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 One: A creative exploration

“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.

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Cardboard boxes formed the set, and held treasures to discover.

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.

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Launching

Book Launch at The Avalon Theatre, Ottawa
Book Launch at The Avalon Theatre, Ottawa

“September 17: A novel” has just been published by Red Deer Press. It’s my first novel, and I’ve had been doing launches and readings in Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa.

The book is based on true events. I came across the story when I was at an exhibit called The Children’s War in the Imperial War Museum in London, during the fall of 2011. In the exhibit, I saw a photo from 1940 of a group of young boys, about 10 years old, with huge grins on their faces. They were wearing oversized sailor’s hats and waving from the deck of a ship.city-of-benares-survivors-4

I think the caption might have read “Children Back from the Dead.” It went on to explain that the boys had been in a lifeboat for 8 days, after their evacuation ship, the SS City of Benares, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic. I looked again at their faces, at their smiles. I was hooked. I started to read everything I could about these boys and the terrible fate of the SS City of Benares.

I spent many happy hours in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, where there are audiotapes of some of these boys and other survivors. As I listened to their accounts, and as I learned more about the 100 children who were aboard the City of Benares, I knew I needed to tell their story. More than that, I wanted to get as close to them as I could so that I could tell the story from their point of view.

In March of 2012, Tim and I stayed in Salcombe, Devon. We found a perfect cottage by the sea and spent a blissful month writing, walking and immersing ourselves in town life. The photo at the top of this blog site shows the view from my writing desk. It was at that desk that I began the first draft of the book. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see the book on the desk is “Miracles on the Water” a great resource book about the City of Benares by Tom Nagorski.

As I wrote I realized I wanted to try to capture the story from the children’s perspective. I thought that might be easier to bear, because they didn’t know how horrifying their situation was. For the longest time, the boys thought it was the best adventure in the world. Sitting in the lifeboat one of them asked: “Which would you rather be? Bombed in London or torpedoed in the Atlantic?”

September 17Writing the book is a tangible result of Stepping off the Treadmill. The book happened because I had stepped out of my regular life. I was somewhere else, open to new ideas, new people, new possibilities. It happened because I had the time to be curious, to do research and to fall in love with a group of children.

Now, I am able to share the story. I have been reading segments of the book aloud, and every reading reconnects me with the children. I’m reminded of their bravery, their humour, and their strength. But of course I can’t help but be aware of the enormity of the tragedy, and the loss of so many young lives.

An amazing coincidence happened when I went to Kingston with the book. John Lazarus, one of Canada’s foremost playwrights, came to the launch. He was excited that I had written a book about this almost forgotten piece of history. His uncle, who he is named after, was the deputy radio officer on the City of Benares. His uncle John went down with the ship as he tried to radio for help for the children.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of September 17 goes to the charity Save the Children. Save the Children is the world’s leading independent organization for children, delivering programs and improving children’s lives in approximately 120 countries. Save the Children ensures that the health, education and rights of children are protected worldwide.   For more information visit www.savethechildren.ca

You can find out more about September 17: A Novel at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/#!september-17/cfbh

And of course I’m always happy to do readings…

Watching puppets and the world of Old Man and the River

Theatre DirectAs part of my Professional Theatre Training Program grant (made possible through Theatre Ontario’s PTTP, funded by the Ontario Arts Council) I have had the pleasure of watching the rehearsals for “The Old Man and the River”, Theatre Direct’s new play for young children age 3+. Created by Artistic Director Lynda Hill, in collaboration with longtime associate artist Thomas Morgan Jones, the story follows three days in the life of a grumpy and lonely old man who lives on a hill near a river. Every day he walks to the river to fish and every day he comes back empty handed. But one strange day, a magical creature bursts out of the river and attempts to befriend the terrified old man.

I’ve been involved in a lot of rehearsal processes over my life, but never one solely devoted to puppets. It is precise and imaginative work, where each moment must be carefully choreographed to ensure that every movement and gesture is guided and supported. It is magnified world – a simple step tells us a whole story. Adjust the angle of the step, and you tell a different story.

Puppeteers Mike Petersen, Eric Woolfe, Seanna Kennedy and Kira Hall create the table top play, manipulating a series of puppets and performing without words. Thoughts and feelings are communicated through gesture, inflection and sound. Nicky Phillips has created music to underscore and support the action and the emotional journey. The visual world has been created by designer Kelly Wolf and production manager Kaitlin Hickey. The Old Man’s spartan house sits on a rocky outcrop, the trees in the forest grove are animate and opinionated, and the river is alive with magical surprises. Even the sun and the moon take an active and personal interest in the Old Man’s story.

Watching rehearsal, I am aware of the constant interaction between the puppeteers. They must breathe and move as an ensemble, at all times aware of each other’s position, focus and attention. Mike talks about listening to each other, by which he means that they must be close enough to anticipate each shift. “Complicité”, says Lynda.

I watch in fascination as the puppeteers integrate the Old Man’s physical character into their bodies and then translate it into the inanimate puppet. Except the puppet never seems inanimate. He’s always alive. I become convinced I can see the Old Man breathing. I believe his face changes from a constant scowl to a full, joyous laugh.

Because there is no script, creating this is similar to devising a dance piece. For the first week I struggled with trying to notate the action. But the moment I looked away to write, someone shifted position to control a different limb, or the intention shifted to an animate leaf. When Stage Manager Elizabeth McDermott cames on board, I poured over her cryptic symbols and shorthand notation for blocking notes. Being a stage manager is a hard enough job – being SM for puppets seems a herculean task.

Tracy Thompson, an early years educator with the TDSB said this about the show:

“What a delightful show! I was so impressed with the elegance, sophistication and gentle humour of this piece. I was watching the audience very carefully and seeing how they responded to the emotional and magical world that was created by your ensemble. The music, design, creativity and commitment of the performers captivated them from beginning to end. 

Difference, fear of unknown, habits, loneliness, trust, our relationship with our environment and each other and the power of friendship are all beautifully woven.” 

Nancy Brown, a retired professor from the Early Childhood department at Seneca College, saw the piece as exemplifying a developmentally perfect piece for young children.

“It was stunning. The pace, the use of repetition and the introduction of symbolic representation is exactly what we want for three and four year olds. You are encouraging them to develop a fluency in non-verbal communication.”

Entertaining, artistically precise and pedagogically sound. A perfect TYA piece. And a piece that can be enjoyed by any age. A group of students from Humber College’s acting program watched a rehearsal last week. Twenty-somethings, they completely entered the world of the Old Man. They laughed at his crankiness, gasped at moments of magic and hugged each other as the man found friendship. The Old Man and the River reminds us of the importance of play, at every stage of life.

The Importance of Play

The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There's a hidden message in the letters...
The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There’s a hidden message in the letters…

My second week at Theatre Direct was focussed on meetings between Rhona Matheson (from Starcatchers in Edinburgh) and Toronto area artists, educators, policy makers, theatre directors and theatre creators interested in Early Years Theatre. One of the highlights of Rhona’s visit was a trip to the new Fraser Mustard Academy, a school entirely dedicated to Junior and Senior kindergarten children.

http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2013/08/29/thorncliffes_allday_kindergarten_school_offers_bright_purposebuilt_space_for_700.html

 Fraser Mustard Academy is an outgrowth of Thorncliffe Park School, the largest elementary/junior school in North America. Housing 2000 students, Thorncliffe Park needed to expand, and they built an addition designed around the needs of children 3 – 6 years old. They opened their doors  this September to 700 children. The school is still under construction, but the passion and enthusiasm for young children is everywhere in evidence.

The school is built on a philosophy of respecting the child, and everything is built for their perspective. There are large open spaces for physical activity, dance, and even riding tricycles. You can see the inner workings of the building. Pipes, tubes and electrical wires are left visible because “we want kids to see how things work,” says principal Catherine Ure.

A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium
A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium. It’s perfect for tricycle riding.

One of the first things that struck me as we toured the halls was the sparseness of decoration. Most elementary schools that I have been in are overwhelmingly filled with pictures, alphabets, notices, words. Here, the walls are deliberately bare. “We want the children to decorate their own space. We are following their interests,” says Catherine. Art and supplies are organized carefully, and everywhere there is a feeling of order and calm. “When we show respect for the environment we are also showing respect for the children,” says Catherine.

Thorncliffe Park and Fraser Mustard Academy are in a part of the city that has little in the way of safe outdoor space, so providing the opportunities for developing gross motor skills is essential. It is a school that challenged my assumptions. Coming as I do from a natural environment in the middle of the woods, my first response was that the school was in a horrifyingly desolate wasteland.

The old portables and construction site at the back of the school
The old portables and construction site at the back of the school

But Catherine made me question and completely re-think my assumptions. This is where these kids live, this is the community they know, this is their environment. Catherine pointed out a large floor to ceiling window that overlooked a parking lot and loading dock of the neighbouring mall. “The kids can sit here and watch everything that is going on. They can count cars, watch deliveries, see the tree – there IS a tree—change colours.” Where I had seen desolation, she saw a world of activity to learn about, a lesson plan about the world right in front of their eyes. Inside, the school is calm and orderly, focused and welcoming. It feels safe and welcoming. It feels like a very good place to be.

Classroom filled with art supplies and plants
Classroom filled with art supplies and plants

Literacy plays a huge role in the planning of the Fraser Mustard Academy. Even before the move into the new space, they were educating kids to a very high reading level. Their aim is that children graduate from senior kindergarten with the reading ability of a 10 year old.  But none of that is at the sacrifice of play. Play is fundamental to learning. Play that is artistically motivated and designed stimulates children to be curious and explore the world around them.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that neural pathways in the brains of children are built through the exploration, thinking, problem solving and language expression that occur during play.” (Ontario Early Years Policy Framework 2013)

Artists well understand the role of play in creativity, and increasing they are being asked to incorporate creativity into play-based learning. Theatre Direct is partnering with the Fraser Mustard Academy to offer a series of artists’ residencies that will bring creative drama and story telling into all of the 24 kindergarten classes in the school over the course of the year.

With new works in development for babies, toddlers and 3 – 5 year olds, it is a really exciting time for me to be at Theatre Direct. Just as young brains are developing, Theatre Direct will be there with inspiring and creative sounds, colours, movements, textures and wonder.

Theatre for the Very, Very Young

I’ve come to Toronto this fall to work with Theatre Direct Canada as an Associate Artist on Special Initiatives. It’s a position made possible through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program, funded by the Ontario Arts Council. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some professional development and be mentored by Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct. Theatre Direct has been developing new and engaging theatre for children and youth for 37 years. They are leaders in the field of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and their award winning work has influenced the development of TYA in Canada.

Theatre DirectFive years ago, Theatre Direct entered into an exciting new phase of their existence, partnering with Artscape to work out of the Wychwood Barns (St. Clair West and Christie). http://torontoartscape.org/artscape-wychwood-barns The Artscape Wychwood Barns is an exciting project in and of itself. Formerly a repair facility for streetcars, the Barns have been renovated to house various artists and arts groups. The Stop, a food centre that works with the community to provide garden spaces and food education, uses one side of the Barns as a greenhouse.

Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree
Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree

There’s also a fabulous market at the Barns every Saturday.

Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns
Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns. Even cloudy days are wonderful food adventures

Theatre Direct has an office, studio and a 100-seat theatre in the Barns. In the five years that they’ve been in this space they have actively worked with the neighbourhood to bring thousands of children to their theatre. They also run projects throughout the city, engaging children of all ages in a variety of drama activities and working with artist/educators to bring drama into schools.

I’ve arrived at Theatre Direct just in time to help welcome visiting artist Rhona Matheson, from Scotland. Rhona is the head of Starcatchers, an Edinburgh based organization that specializes in theatre for children 0 – 5 years old. http://www.starcatchers.org.uk

Yes, that’s right. Theatre for infants and toddlers.

“Early Years” is defined in Ontario as birth to six, and in Scotland as pre-birth to seven years old. 90% of a child’s brain is developed in the first three years, and with this in mind, Starcatchers focuses on theatre for the very, very young. Actually, they start with pre-birth theatre projects, working with expectant mothers on creative engagement. “If a mother is creatively involved she will be less stressed. That means the baby in her womb will be less stressed. So already the baby is benefitting from the arts,” says Rhona with her broad smile.

The Scottish government has stated an aim to be the “best place to grow up. A nation which values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all of our children and young people…” The Play Strategy for Scotland is based on cutting edge research on the importance of play for the developing brain.

“Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.” (from “Play for a Change” by Stuart Lester & Wendy Russel, 2008)

“Play” is considered a basic human right, as is the right to enjoy art. Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states:

Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

Starcatchers works from that basic right, the right to play and to enjoy artistic activities. In fact, who better than artists to create inspiring works that use play? And with 700 new neural connections being built per second in the first year of life, offering artistic experiences for babies has become a mission for Rhona.

Theatre for babies and toddlers is not just for the children. Early Years theatre is, by its very nature, holistic – babies, caregivers, grandparents, teachers, childcare professionals, family and friends enjoy it all at the same time. Starcatchers has done extensive documentation of their innovative performances, showing that these experiences strengthen the bond between caregivers and children, encourage social development and enhance the quality of peer and sibling relationships. So when Rhona’s artists create a piece, it has to be something that appeals, quite literally, to all ages.

The Starcatchers work exhibits a stunning level of artistry. During her visit, Rhona showed us videos of work that included The Incredible Swimming Choir, who sang in a swimming pool as they moved amongst infants and toddlers held in the water by caregivers. In Baby Chill, babies, toddlers and carers moved in a soft pillowy world, their eyes following hanging shapes and gentle movements. In Oopsa Daisy, three ballerinas danced and sang their love of their daisies, surrounded by wide-eyed toddlers. It is inspiring work. http://vimeo.com/user6724872/videos

It is exciting for me to be at Theatre Direct during this time as they are working on developing their own work for this age group. Next year, Theatre Direct is hosting the first festival of work for the very young in English Canada, The Wee Festival. It promises to be a joyful and playful time for all.

Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns
Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns