18-24 April 2016
The content yet unknown but intriguing, fun-filled discoveries! The week will be testing, finding and creating even more inclusive and accessible ways to make performance for and with young people on the autistic spectrum and with complex disabilities. Inside Architects of Air’s Little Dome Luminarium, a giant inflatable structure which people enter, there’ll be a hive of making and a focus of discovering both contemporary performance and inclusion practices simultaneously.
The R&D residency will be at Trinity School, a special needs school in Dagenham, Essex. My artistic collaborators include Kim Lucas and Sus Hewlett. We’ll be exploring dramaturgical elements, kinesthetic movement and sensorial stimulus to generate work directly through the young peoples experience.
There is an invited Open Day on Saturday 23 April 2016 at the school. The Open Day will be an informal sharing of what has been explored, discovered and created throughout this R&D week, and a look towards the beginnings of a new performance work inside the extraordinary immersive environment.
Read more about my artistic rationale here
“We saw how our most profound students benefited from the environment and Saturday impacted very well on our new families.” Sue Ball, Deputy Headteacher, Trinity School
Beginning of the week
My home for the working week! It’s beautiful creating work inside The Little Dome. It’s a privilege to be working with some very cool kids. Happy contented sounds & twirling all round!
I’m developing an exciting new inclusive arts project in collaboration with Architects of Air and Trinity School – a specialist special educational needs school for cognition and learning in Dagenham. Working across the school from the lower phase to the further education centre, and the living and learning centre, I’m inviting classes of all abilities and needs, to join in playing, exploring and discovering the space. With a mixture of students at different stages on the autistic spectrum, their engagements include twirling, spinning, bouncing, running, flapping and being very vocal. Some students are supported by one, two or three workers, enabling them to be in The Little Dome and explore on their terms. Others independently swirl, listen, tap and gently explore the pods, the hiding places and bury themselves under piles of foil blankets. With little verbal guidance the immersive space, with its light and colour is a world of invitation to be calmer, stiller, to pause of a moment, and lie down discover the beautiful domed ceiling.
Students with complex disabilities and medical conditions are invited to be out of their chairs and frames. To explore the squashy floor, to roll around on foil blankets creating a musical scene of verbal sounds and rustling. Being swung, gently moved and pulled around the dome, with the glorious natural light seeping through the Little Dome ceiling.
The first 2 days of invitations and discoveries for classes, are my teams brilliant spring board to start developing artistic material. Watching, engaging, participating over these 2 days have given Kim, Sus, and myself a wonderful opportunity to see reactions, gather ideas and create some first ideas for creating inclusive, immersive artistic material and happenings.
“Our unit is small with lots of needs, challenging behaviours and autism, learning difficulties and conditions. Trying to find ways to communicate with them is hard sometimes but in here it’s quiet and it feels like they listen to you and your team and can be calm and communicate. Even if it is briefly.” Head of the Living and Learning Centre
Artistic development, asking questions from the 2 previous days. From watching and engaging with the classes, noticing reactions – what students and staff do, where they go and how they use The Little Dome, today is a day of taking what we have witnessed as sparks to delve into our practices to create performance material.
I have a lot of questions from my own practice, as a performance artist, inclusion practitioner and a Feldenkrais practitioner
This R&D is funded through a Grant for the Arts from Arts Council England. The application I submitted was about the development of my whole artistic practice, performance and inclusion, rather than a one-off experience for young people with special educational needs (SEN). The articulation of my artistic practice and what I wish to gain from this project becomes the springboard, to create artistic opportunities to question how can I embed strands of my overall practice to make high quality accessible work? More on my artistic rationale can be read here
My inclusion work is a ongoing culmination, interweaving volunteering, working and training over 17 years within children’s charity settings, special and mainstream educational settings and working within the mainstream and disability arts sectors. Read more about my inclusion work here
Of course this creates plenty of opportunities for discussions! This is the team talking about how we create material and the focus of the performance material.
The Little Dome ceiling is wonderful to look at, natural light pouring in, creating an atmosphere of blue, red, yellow, with and the shapes on the dome ceiling adding to the overall environment. We discovered that most of the young people on the autistic spectrum, sometime known as autist’, rarely looked directly up at the domed ceiling. They weren’t too keen to sit or lie down, preferring to move around on foot at that eye level. Exploring through jumping, bouncing, spinning and running. From my training and experience of autism, I began to wonder how could we invite people to look up.
When children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) were inside the dome, they were mainly out of their wheelchairs and we realised the ceiling was too far way for them to engage with. If children stayed in their chairs they were more drawn to what is directly in front of them, the pods, the objects hanging in the different pods, or the shapes and the light of the dome structure. Again, my team spoke about developing ways to offer performative ways to look up.
To look up by looking down! Mirrors and reflective material! Foil blankets!
To look up by been drawn to look up! Giant balloons! Confetti falling down!
We had the beginnings of what to focus on for creating material!
“The low light in the dome and brighter colours were great for our visual impaired students to explore what is around them. One of my pupils has cerebral visual impairment and I actually saw her focusing! Her sight can change very quickly so to look at something is very good.” Nursery Teacher
Where design infuses performance….
The balloons were a great start and did attract some looking up, and students jumping to touch them, a couple noticed the ceiling! But what we noticed was the foil blankets (the type that are used after a mathrathon to keep warm) that were hanging up in the pods, where getting loads of attention! The balloons were taken down and Kim, in her designer and sculpture role, created a foil chandelier centre piece. That did the trick and worked wonders! Kim put safe flexible mirror pieces on the floor which enhanced the experience – to look up, to look down. The balloons became props for Emma (who had joined us today), Sus and myself to use to direct attention and started create a balloon performance section.
Head Teacher, Mr McPartland popped in with Mayors of Barking and Dagenham for chat.
For today and tomorrow we have Focus Group Sessions with specific student groups. These sessions were designed for us to test our performance material and the developing design aspects of The Little Dome. The classes are a mixture of autistic and PMLD needs. Designing focused groups in this way invited us to use and consider the diverse responses we encountered to shape what worked, what didn’t and where to go next.
Again my class as had a lovely time. This dome really makes a difference to some of his challenging behaviours. He calmer and really enjoys working with you. Your approach with him makes us learn.” Middle School Teacher
End of the Week
Artistic development with the Focus Groups and Kim continued researching new and different ways to create design elements, which could be interacted and played with while people are in the dome. Talking and shaping ideas around design and inclusion with Kim, artistically invited me to weave the first pieces of performance material into shape. After yesterday’s explorations with looking up and then developing a short balloon performance section, I was becoming more aware of how I was articulating, interweaving my performance and inclusion practices to create a accessible performance.
For this R&D week, my audience-participants are students aged 3-19, diverse abilities including, Profound Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD), Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) and Severe Learning Disabilities (SLD), and staff from the school. This is a very wide, diverse audience! A glorious mix of reactions, curiosities and ways of engaging with the arts pursued.
“It must of taken you ages to get all this together to come back to our School, thank you. It’s been wonderful seeing my class react and communicate” Lower School Learning Assistant
Saturday was a day of the sharing. It was open to families connected to the school, a local SEN nursery and an invited list of people who were interested in my work.
It started by a short scratch performance of some of the material which we had work on over the week.
Emma was already moving in the centre of the dome with one of the white balloons as the audience arrived. The audience was invites to move around the space as they wanted, exploring the space. Sus and myself slowly began to join in, using more balloons, inviting the audience to look up at the dome ceiling. After a while we started sharing the balloons, enabling the young people who were interested to join in. This lead into a section using the foil blankets to, where we moved with the blankets over the audience, especially the members sitting or lying on the floor. Towards the end of the sharing more of the audience where joining in, moving around the space, interacting with others and the performers. This then opened up into a free play session. Laughing, rolling, jumping and lots of happy noises where coming from the dome by the end of the afternoon!
“Fantastic to be apart of this. The sensory, calm aspects of this week as been a highlight. They are asking for more!” Middle School Teacher
Some after thoughts
My background in the arts, education and training are all sewn into my practice. I draw on every element of working in inclusion, performance and Feldenkrais, a through-the-body approach to movement. I sometimes talk to people about my practice as a conversation of three strands, where one influences the other, has an impact on the next factor, and so on. I see access and inclusion as very important and crucial roles in the development of performance. To create high quality mainstream performance, inclusion best practices can enhance the process, the outcome and how audiences engage with the work. The more access and inclusion is considered in performance, the more people are invited to experience the work.
Build in and bolted on…Inclusion…Access…Performance
Over the residency I had many conversations with my team and the staff at the school about how to build in inclusion and access rather then bolting it on? How do we facilitate aspects of the work into the performance? How do we move away from spoken words and towards using non-verbal, through-the-body communication in performance to invite engagement? 80% of the pupils we worked with during the residency required visual and other non-verbal communication to support their autistic and PMLD learning styles. This particular topic of moving away from verbal prompting began to be very important, it grew from noticing communication reactions from a lot of the pupils.
Weaving my Feldenkrias and communication trainings into the making performance material, with the design aspects, we discovered how we can shift attention around the immersive environment of the dome using the artistic practices.
Bringing a little bit of live art to a special needs school where pupils can be invited to join in on their terms.