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

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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