or physical disabilities. Working with teacher Linda McLaverty, we arranged for the creative team to go to meet some of their children with ASD. At Beverley, Jacqui led the children through a drama class. The project became specific. We now knew who we were designing the piece for. They were individuals and we and busily learned their names, their likes, their dislikes.
Back in the rehearsal hall, Jacqui began to flesh out a framework for the show. The boxes became packing boxes. The premise: a family has just moved into a new house and the children in the family are having a hard time going to sleep – they want to keep exploring the boxes and find treasures.
A series of sensory events were developed, each bracketed by “Papa Tim” trying to get the children to sleep. A pillow fight, dance party, flashlights in a tent, a car wash – all created with textures, sounds, lights. The culmination was a lullaby, when the whole theatre space filled with stars – points of light gentle moving outward. It was a calm, dream-state event that filled everyone with wonder. Red Kite, Brown Box began to take shape.