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)

What felt really special about this time (spearheaded by Julian Forrester) was the encouragement to arrive without a set idea, or a fixed outcome. It felt almost touching (which maybe reveals more about the apologetic culture around being an artist…) to have an organisation advocate the need for artists to have space to think, reflect, fail and take risks. In the context of making work for audiences with diverse needs, where impact is often valued above artistry, this felt particularly significant. It felt wonderful to be awarded the residency based on the merit and direction of our collaborative team and creative ideas, rather than because of the audience we happen to be making work for.

It starts with a splurge!

As a creative magpie, I have long been aware that for me the start of a project needs to give space for shooting out in all directions, imagining a vast number of possibilities to find the most juicy lines of enquiry. I was therefore delighted to be given the freedom to invite a rolling flow of inspiring artists from different disciplines to experiment with me over the two weeks to come up with ideas: I was joined by the award-winning singer/composer Verity Standen, award-winning composer/performance maker Greg Sinclair, dance artist  Genevieve Say , visual artist Laura Blake, and noise artist Alex MacKay. We cooked together, read, played, went for long walks and had lengthy – often intense – creative conversations over coffee or wine. This beautiful setting gave a relaxed and natural flow to these wanderings and wonderings. By not being forced straight into the rehearsal room together, we actually covered ground incredibly quickly, and by the end of the residency we all felt ownership of the concept we decided on.


I wanted to lead a creative process that keyed into a more intuitive, non-verbal, less intentionalised consciousness. Starting from this place naturally seems to lead you to material that is experiential and therefore implicitly accessible.

Finding our audience

Almost immediately when making work for audiences with diverse needs, you are forced to consider the question of who exactly your audience is, and how you are labelling them…and, even less comfortably, who your audience therefore isn’t. Part of me wanted to make a show for ‘everyone’. There is such little theatre out there for neurodiverse audiences that it felt it hugely uncomfortable to exclude any group (such as those living with dementia or with complex needs). However, after much debate, thinking, and following the most juicy lines of enquiry, it became clear that we could provide a deeper, more tailored experience by focussing quite singularly on a crafted experience for one particular audience: people on the low-functioning (another dreadful label!) end of the autistic spectrum. Not only are these a very excluded group that often display challenging behaviours to deal with in a performance setting, but, like scenographer Robert Wilson (not that I am daring to compare myself to a master!)

I see a …”unique experiential knowledge and cognitive perception that harmonises with my own artistic pursuits” (Robert Wilson)

This meeting point is the area that makes me most excited: the possibility of giving these audiences access to a type of work they don’t get to experience currently, while also breaking down the often elitist demographic of audiences attending more experimental forms of performance.

echolilia_07(Images from Echollia: A father’s photographic conversation with his autistic son.)

Making work for one hugely varied group of people all bunched in under one label can sometimes feel uncomfortably close to the sentiment of Stella Young in her fiercely articulate TED talk ‘I am not your inspiration thank you very much‘. In this she talks of ‘inspiration porn’ – non-disabled mythologising and making assumptions about the ‘inspiring’ qualities of disabled experience. However, from having worked closely with people with autism over the last five years I feel like I have a sense of patterns of behaviours, responses and fascinations.

I am not looking to represent the autistic experience, but open pathways of connections by meeting them in their language as discussed in the Amanda Baggs’ video: ‘In My Language’ I acknowledge my interpretation of autistic perception misses some things  and misrepresents others.

Finding our voice

With Greg and Verity as core collaborators on this project, it was clearly always going to be a primarily sound/music performance. Sound sensitivity is clearly a huge issue for people on the autistic spectrum. However, in theatre I think it is often dealt with in a fairly fear-driven way by taking out loud noises or bits ‘they won’t like’. I am interested in creating an environment that focuses on just one sense so that…

‘the animated flow of a piece of music is subconsciously transformed into bodily sensation’     (from Ritual, Performance and the senses)

In this way we might elegantly avoid many pitfalls of creating something over-stimulating. By considering this audiences needs we can make something poetic, with simplicity, which leaves space, silence and room for the audience’s voices. We are really seeing the piece as a journey through sound, that can be experienced in different ways, with no prescribed right way to engage. We have been inspired by the graphic scores of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. Interpreting music visually in this way, the patterning and architecture of it, seems to have synergy with the phrase coined (and subsequent essay written about) Robert Wilson and Christopher Knowles (young poet on the autistic spectrum) in the 1970s: ‘Speaking visually, thinking spatially.‘ Running close to the risk of sounding ‘inspiration porn’, isn’t making a sound piece for a sound sensitive audience a deeply fascinating creative brief? Based on Verity’s a cappella piece HUG and indeed Symphony, and Greg’s beautiful cello playing and composition, I have no doubt we can come up with something extraordinary. 

cornelius cardew

Cornelius Cardew ‘the art of visualising music’

The space to experiment

Throughout the residency we had moments of creative synergy, joy, frustration, seriousness…pretentiousness even! And others of total indecent, unbridled joy and ridiculous fun – for me its vital ALL these are allowed into the room in order to thrive creatively. Moments from the two weeks that stand out in my mind –

  • Lying on the floor in a dark room behind Greg on the first night as he improvised cello looking out onto a sunset and beautiful view
  • Sitting in the room and feeling real silence and realising I hadn’t felt that possibly ever
  • Climbing the mountains at Glen Coe and seeing the gorgeous, panoramic view
  • Slobbing out, eating ice cream, having given up on being creative for the day, then finding the Nils Frahm piece of music which made the show’s concept instantly fall into place

These memories demonstrate a simple truth that also serves as a guiding principle for making the show: people don’t remember what you do, they remember how you make them feel.


Verity in Glen Coe

Delving deeper

We’ve taken our first steps, but now we are really looking forward to going into a research and development phase to work with our audience and put our ideas and notions to the test! I’ll be sure to let you know how we get on.

All across the country artists making theatre for neurodiverse audiences have to work out where to begin. This means having fascinating, often difficult conversations about what they do and why. It means taking a stance pretty early on, and having the confidence to do a few things really well, letting go of some beautiful possibilities along the way. It’s exciting to think that these groups come to completely different conclusions, all of which are of course equally right. The important thing is that they have defined their vision – they have begun somewhere. are having conversations such as this, and have to make a stance pretty early on the process where you know someone will disagree with you. It’s exciting to think that these different groups come to completely different conclusions, all of which are equally right.

“There are wrong ways of doing it, but no ‘right ways’. Anna Newell, Theatre maker/former Artistic Director of Replay Theatre


Our friendly neighbour


One thought on “Where to begin? Performance-making for neurodiverse audiences

  1. Pingback: ‘Spinning Bowls and Milk Bottle Shoes’:   Thoughts on ‘Sound Symphony’ Research and Development process | Upfront Performance Network

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