Writer and theatre director Kate Lovell reflects on her experience of our Unlimited Connects London event.
The Unlimited Connects London event, Generation Creativity: Disability Arts for Children, transformed an ordinary Tuesday morning into something special by offering up a cornucopia of passionate artistic titbits for our delectation. The theme is especially close to my heart because of the small people in my life.
One of the great joys of working from home has been extra time with my family. Last week, eating lunch in the kitchen with the back door open, my three-year-old declaims: ‘Mummy, I can smell faraway flowers. Can you smell them?’
Pure poetry over a midday cheese sandwich. Children are effortlessly creative. Yet often their voices are undervalued or unheard. Consequently, arts for children can be relegated to the third division (I know, don’t mention the football).
The artists kicking off Generation Creativity with the Pitch and Mix fill me with vim by describing their current creative projects which demonstrate their passion and care for elevating children’s voices and serving them as discerning audiences.
Director Caroline Wilkes brings Michael Morpugo’s novel from ‘page to stage’ with her adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s novel Cool!, whose narrator is a young boy in a coma, following a car accident. Caroline is committed to having confidence in children’s intelligence and fulfilling their need to be introduced to complex concepts. Children are natural philosophers, and Cool! is about the fragility of life.
Lilac Yosiphon is a deaf theatre practitioner of mixed heritage who is working collaboratively with deaf performers and a BSL consultant (Deepa Shastri) to create a bilingual adaptation of a Middle Eastern folktale called The Shoes of Tanboury. Yosiphon wants children to be able to explore cultural identity through the piece.
Lucy C. Hayward is researching for a unique piece of heritage theatre exploring the history of the UK’s rivers and canals, Coventry’s Chaotic Canal. Lucy noticed an absence of stories about the canal community and wants to bring this rich history to life.
Lucy is working with The Spark Arts to create an app full of stories about the canals and rivers to be enjoyed by families in their homes or in situ at the riverside itself.
A multi-sensory pack will enhance the experience. Lucy is especially passionate about making this piece accessible to blind and partially sighted and deaf and hard-of-hearing children who are often overlooked as audience members.
During the break between the Pitch & Mix and the panel discussion, I delve into The Origin of Carmen Power. I am hooked as soon as Carmen Power & her sidekick Terrific Toby (aka artist Toby Peach), pop onto the screen in a fluffy flurry of hot pink and pastel blue bedecked in wonderfully lairy unicorn onesies.
In this interactive experience I am invited into Carmen’s bedroom where through her toys and art works, I learn of how she became superhero Carmen Power through her experience of surviving childhood cancer.
It is Carmen’s voice both literally and figuratively leading the show with Toby, also a cancer survivor, asking pertinent questions to guide Carmen through her narrative.
Carmen’s Unicorn Button is present as a comforting virtual ‘break space’: one push and flash, bang, I’m transported out of the narrative to learn a fun unicorn fact. This online equivalent of a quiet space, where you can take a break from the potentially heavy-duty story, is a fabulous concept.
I will admit, I was initially nervous of the superhero motif leading this story – would it sail a little too close to the tragedy to triumph narrative that disabled people are often boxed into? But Carmen swept my worries away with a single swish of her cape and this line about her own and Toby’s experience of illness: ‘People say we’re brave because we had cancer. But we’re not brave at all. We just got on with it.’
At the following panel discussion, a lightbulb moment for me as a theatre maker was learning that The Origin of Carmen Power took three years to make. Artist Toby Peach from Beyond Arts speaks about how allowing time and space is crucial to making a creative experience accessible and taking care of artists as they make work.
Toby and Carmen spent a long time playing, building a rapport, long before making any creative decisions about the final piece that now lives online. All of us artists need to ditch the deadline fear, get the Lego out and immerse ourselves in play.
Rosie Heafford runs Second Hand Dance, who tour live dance and make digital dance work for both adults and early years audiences. Second Hand Dance put audiences at the heart of the creative process through the creation of their digital expert panel: sixteen families have listened to ideas and watched rough cuts of films, feeding back on the work as it is being made.
Rosie notes that there’s very little audio described dance work for children: the verbal language of dance can be opaque – what does the word ‘pirouette’ mean to a three-year-old?
Second Hand Dance are working on an innovative model for finding the right language to describe dance for children. To date, they have been making a dance piece with a visually impaired dancer and a sighted dancer who have been audio describing each other’s work.
In the next phase of development, Second Hand Dance will be using sighted children to audio describe dance in order to find a language that will chime with a children’s eye view on the world. Rosie wants the audio description to be light, not too text heavy, and this ambition will therefore inform the choreography. I find this synchronicity and circular creativity thrilling. It is a pioneering approach to making dance accessible for blind and partially sighted children.
A reflection from Rosie resonates: children have the ability to constantly surprise adults. This means we need to make work free of adult assumptions.
All artists making work for children need to test ideas, to get feedback, and, crucially, to include children in the creation of work.
Deepa Shastri, BSL consultant on The Shoes of Tanboury, commented on the importance of having deaf creative facilitators when engaging with audiences of deaf children. She has noticed that when creativity in deaf children is nurtured by a deaf facilitator, their confidence and enthusiasm booms.
This chimes with Lilac Yosiphon who speaks eloquently about her early experiences of internalising the ways in which she was communicated with at a very young age, that it’s all too easy for a child to feel like ‘the problem’ in the room, and to carry this feeling into adulthood. It’s a stark reminder for us adults making work with and for children that we must be delicate, sensitive, and ever thoughtful about our communication styles. We need to ensure that we are making choices and working in a way that actively includes.
Lilac goes on to assert that if we can make work that is told through a multiplicity of languages, with audio description, captioning, BSL, all embedded in the work, when we can make work informed by a plethora of cultural influences, the children watching will take it for granted that this is how theatre is made. As they grow into artists themselves, access will be the aesthetic, a natural part of theatrical language. Lilac explains, ‘We are building this process into the future’ by serving young audiences with work made with accessibility at its heart.
It’s a fantastic and compelling vision of future theatre makers imbibing inclusive practice as the norm, not the exception.
Attending Unlimited Connects fuels me with fresh thinking, educates me on ground-breaking disability arts practice, and above all, reminds me to respect the powerful intellect and importance of elevating children’s voices.
The casual wonderment children express constantly astonishes me and I am privileged to be spellbound by their ingenuous observations on a daily basis.
Tots can teach us how to be authentic artists: forget deadline-driven funding models and let’s find space to smell the faraway flowers.
Graphic notetaking done by Roberto Sitta from Creative Connection, who joined us for the morning.