*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.