FRAMES, Blog 4: The Art of Disruption


For the second part of the FRAMES residency I wanted to go bolder, include more of the pupils and have more visual impact on the school environment. This was inspired by my trip to Milwaukee (as part of my Churchill Fellowship) to spend time with the incredible Anne Basting of Timeslips.

This company works collaboratively with older people and those living with dementia. Hearing Anne speak about her projects Islands of Milwaukee, and The Penelope Project made me reflect on my work in the school so far and raise my ambition. Anne is all about ‘impossible ideas’ that ask ‘beautiful questions’. There is an amazing book by her you can read called Forget Memory.

I wanted to take the pupils on a trip to the modern art gallery, to take them seriously as consumers of art. After talking with Fiona from Imaginate about the reality of this, I realised that this was extremely complicated, as the gallery are really not set up for a visit from people whose behaviour can be this challenging. It’s been shocking to me how restricted many of the pupils are in activities they can be part of outside of school. According to the social model of disability  it is the job of society to make public spaces accessible. This gave me an idea for a creative response to this frustrating situation: Earlier in the residency I made a short film for the pupils, using things I had seen them be interested in.

The moment that most the pupils loved the most was the end sequence with the balls rolling down the stairs. I decided to make this into a public act of disruption at the gallery, which you can see here.

I hope to keep developing this idea, in other locations and institutions, with more balls and bigger stairs!

After realising we couldn’t take the pupils to the gallery, I decided to bring the gallery to the pupils, inspired by the Playing Up project, by artist Sybille Peters

It was really fun to look at famous works of modern art and to think about the mutual interests of the artists and pupils. For example both are natural explorers of the world around them, both are disruptors of the norms and rules of society, both are interested in a variety of textures and materials.  I selected famous works by artists: Martin Creed, Kayoi Kusama, Rebecca Horn and Zoe Laughlin.



FRAMES, Blog 3: Accepting Limitations (or not)

20170927_141758The viewfinder experiment I did in the last FRAMES session went broadly as I hoped, but left me with an uncomfortable feeling that lingered with me all week. It was clear that those individuals who are visual-seekers enjoyed this form. However, for those who are taste, touch or smell-driven, it was not fully satisfying.

The pyramid of development (triangles keep making an appearance!), shows visual interaction at a higher learning level than touch. This basically means that a predominantly visual experience activity, such as the viewfinder one, is likely to be less enjoyable or artistically accessible for those with the most severe needs. This does not sit well with my philosophy of Rich Inclusion introduced to me by practitioner Joanna Grace.  In a nutshell, Rich Inclusion means starting the creative process by considering the people with the most severe needs, so that whatever you create will therefore be accessible to all.

To push this further, there is one pupil at St Crispin’s whose barriers are so pronounced that she can’t even come into the room I am working in to try out an activity. Instead she has her own classroom, and garden area, with two staff members assigned to her at all times. For the purposes of this blog I will call her ‘Bea’.

Bea is very insular and can be physically aggressive if pushed too far out her fairly restrictive comfort zones.  I have now attempted to lead two creative sessions with Bea. I usually rely heavily on the Intensive Interactionmethodology to establish a relationship with a young person with communication barriers. This is hard without being able to get close to Bea. As her reactions are unpredictable, you have to be ready to get away from her very quickly if she tries to grab you. The props I brought in, carefully selected for what I thought she might find interesting, were thrown over the garden wall almost immediately. I can’t go inside her classroom with her, as too many people in her small space can stress her out. Bea is clearly my most challenging collaborator in this project. The activities she enjoys, such as pouring soil repeatedly onto a surface, or listening to objects move in the wind, are so limited, that it makes me question what is creativity to this person? Particularly when thinking about a meaningful collaboration. Another question is, when she knows so clearly what she enjoys, does she need theatre? Is it arrogance to assume that everyone does?

My friend and artist Jill Goodwin who is highly experienced working in this area, had some interesting thoughts when I mentioned Bea to her. She commented that:

“It seems to me that you are describing experiences with a young person that you cannot fully make sense of, or feel satisfied by, but they are influencing how you think about the whole project and your work with others.  In this way, there is a kind of loop of connection that she is foundational to.”

This makes me interrogate what theatre is for me, particularly in this field. I am drawn to the tactile, often intense responses I get from this group of people. I pride myself on my ability to make connections with those that are hard to reach, and I like making performances in context where I can see a direct effect. All of this is challenged by this situation, which inevitably means that for me as an artist, probably the hardest/most useful bit!

For the FRAMES residency, as an artist I am most creatively interested in following through the visual seeking idea. In opposition to this, I could have most impact if I work closely with the pupils with the most severe needs, creatively evolving activities they are already into. They are the ones least likely to be least interested in the visual/film idea.

I only have capacity, time and budget to successfully execute one project idea.

This stuff makes me pretty uncomfortable.

However, being lost somewhere in the ethical/artistic labyrinth is also not an unfamiliar feeling when working in this sector, so for now it doesn’t panic me, but points towards more thought!

On that (slightly elusive) note…until next time.

FRAMES, Blog 2: Ways of Watching

“I had always known that the world was fragmented. My mother was a smell and a texture, my father was a tone and my older brother was something which was moving about.”

This is a quote by author Donna Williams, who is on the autistic spectrum. She wrote an autobiography ‘Nobody Nowhere’, among other books about autism.

blog 2 attemptblog 2 attemptA sense of the fragmented perception Williams describes, is what led me to choose the theme of FRAMES during this Imaginate artist residency at St Crispin’s school. I hoped it would be a theme that would resonate with some pupils’ way of perceiving the world. I pinched this quote directly from some wonderful training I did this month with Sensory Spectacle led by the extremely knowledgeable Becky Lyddon. The company runs workshops for parents, practitioners and educators, focusing on sensory processing difficulties.   They also have a whole series of free online videos, which address behaviour challenges and give creative ideas.

Sensory seekers
One thing from the Sensory Spectacle training, which I found really useful in this residency, is thinking about each individual as a ‘sensory seeker.’ In the classrooms of St Crispin’s, you often see pupils exploring their environments through smells, tastes, and sounds. One image that instantly pops into my head is of a pupil doing an art activity involving shaving foam mixed with paint. He scooped a massive amount into his mouth and grinned at me with delight…the ultimate taste seeker!

This reminds me of a brilliant video by a woman called Amanda Baggs, who identifies as being on the autistic spectrum.

I come back to this again and again, as I find the way she articulates her experience infinitely useful:

“My language is not about defining words for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment…Ironically the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as ‘being in a world of my own’ whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am ‘opening up to true interaction with the world.” Amanda Baggs

Creative ideas

In this residency, I am particularly focused on collaborating with, and making work to be enjoyed by, the ‘visual seekers’. Through the process of making a short film in the school over the next few months, I am hoping to experiment with:

1.      How to make to make the film in collaboration with the pupils, where the visual language feels like it comes from them as much as it does from me.

2.      How to make something that the pupils would enjoy watching themselves, (as well as a wider audience.)

3.      How to accommodate and celebrate different ways of watching film; as these pupils have such extreme needs, it seems naïve to assume that the traditional ways we sit and watch in cinemas would suit everyone.

Ways of Watching

With these questions in mind, during my second week in school, I attempted to create a solo watching experience through a viewfinder.  I had this idea in mind from a few months ago, when I met some parents who described watching TV as a family, with their son who is autistic. While they sit on the sofa, he much prefers to sit within a tightly fitted IKEA cabinet. It was their understanding that this provides an effective ‘blinkering tool’, which helps him focus and block out outside distractions. Schools (particularly schools who have many pupils on the autistic spectrum), are often chaotic and noisy environments. I hoped the viewfinder, which was placed over the head like an old-fashioned camera, would submerge the sitter in the viewing experience. On the end of the viewfinder was a shutter, to separate, or fragment, the actions on the mini stage. I performed a sort of abstract object puppet show.

When I describe this stuff it always risks feeling pretty random! However, each action was specifically based on something I had observed a pupil be fascinated by in the classrooms at the school. A few pupils/staff recognised these connections, which led to warm, familiar reactions. (Saying that, at one point a good-natured staff member did say to me “she’s looking at you like you’re crazy!” in reference to one pupil’s reaction, which really made me giggle!). In the viewfinder experiment, one pupil thought the balloon blowing up was hilarious. To another viewer the triangles were totally and filled with high drama. Another pupil found this bit totally disinteresting.

Benjamin Ver Donk is a performance artist from Belgium who plays with really abstract, open way of making. This video of his show All Who Wander Are Not Lost feels like it’s from a similar world or visual language to the things some pupils were enjoying. His work is probably never billed as being particularly accessible and is shown in very ‘arty’ highbrow creative establishments. Seeing the connections between these two worlds bridges the gap between the pupil’s interests and mine and is what excites me about collaborating.

FRAMES, Blog 1: Getting started

blogThis week I was delighted to start a pilot artist residency with Imaginate, embedding me for the term in St Crispin’s school, which is for pupils who have severe needs (mainly non-verbal) on the autistic spectrum.

Having visited a couple of times before, I was really excited by the idea of being based there. The pupils in St Crispin’s are aged 4-19, but developmentally (as the school define it) range from 0-3 years. This means a completely different way of working, which is primarily sensory. I knew this would be really challenging, but also fascinating to have to take theatre out its comfort zones and be forced to reimagine what it can be and do in this context. The Head teacher Ruth, and staff are extremely positive and knowledgeable, so I feel safe to take creative risks and know I will be supported, which is fundamental.

One book I am keeping close to me at all times is called: ‘Sensory-Being with Sensory Beings’ by Joanna Grace.  It is very informative and a brilliant in-depth look at working with people who are non-verbal, I’d really recommend it.


I recently had the chance to travel to Australia on a Winston Churchill Fellowship exploring making performance for and with neurodiverse audiences, including those on the autistic spectrum. I spent time with two amazing companies, who have really inspired how I will be working in the school.

Polyglot, led by the remarkable Sue Giles, make performance experiences in collaboration with young people which are structured around the ‘desire lines of children’. I was really struck by how political it felt to really commit to empowering children to have real impact on the shape of a project, and culture more broadly. This theme of collaboration is a big one for me… how do you meaningfully collaborate with young people who are non-verbal? If they do not necessarily know or understand they are part of a creative process, can you call that collaboration? I like a quote from choreographer Janis Parker (who makes amazing inclusive art):

“I now define collaboration simply as a practice that is informed by more than one person, remove one person and a different work exists. 50/50 is neither a relevant nor necessary concept!”

This reminds me of a series of photos that I love by Timothy Archibald of his son Eli.  Interestingly, he calls these a ‘photographic conversation’ between him and his son, who is on the autistic spectrum, and credits it as a full artistic collaboration:

These will be a really big reference point during this project, as they are beautiful pieces of art, and yet feel totally authentic to the two collaborators involved.

Having been thinking about this, it was very cool that on my first morning the Head teacher announced in assembly that they would be working as a school this term towards making sure the pupils choices were respected and they were given as much autonomy as possible, which seems the educational way of saying what I had been thinking!

For a while I have been interested in framing, both in cinema and theatre and how this seemed to be a really helpful tool for people with sensory overload. This gave me the idea of using film during this residency, which was also really inspired by Back to Back Theatre, who were the other company I spent time with in Australia, and their film project: The Democratic Set

Like with the photos, this simple form and use of framing creates beautiful art that doesn’t ask any of the collaborators to compromise who they are and their interests and preferences.

I have no idea how these concepts will translate in this setting, when they meet these collaborators, or what the outcome will be, but it’s a really fun idea to play around and experiment with. It’s particularly interesting in this context because you hardly ever see people on film who have complex disabilities. I also notice that there are hardly any photos on the school website, and many parents are very apprehensive about giving consent for photos and film footage of their children to be used publicly… another fascinating minefield to poke around in!

First day nerves

I must admit that although I have experience working with people with severe needs, I did feel nervous starting in this particular school. There is an atmosphere of caution around certain pupils, staff wear head scarfs to stop hair grabbing and you hear quite shocking anecdotes about the reality of working day to day with pupils who can be physically really large, but developmentally at an early stage. I was really aware in the morning of my visit to think about all the different smells I wear on a day to day basis that might aggravate someone who has sensory processing difficulties; hairspray, shower gel, deodorant, washing powder, perfume. I have decided to wear the same one scent natural oil each week and the same blue jumper, so they can start to associate these with me and identify who I am more easily.

To add to this, in any residency, there is always that slightly undefined role, that no one quite knows what you are there to do, and in a way even you don’t yet! I really love the creative freedom and spontaneity in this way of working, but it always takes me a while to settle in as you slowly build trust. I got really excited when I met the two classes I will be working with, who are both full of a huge range of personalities, foibles, preferences, barriers and needs, which will make it a really interesting terms work.

The picture above shows the creative carnage left at the end of the last session. After a stream of pupils who had responded really well, the final pupil came in and responded in a totally different way – throwing props and breaking some. It was pretty challenging, but a good reminder that no one set up will ever be right for everyone. In fact the accompanying staff member said she wondered if it reminded the pupil too much of constant assessments by therapists and specialists. This made me feel a bit deflated if I’m honest…but it’s really interesting to think about what differentiates theatre from play therapy or diagnostic sensory sessions, and has given me food for thought.

I started simple, with things I know, and myself as the main resource. I always use Phoebe Caldwell’s Intensive Interaction technique to underpin any work I do in this area.  I am already learning loads from the staff. In fact a couple of comments they made this week surprised me and really made me smile:

“People think they (the pupils) always have to be actively doing something as an audience, but actually they are able to sit and watch if you give them something worth watching…as long as there is music, colour and movement we are happy.”

“Sound and volume is great. People turn down the sound – but that is one of the main things our kids respond to as long as it is not a sudden loud unexpected bang, in which case you can expect a whack!”

Looking forward to it all progressing…

‘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.

DSC00384mess ladacellotape ladaprojection lada 2

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.

edges lada

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.

light mirror

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.

joan lada

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:

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.










Making Sensory Performance in Japan: Guest blog by Tim Webb

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