‘Learning to Make a Mess’, LADA DIY 14: Neuroaesthetics

*All photos by Laurence Thorn, featuring DIY participants: Joan Somers Donnelly, Nicola Smith, Naomi O’Kelly, Rachel Clerke, Vicki Browne, Greg Sinclair and Ellie Griffiths, alongside the staff and pupils from Sherbourne Fields School.

What it was all about

The Live Art Development Agency’s DIYs are unusual professional development projects conceived and run by and for artists. LADA DIY: Neuroaesthetics was a four-day workshop focused on creating performance with and for neurodiverse children.

As one part of my practice, I work as a theatre and movement workshop facilitator in training centres for adults with intellectual disabilities. I’m based in Dublin, and would love to see more space in Ireland for both adults and children with complex needs to engage in performance-making. I was motivated to apply by both that desire, and the fact that the project combined working with neurodiverse people and creating experimental performance, as naturally compatible rather than mutually exclusive fields.


What we did

We were working between two locations in Coventry: the Herbert Gallery and Museum, and Sherbourne Fields School, a local special school for pupils between the ages of 2 and 19. On our first day we were based in the gallery. Ellie Griffiths and Greg Sinclair, who were leading the DIY, described their practices and experiences in the world of performance and neurodiversity. We also watched videos of the work of other artists, had discussions, and did some partnered sensory exercises and solo performance-making. By the end of Day One my brain was tired but buzzing with information and ideas. I think the whole group felt stimulated but a little nervous in anticipation of our trip to the school the following day.

The next day we met at Sherbourne Fields School, where we spent the morning in different classes, observing some of the eight children we would be working with. Most were between the ages of 8 and 11, were on the autism spectrum and were nonverbal, and many had other additional needs.

For the first 40 minute session that afternoon we divided the group in half, so that three of us would work with the pupils for 20 minutes, and then the other 2 of us would work with them for the second 20 minutes. I was in the first group, and we had planned a loose performance inviting participation, involving moving lights and object behind a plastic sheet. As soon as the children had entered and been brought to sit in front of the sheet, we realised a problem with this set-up: we couldn’t see the children’s reactions through it. We moved, to interact with the children on their side of the sheet, using props. The children seemed to move between momentary interest in the objects we presented to them, and disinterest or distress. I felt at a loss for ideas, and a bit useless.

We only had a short time between the first group of children leaving the room and the second group arriving to assess what we wanted to differently this time. We all felt a level of dissatisfaction and even failure in our first attempt. Two people decided that just watching the next session was a better way for them to learn. The other three of us wanted to engage with the children, but differently. We played the whole thing by ear, trying to be present with the children and presenting actions and objects spontaneously. This made for a very different, and enjoyable rather than stressful, experience. It felt like non-pressured play, and in a couple of moments it also felt like an interesting group improvisation, with people in different parts of the room “vibing” off each other. After the afternoon sessions we went back to the Herbert to reflect on the day. A lot of doubts were expressed, but also the beginnings of ideas and ‘lines of enquiry.’

The next day we were back in the school. Our challenge for the day was to think about how to bring our own practice into these experiments. What were the core interests or aims of our practice, and how might we bring those into the play with the children? This seemed like a tricky question, but it proved useful to think about. It was also fascinating to hear and see how that question played out for the other artists that day, as it gave us insights into the different possible manifestations of this work. I returned to a concept that Ellie had mentioned on the first day: some people, neurodiverse or otherwise, are smell-seekers, some are sight-seekers, some are touch-seekers, and so on, and you will see that reflected in behaviour or patterns of interests. I am definitely a movement-seeker, in life and in my practice, so I decided to focus on investigating different ways to play with movement one-on-one, and to test out what movement the children might like to watch as well.

Our sessions with the children that afternoon were very different to the day before. We began with offerings of performance, materials, and an interesting visual environment, and each session evolved into a stimulating and aesthetically intriguing mess of movement, sounds, visuals, partnerships and sellotape, which I think everyone enjoyed being part of at some stage.

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The gallery visit

Our final day was spent in the gallery. Our task was to create a performance/environment/participatory installation, for the pupils, who were coming to the Herbert that afternoon. We each planned different areas or events that would overlap or connect within an overall structure. It was very hard to know what to expect once the children arrived into it!

Ellie and Greg greeted the pupils and accompanying teachers and support workers and explained that the children could move and interact freely with us and the materials and installation.

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It began tentatively. Our nervousness of the first day in the school seemed to return, thanks to an implied pressure to ‘perform,’ in both senses of the word. Slowly though, the children started to interact with the space, with the materials, and with us.

There were moments of calm and moments of chaos, moments of watching and movements of doing, moments of quiet and moments of collective sound-making/singing. There were moments of joyful destruction and moments of reconstruction, moments of playful physical contact and moments of running away, moments of movement and moments of stillness, and moments of collaboration too.

I followed the impulses I would in an improvisation, sometimes working alone, sometimes building something with another person or persons, allowing things happening near or far from me to influence my decisions too. Yes, there were things that made it more challenging than some improvisations, for example sometimes potential collaborators simply weren’t interested in what I was doing, but I felt that that also made me cycle through bad ideas more quickly, to get to the things we were both genuinely interested in.

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Many of these children perceive the world very differently to those of us who identify as neurotypical. Many naturally explore their sensory environment and respond to those stimuli creatively, by moving, touching, shouting, singing, building etc. I can only guess what their motivations for those actions might be, but I think I can relate to the impulse. Observing and playing with some of those children made me want to push my physical exploration of my own curiosities much further than I have been doing lately. It also reminded me of the cool places you can go in a collaboration that wouldn’t be possible alone.

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Brain stuff, and thank yous

A lot of big questions bubbled up for all of us during the four days. When does play become improvisation? When, if ever, does work with young people labelled as being neurodiverse become collaborative? How can you tell? Is there an audience for this work? Where does this fit into the contemporary performance world, or does it even need to? Do the children have an awareness of the ‘art’ framing of what we are doing together? If they don’t, is there a problem with us presenting it as art?

Interestingly, in the latter two days I was questioning the basis of my critical questions of the first two days. So instead of asking where the consent of the children to partake in art-making was in the work, I was asking myself why I was assuming that none of the pupils were aware of the framing of what we were doing as art or performance, even if they didn’t have a name for it, and also how clear that boundary really is, between play and improvisation and creation.

projection ladanicola ladaNaomi ladalight ladared choreography lada

This DIY was invigorating. It was a pleasure to meet and work with such incredible people, big and small. It allowed me to follow some previous lines of thinking into reality for the first time, and introduced me to new ideas and approaches around perception and performance-making.

Many many thanks to all the staff at the Herbert and Sherbourne Fields who made us feel so welcome, to LADA for making the opportunity possible, to the inspiring other artists, to the incredible kids, and to our fabulous workshop leaders and organisers, Ellie and Greg.


Written by Joan Somers Donnelly

*Huge thanks to Joan for her brilliant contribution to this project and for writing the blog.



‘Spinning Bowls and Milk Bottle Shoes’:   Thoughts on ‘Sound Symphony’ Research and Development process

Written by Ellie Griffiths, Lead artist of Upfront

‘Sound Symphony’ is a new piece of contemporary performance by Upfront, being made for and with young people on the autistic spectrum. Through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund, earlier this year, we were able to start putting our ideas into action: It was a hugely exciting couple of weeks, packed full of discoveries, surprises and questions often leading to more questions. Here’s a glimpse of what we got up to…

The idea

The idea for Sound Symphony comes from my experiences with audiences on the autistic spectrum. I often observe that when sound is used to underscore the main action, many audience members become transfixed in a singular way on the sound source; be it object, instrument or human. This led me to want to make a piece of performance where sound takes centre stage.

There is much caution around the sound sensitivity of young people labelled as being on the spectrum. However, I feel that sensitivity also offers a heightened awareness or appreciation. To work from this point allows us to create a rich and subtle piece of sound-performance that anyone, but particularly people labelled as being on the spectrum, can enjoy.

You can read more about Upfront’s first exploration of this idea here.

 School residency

As we want our performance to be made within the language and interests of our audience, it is vital that they are collaborators in our process. One of our most central research questions was: ‘how can we collaborate meaningfully with individuals who are non-verbal, at the severe end of the spectrum?’


Greg Sinclair and Kyle from St Andrew’s School

We explored this together with staff and pupils from St Andrew’s school, Aberdeenshire, who bravely gave us almost free rein to experiment. Each artist brought with them suitable amounts of curiosity, resilience and inventiveness. Greg Sinclair is a cellist and performance maker who often collaborates with young people to make work. Singer/composer Verity Standen makes intuitive music performances that are often playful and responsive. Musician/researcher Joe Wright is a saxophonist, who has experience making brilliant performances for this audience, in collaboration with Dance artist Laura Street, and their company About NOWish. He is also fascinated by object noise, and sonic play. As a team, it felt like a really dynamic combination of interests and disciplines.

Being in the school full time challenged us to constantly re-evaluate and adapt our approach. We structured the residency as a series of sound ‘experiments’ with no fixed outcomes or expectations. You can take a look at some of these here. These improvised events focused on sonic play and different approaches to composing with the pupils, using voice, instruments and object noises. This back and forth conversation between artistic offer, and response, was where we felt the collaboration between us and the young people was starting to happen.

The experiments led to some excruciatingly uncomfortable and also euphoric moments, often within the same session! An example was when an audience with some challenging behaviours effectively hijacked some structured content we were trying. Although chaotic, it led to some of the most beautiful improvised work that was generated in the whole process. This pushed us to explore performance structures where the audience can fully take over the composition of the symphony at a certain point, with the performers following their lead.


In the theatre 

There were a few key ideas that came out of the experiments that we took with into our subsequent week of studio time at The Barn, (our partner venue, who have been brilliantly supportive throughout).

Letting sound lead the visual world of the piece, provided us with lots of opportunity for humour, and surreal ‘accidental’ images, such as shoes made of milk bottles and wind chimes made of spoons! It wasn’t about reducing the visuals, but subverting the hierarchy of which sense leads the rest. It also steers us away from trying to transmit meaning to an audience who often interpret meaning on their own terms and in many different ways.

We were also working a lot with repetitive object sounds that had an embodied visual and sonic component. This created a mesmeric quality that the pupils seemed to really engage with. We tried to leave room for there to be as much focus on these in the composition as on the melodic vocal harmonies and cello.

From these ideas we devised a short sound-performance to invite the pupils from St Andrew’s to at the end of the process. This was the first time the venue had welcomed this audience, as well as the first time the school had been able to go to the theatre on a trip, so it felt a really significant part of our project.


It is undeniably challenging making work for a hugely diverse group of people, all banded together by a very general label of ‘on the spectrum’. For those that are highly anxious, you have to make them feel safe before you earn the right to do any interesting creative stuff. I sometimes find myself pulling against this impatiently. But clearly no-one can enjoy, or play, if they don’t feel comfortable first. There is a similar dichotomy between giving enough structure and enough choice. Varying degrees will work for different individuals. Some will relish the freedom to participate on their own terms, but for others we noticed that a loose structure (such as no designated seating area) meant they were alienated inadvertently as they were able to choose not to engage.

Making work in collaboration with neurodiverse young people with severe needs, also means that at times what is produced will go against some parents wish for a ‘normal’ theatre experience. You cannot assume the parents relationship with their child’s label, and it is a highly sensitive area to step around in. But I find the idea of fitting neurodiverse audiences into a neurotypical theatre-viewing model difficult. It will always at best be a clumsy fit. Whereas, if we can re-train ourselves to enjoy performance in a less restrictive way then we might get close to something not just accessible, but genuinely enjoyable for all.


The Showings

We showed our short sound-performance sequence, followed by an improvised session to three very different groups of young people labelled as being on the autistic spectrum over two days. These began with a solo cello performance, which was then layered with vocals, before going deep into a choreography of object sound sequences. The audience would wander freely throughout, choosing how close they wanted to be to the action, which happened in different places around the space.

It seemed that everyone had such a great time, which built a really emotive atmosphere. One particular moment; simply watching silver dishes spin on the floor, making a ringing noise as they each gradually stopped still and silent, felt like we had got close to an aesthetic that felt really tuned into the interests of our primary audience, but also translated to neurotypical audience members, making them see the world through a new lens.  I found myself, amongst all the nerves and doubts, stepping back to observe how powerful it felt. It really hadn’t taken that much to remove the barriers to these young people coming on a trip to the theatre, despite the assumption it should always take place in their school setting. One parent commented:

“Kyle loves music, dance and lights so it was totally up his street.  I really liked the way that you all brought it down to the kids level and really interacted on quite a personal basis.  All the children seemed to get something out of it… I haven’t been to anything quite like this before and thought it was funky and unusual.”


Next stage

However you approach it, the joy of making work for and with this audience is that each performance is always ‘extra-live’. The unpredictability of responses leads you into a really intuitive, spontaneous form of creativity, that at its best often feels what people refer to as ‘flow’, or being fully present. I felt this in my body for the whole week after, and will keep using this as motivation to fuel the months ahead of work I will do to make this project happen, and happen in as many places as possible.

The arduous complexities and practicalities are worth it for the purity of that space where you meet with a group of people who have a really different experience of the world, and something happens.

We are really looking forward to going deeper into these ideas at the next stage and developing them into a full performance. This will never be as simple as making something accessible, rather it’s about investigating what happens creatively when neurodiversity is the domninant performance culture.

Sound Symphony will tour in Autumn 2018 to studio theatre spaces around the UK. If interested in booking please contact producer Jennifer Cummins: jmcumminsproduces@gmail.com

I would like to give huge thanks to Creative Scotland, The Barn, Imaginate, St Andrew’s and St Crispin’s school for their support, which made this possible. I would also like to thank the artists involved, Jennifer Cummins and Sally Wilson who has worked brilliantly on the audience development aspect of this project.










I Miss Japan

In Autumn 2016, Tim and Amanda Webb of Oily Cart had the exciting opportunity to travel to Japan, sharing their practice and collaborating with local artists, educators and practitioners to explore possibilities of making work for young audiences with complex disabilities. Here Tim writes about their fond memories of their trip…

‘Amanda Webb, designer for Oily Cart, UK young people’s theatre company, and myself, artistic director of the company recently returned from a visit to Japan. Amanda and I had long admired Japan from afar for its ancient traditions, extraordinary modern developments, and in particular for it wonderful variety of theatre. But the reality we experienced from the 5th to 20th October far outstripped expectation.

Our first stop was Tokyo where we led a seminar on the background and methods of the Oily Cart at the Shalom Minamikaze, a residential centre for adults with severe disabilities, and our base for the next three days. We worked with about 20 participants (there was some coming and going from day to day) made up of actors, teachers directors and social workers. Beginning with theatre games and the exploration of material and spaces to get the imagination flowing we devised a performance based on a number of multi sensory and very close-up encounters with our audience, the residents of the centre. Each day we would visit them in their living areas to try out the evolving material until by the afternoon the third day we had approximately 30 minutes of performance. On the final afternoon we gave two performances, playing to about 40 people altogether.


Amanda and I had a great time working with the workshop participants who we found to be very imaginative in originating material and very precise when it came to performing it. Several of the workshop participants told us that when they first heard about the Oily Cart and even when they watched YouTube videos of our shows they had a found it rather ‘strange’, but that now they had come to realise the value of our very personalised and interactive approach and could see how it could be put to use in their own work.

japan-5We moved on from Tokyo to Sendai, a city an hour and three-quarters north of Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train) where once again we opened proceedings with as seminar on background of the Oily Cart followed by two and a half days of workshops. This time we were in residence in the Sun-pucho community centre where we worked with a group similar to the one in Tokyo; a mix of theatre people, community workers and teachers. Our target audience in Sendai consisted of 20 five years olds with a variety of learning and sensory disabilities. Our emphasis was on very close-up performance that would be ultra-responsive to the requirements of individual audience members. One of the wonderful things about these devised workshop performances is that you have the resource of a cast of 20-odd who can deliver a good deal of one-to-one work. That in turn ensures that the audience can make a substantial contribution to the show becoming, when all goes well, the co-creators of the piece.

japan-4Amanda I found the creative processes in both Sendai and Tokyo absolutely exhilarating and the highlights of the trip. But there also the chance to do some sightseeing especially Kyoto where we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the temples and the gardens and had the opportunity to experience a butoh performance in a tiny traditional house where the audience was restricted to a maximum of eight. (Very Oily Cart, at least when it comes to audience size.)

In Tokyo we managed to fit in two quite brilliant kabuki performances, one at the National Theatre, the other at the Kabukiza, a theatre with a fabulously traditional exterior.

Many thanks to Kaori Nakayama who made this trip possible.


Oily Cart are currently performing ‘In a Pickle’, a ‘total theatre experience for children age 3-5 and their families inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale’ this Christmas at Arts Depot, London, before touring the show throughout early 2017.

Thanks to Tim and Oily Cart for this fascinating insight







Dance and disability: A New Zealander’s experience in London


Jolt Dance

Lyn Cotton established Jolt in 2001 which is recognised as New Zealand’s leading educational dance disability company. Lyn teaches, directs and choreographs for Jolt and also advocates for accessibility within the arts for people with disabilities. Here she writes about her experiences of immersing herself in the UK dance and disability scene during her Winston Churchill fellowship

“London has always been a special place for me. Jolt Dance really began when I was living there in the late 1990s. I was working at a school for children and young people with severe learning difficulties and was invited to watch one of their dance classes. On the way into class one of the students, Ricky, collected a flower. I watched the teacher, Wolfgang Stange, create a dance with Ricky using this flower. Ricky had limited movement but the smallest movements became a dance as powerful as that of the most technically accomplished performer.

The dance really impacted on me because it never sought to impose a structure. Instead, it allowed Ricky to express his own creativity. He was not defined by his disability, and it was the integrity of his movement and his ability to be completely within the moment that was so moving. That memory is still very powerful for me and it is the yardstick by which I still continue to view the work we do in Jolt.

I worked with Wolfgang for three years and learnt everything I could. So, when I returned to New Zealand I quietly hoped to establish a class of my own. Jolt grew larger than I had ever imagined: fifteen years on, and with the support of a great group of people, we have nine classes and three performance companies. In the last four years, we have really tried to push our work further: creating a teacher training scheme for our dancers with disabilities, a performance company creating works for diverse audiences and community programmes for marginalised groups. All our work is based on the belief that everyone has a right to dance and to access the arts in ways that are truly meaningful. Disability is not a limitation, rather it is an opportunity for unique movement and connections between people.

Returning to London on the Winston Churchill Fellowship was an opportunity to put our work into an international context and to see what new ideas were emerging in the disability dance community. London was also an opportunity to ask questions. What models are there for disability dance training and performance? What is the Jolt model and how does it differ to groups in London?


Claire Cunningham, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight

It was truly wonderful to be back. London breathes artistic endeavour and there is long history of commitment and respect for the arts. There is also a newer but strong disability activism that was energising and inspiring. I was lucky enough to time my visit with the Unlimited Festival. Listening to the panellists and seeing performances (especially Claire Cunningham’s work “The way you look (at me) tonight”) challenged and opened up my thinking to ideas about accessibility and the diversity of experiences for people living with disabilities.

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Where to begin? Performance-making for neurodiverse audiences

 “Its as much to do with the personal, emotional and sensual as it is the pragmatic, logistical and concrete. Because that is the nature of devising; a concrete idea and a leap of faith; an understanding and a feeling; a tried and tested process and a departure into the unknown ; a specific activity in a particular place at a particular time and a moment in an ongoing creative practice, in which we say ‘for now, lets look at this, lets do this, lets see if we can make this”   David Harradine, Fevered Sleep (from the book ‘Invisible Things’, written, by lovely coincidence, during a residency at Cove Park)

There’s no greater feeling than being on the brink of a new project to wrap your arms, heart and mind around . I’m lucky enough to be right at that point having secured initial funding to start work on a new piece of performance for neurodiverse audiences. Filled to the brim with ideas and a strong will to break new ground, the timing of the opportunity to spend two weeks at Cove Park on the Jerwood-funded residency was ideal. With that of course, came that familiar nagging feeling – where on earth should we begin?

cove park mapCove Park ‘creates year-round residencies in all the art forms for national and international artists and collaborative groups. It is located on 50 acres of unspoilt hillside overlooking Loch Long on Scotland’s west coast.’ (pinched from their website)

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WAVE, by Gill Brigg

Guest blogger, Producer and UPN member –  Kitty Parker, writes about her involvement with the latest tour of ‘Wave’ (an adaption of the Tempest, for audiences labelled as having profound and multiple learning disabilities). This project was produced in collaboration with Tell Tale Hearts theatre company; written by Gill Brigg and directed by Natasha Holmes.


Wave, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, transports us to the sights, sounds, atmosphere and smells of the island where Miranda lives with her Dad. The two are happy here, even when the rain pelts down and the gales blow, but Miranda wants to leave now to be with her boyfriend. Dad doesn’t want her to go.

Miranda—spirited, loving, and wise beyond her years—is our contact character in the play, but it’s Dad’s story in many ways. We see his angry reaction when she tells him about her boyfriend, how moved he is by the book of memories she makes for him, and how sad he is when she leaves. It’s always too soon for a father to let his daughter go, but he helps her anyway.

The play is a wonderfully moving and life-affirming experience, which I shared with six young people with profound autism and six companions from their school. One young man was to be kept separate because of challenging behaviour, and another was thought unlikely to stay in the theatre for long. But both were engaged from the start and within minutes were taking part happily, exploring the island and the things they found there. Other students, who went into the theatre with precautionary fingers already jammed into ears, began to relax even though the music and soundtrack swelled to intense levels at times.

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In a previous blog post I discussed some of the limitations of the Relaxed Performance (RP). The main thread of my argument was that such performances tend to reflect a specifically neurotypical understanding of what a theatre experience should offer its audience, and therefore how it’s audience should respond. This, I suggested, can sometimes result in a rather narrow form of artistic engagement for audience members with more complex needs.

Far from being a critic of the cultural shift towards the RP model, I see it as an encouraging and significant step towards opening up the theatre world to people with diverse needs.  The growing popularity of this model has created an opportunity for the further development of different practices among theatre artists.

Theatre producer Kitty Parker argues for

“…A range of different approaches to theatre from which people can choose: open doors, through which they’re invited to enter. The more open doors there are, the more people want/are able to go through them. It’s actually the opposite of working towards a common denominator: an ‘integrated’ theatre which is theoretically accessible to all. That would result in work that is emasculated and deeply dull”.

What I’m advocating, then, is a plurality of well-pitched, different performance experiences, which take into account the various ways in which people can enjoy theatre. This is something that I believe the UK can pioneer. At the first annual Upfront Performance Network Forum, held in London on January the 18th, I was encouraged and invigorated by the number of artists with innovative ideas in this area. What’s exciting, are creative responses to these needs – rather than solutions to the problem of access. What I’d like to propose here then, is my own suggestion for one new fully accessible model: the ‘Enriched Performance’.

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