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

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.

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