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 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.
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?’
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.
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.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.