Playful Tiger: Guest Blog by Dancer Kai-Wen Chuang

We’ve had an exciting and interesting week back in the studio, with research and development into our new production Playful Tiger. Dance Artist Kai-Wen Chuang shares her thoughts on the process so far.

Playful Tiger is a new Barrowland Ballet production inspired by the successful children dance theatre performance Tiger Tale. It is a version of the show being made specifically with and for children and young people who are profoundly autistic and mainly non-verbal, although they may use language in an echoing or associative way or by vocalising. Other means of communication that they may rely upon include the use body language, symbols and signs.

We have had a great packed schedule for the first week of research and development of Playful Tigerwith a brilliant team. This includes Natasha Gilmore the choreographer and artistic director, Ellie Griffiths a theatre maker who specialises in making multi sensory theatre for neuro-diverse audiences, Belinda McElhinney as producer, Craig McNeill as Technical Manager and dance artists Jade Adamson, Kai-Wen Chuang, and Vince Virr.

We spent time during the week observing pupils in class at Isobel Mair School, training and rehearsing and at the end of the week performing segments of the show with four groups of students in the Isobel Mair School. (*Info about Isobel Mair school https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/er/IsobelMair/)

Sensory exercises: Create a small performance with hands

After one week of working with our new audience of children and young people I have learnt many things but also realise how little I know. After this week, I feel artists, who use sensory ways to experience, think and communicate with the world, have some things in common with our new audiences.

I can relate to some of our audiences who are non-verbal and think in visual and physical (body) way as I am more like a visual thinker being a dancer.; I am good at memorising movement and have an awareness of the environment by visual clues. I also use the various images to stimulate and create different (movement & dance) qualities and characters. Moreover, I love to go to contact improvisation Jams because it is a way that I can communicate with people fluently and purely without language or any social concerns.

Maybe it is also about my own experience of living and working in a foreign country, which has a different culture, language, custom, tradition, and natural environment. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and stress by living in Scotland, but I learn to allow myself to be patient and take times to finish daily life tasks or to stick with the same daily routines. It makes me feel better.

Sensory exercises: Feeling the physical vibration within the music

This week I particularly enjoyed the various sensory exercises led by Ellie Griffiths. Those exercises helped us to tune into our five senses and open a door to maybe put ourselves into our audience’s shoes; to have different experiences and perspectives of the world. For example, Jade and I paired up to do an exercise, which I called “Camera zoom-in eyes”. I closed my eyes and Jade led me to move around the space. Once she touched my shoulder, it was a signal to open my eyes. A giant object full of details and colors was in front of me. She tapped my shoulder again, and I closed my eyes. That image faded away slowly. We repeated this several times. The world I knew was different and it felt like going to see photography works, stimulating various thoughts and emotions, in the art gallery.

I was concerned about several things this week connected to performing Playful Tiger. My biggest worry would be that I made our audiences have bad experience and that they wouldn’t go back to see dance theatre in the future. Moreover, my other silly concern was about my character (Mom) being too strict, boring, and scary so that the audiences wouldn’t be interested in interacting with me in the second half of the performance.

However, I am quite happy with the result of the test performance on Friday in school. Most of the audiences enjoyed the performance and naturally came to me to dance, play, and explore the set.

Performing segments of the show in Isobel Mair school –  Interacting section.

We created Tiger Tale in 2013 and have performed hundreds shows over the world for six years. It is special and exciting for me to be part of the creative team in Playful Tiger. It offers a great opportunity for me to re-visit the show and re-imagine my character. Moreover, I enjoyed facing surprises and the process of learning while you are doing it. Like, the performance on Friday in school, a boy came into the performing space while we were dancing. It was a new situation and my mind flashed with some questions and solutions, and then I decided that my character within the story works better not to notice and interact him.

Next week I would like to explore my character’s story journey and create a sensory character’s profile, which includes what smells she has, what voice she has, what sound or noise she makes, what physical quality she has, what objects texture she can offer. I also want to discover how my character will interact with audiences. After this week training sessions, observing from school class and the test performance, I would pay more attention to listen, connect, find mutual interests with audiences.

Kai-Wen Chuang

 

Playful Tiger is supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Creative Scotland.

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The Reason I Jump: Creative Process

The National Theatre of Scotland recently staged a version of The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida. Naoki has profound autism and learned to communicate primarily using an alphabet grid and began to write poems and short stories. At the age of thirteen he wrote The Reason I Jump, has now been published in more than thirty languages. The book describes Naoki’s lived experience of having autism, as well as interweaving pieces of his creative writing.

Graham Eatough, who adapted, (along with Dramaturg Clare Duffy), and directed this piece, worked intermittently over two years with a group of performers who identify as being on the autistic spectrum. Each person was interviewed about their experiences, which was then cleverly stitched together with Naoki’s words to form the text of the show.  As one of the themes of the book was nature, Graham chose to place the performance outside in the wildness of the Children’s Wood, Glasgow.

As Assistant Director, I had a specific focus. Despite being advised by a major autism charity that involving a performer with more profound autism, or who is non-verbal, would not be appropriate, Graham felt strongly that by only working with highly articulate performers who are ‘high functioning’, the lived experience of the author was not being represented on stage. From working on the film Frame, I felt that not only was it possible to involve a performer with this level of needs, but it was politically important: To not, would give a clear message that individuals with more severe needs are not relevant or worth being listened to.

Over the next few weeks I visited schools in the Glasgow and Edinburgh, to find pupils to collaborate with. I was delighted to work again with Jethro, from St Crispin’s school, who had been a central part of the Frame film. Jethro is a highly creative teenager, who does not communicate through verbal language. The final image of the show was cherry blossom falling from trees. Jethro loves to stand in high places and rip up bits of paper, scattering them in the wind. It felt totally natural to integrate this into the final masque sequence. A wooden ladder was built for this moment and Jethro’s job was to sit under s tree, or roam the site, ripping pink rice paper, often leaving a scattering wherever we went, in preparation for that final moment. What I found satisfying was that an act that seemed minor and understated throughout, held the highest status in the emotional climax of the piece.

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Jethro

Each young performer I worked with communicated in a different way. It was the most fascinating creative brief to find what their version of a monologue would be, to make the their ‘voice’ heard in the piece.

Cara, a pupil of Isobel Mair school communicates in public using a PEC folder, which involves pointing at small pictures. We devised a visual script together so the audience listened to her as she pointed to a series of images. I enjoyed subverting the practical nature of this form. We made a script that felt poetic and at points, even brought some audience members to tears . Cara highlighted to me, and many who met her in the audience, the power and complexity of silence, and stillness. Not always needing to speak to be heard.

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Cara Fyfe

Coery, a fourteen year old pupil of Abercorn School, came into the process exuding confidence and energy. Coery communicates in public through an ipad. He is highly articulate (and hilarious!) I loved watching the audience’s reactions as Coery began to speak to them through his ipad, and how this went from apprehension, to connection with him. Coery wrote some brilliant text that cut to the heart of the show. In the programme he wrote:

“I am glad I get to show people what autism really is and how it affects me and others. My brain is just wired up differently. I’m really happy I got this great opportunity to star in a production and show others how my autism makes me unique. ”

Throughout the show’s run, I never got bored of watching Coery and the other performers meet countless groups of different people. In particular, families who have a child with autism seemed to thrive on the opportunity to see their experiences authentically represented on stage. This led to many countless moments of connection. Coery, as with many others in the show is someone who is highly creative and charismatic, but who until this point had never been given the opportunity to publicly show who he is and what he is about. This is where the power of this performance lay.

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Coery in rehearsals with Graham Eatough

 

 

Coery

Coery

This process was inspring and often uncomfortable. The word ‘voyeurism’ came up a lot, particularly in conversations about performers with more severe needs. Also it was challenging to find forms for each person that felt both deeply integrated in the piece and authentic to who they were. As an artist it pushed me to be more creative and be more open and playful with form, while being respectful to each person I worked with. Without Graham’s trust, integrity and fearlessness it simply wouldn’t have worked. This show went a small way to show what people with autism are capable of if you give them the space to be heard, and actually listen to them, on stage and during the creative process.

FRAMES, Blog 5: The Film

 

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“Creativity needs trust to flourish.
Learn each other’s worlds.
Build the art in a way that demonstrates you know their world”
Anne Basting

The final experiment of the FRAMES residency was to make a film in collaboration with film maker Geraldine Heaney, and the pupils of St Crispin’s School. We wanted to make something which took the pupils seriously as makers of art. Our central reference for this was the Democratic Set by Back to Back, which I spoke about in the first blog.

The film is titled FRAME. It centres around the same shot in a white space, like a blank canvas or white cube art gallery (as much as is possible in a small play room using some paper and sticky tape!)

‘Whoever enters this space is an artist

Whatever they do in it is art’

Geraldine and I curated the materials (based on things we had seen the pupils be interested in) and were available to collaborate with them if and when they wanted to. We were trying to capture autonomous moments of creative expression; seeking out a series of ‘living images’ worthy of being framed in a gallery. This was ambitious, and hard, the ethics of it nearly exploded Geraldine and my brains several times! There were moments where it felt voyeuristic and uncomfortable, moments of total joy and creativity, consistent moments of surprise and lots of laughing along the way. As the film’s director, I had to balance giving a strong visual offer with no attachment to how it was interpreted.

Consent was a really interesting discussion point throughout. I was really clear that as the director and film maker we were doing a lot of framing (hence the title). It also felt really clear to us the moments that the pupils were consenting to collaborate with us, although this would never be through words. Both Geraldine and I feel like this was a genuine three-way collaboration. We also both feel like we just scratched the surface of what these artists are capable of.

We filmed over four days, you can take a look at what we created here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/246575331?title=0&byline=0

We invited parents and carers to come to the showing of the film, in the school, with an accompanying exhibition of photos form the process. My favourite comment was from a parent of one of the pupils, Jetty (who does the shadow sequence in the film). They said: “What I loved is that each of the person in the film were really seen. You got to see what is beautiful about them.”

I owe huge thanks to the Imaginate team, especially Fiona, and to Geraldine for her integrity, creativity and generosity. I would also like to thank Sue Giles and Naomi O Kelly for their support and encouragement. And of course the amazing staff and pupils of St Crispin’s for their trust, openness and creativity.

I will look back on FRAMES with so much affection and pride. Its confirmed to me why I love this work – its liveness, immediacy, challenge and spontaneity. Where you see humanity in all its glory, be it messy, shocking, hilarious, joyful and moving.

Makes me think of a final quote from Anne Basting, (who seems to always say it best!):

“Go where you’re afraid to – make beauty there”

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All photos by Geraldine Heaney.

FRAMES, Blog 4: The Art of Disruption

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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.

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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.

Inspiration

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…