Sensory Performance Practice Part One: Where We Are And Where We’re Not

Part One of a two-part series of posts about the Symposium entitled, “Sensorial Practices in Performing Arts for Babies and Neuro-diverse Audiences - A Critical Perspective”

Ellie Griffths, Artistic Director of Oily Cart Theatre

I was extremely excited about this symposium. Entitled, “Sensorial Practices in Performing Arts for Babies and Neuro-diverse Audiences – A Critical Perspective”, it was run by Dalijia Acin Thelander and Ellie Griffiths and was a real eye-opener. Although I know very little about Theatre for Babies and Neurodiverse Audiences, it has always been a type of Theatre practice I have been interested to learn more about.

This event gave a fascinating insight into Thelander and Griffiths’ methodologies and approaches when making Theatre for Babies and Young People with Diverse Needs. Both speakers are incredibly sensitive to the needs of these groups and approached the topics in a practical and creative way. The talk opened with one of Ellie’s favourite quotes. By Margaret Atwood, it neatly captures the essence of Sensory Performance: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth”.

Ellie Griffths is the Artistic Director of Oily Cart Theatre, a leader in both the fields of Theatre for and with Young People on the Autistic Spectrum, and Theatre for Young People with Other Complex Needs. In addition to their production work, Oily Cart run the Upfront Performance Network for practitioners and artists making Inclusive Theatre.

In her talk, Ellie highlights the importance of preparing the audience before any performance. She points out that many do not choose to come to Theatre of their own accord – they are often brought by helpers or parents. So, as a Theatremaker, she views it as her responsibility to find creative and practical ways to prepare for an audience’s visit.

Additionally, she argues for the importance of keeping any work deeply responsive and, recently, Ellie has experience of commissioning and/or co-writing her work with someone with lived experience of autism or complex needs – and she explained the power that such a process can have.

Most importantly, she emphasises that creating work for a neurodiverse audience with complex needs is so significant for the simple reason that it gives them the opportunity, as audience members or participants, to be the majority culture in a room, rather than a minority as is their usual experience in Theatre and in life.

Dalija Acin Therlander works as a Choreographer and Theatremaker. She has specialised in the field of Contemporary Dance for Babies and Children since 2008. Therlander asserts the importance of encounters with immersive art, emphasising the importance of young audiences’ agency and freedom of choice in their experience.

In her talk, she discussed how the brains of babies are very much more tightly connected than those of adults meaning that, in some ways, they could actually be considered as being more conscious than adults are. Babies do not require any kind of narrative in the performance work they experience but do have rather an “appetite for things that are out of the ordinary.”

She discusses how, in her work, the synergy of choreography and installation work is crucial. Therlander purports that any immersive experience should be as non-restrictive as possible – parents or helpers should let go of controlling their children’s experience and give them total freedom to choose where they move and how they experience the performance. As nothing is necessarily ‘central’ or ‘vital’ to the performance, and nothing is more important than anything else, it can be completely down to the young participant as to how they chose to participate.

This is Part One of a two-part series of posts about Dalijia Acin Thelander’s and Ellie Griffiths’ Symposium at the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering entitled, “Sensorial Practices in Performing Arts for Babies and Neuro-diverse Audiences – A Critical Perspective”. Click here for Part Two where you can read about the session that followed this one.