Shiori was composer and performer in Sound Symphony by Ellie Griffiths. Here she blogs about her experience working on this theatre production for young audiences who are profoundly autistic.
I remember the feeling of excitement when we all met on the first day of the rehearsal for “Sound Symphony” and imagining what we were about to create together. It has been such a rich, intense, joyful, heart-warming, eye-opening and colourful experience for me as a performer, composer, improviser and above all, as a human being.
In this blog, I would like to reflect back on some of my experiences throughout this journey.
It was my first time working in a devised theatre context. As a composer, I normally spend many hours imagining, experimenting and composing by myself. If I am lucky, I get to have one or two workshop sessions with the performers/orchestras or have some email exchanges with them. Usually the performers have about two 30-minute rehearsals with the composer present before the premiere of new work. I often work with a group of people, most of whom I had never met or worked with before. So I find the rehearsals and premiere of my work always incredibly intense and an emotional experience. Therefore, I found that working in the devised theatre really fun and felt that it was much closer to my intuition towards the way I would like to work. What I loved working with Ellie (our director) and all of my colleagues for the production was their enthusiasm and openness. Ellie was always open to questions, suggestions and discussions. I really appreciated this, and each time we had discussions I felt more passionate about it, and very happy and lucky being involved.
Throughout the process, we had various opportunities to familiarise ourselves with the worlds of the autistic young audiences we would encounter during the shows. I found the training with Max Alexander, a play worker and autistic consultant (playradical.com) really useful and philosophically stimulating not only for working in this production.
Things I found particularly helpful from Max’s notes were:
- “nobody does anything for no reason and you’re not always going to know the reason”
- I don’t know what kind of expectations I was putting on myself already back then but I realised it made me feel more at ease about the idea of performing for/with autistic young audiences
- “creating a space where different ways of being hold equal value”
- I resonated a lot with this idea because as an ex “hikikomori” person in Japan, this was one of the big factors to feel ok about myself again and live in/with a larger community of people
- “most autistic people are used to adapting for others constantly or being expected to. Being in a performance space, experiencing a performance and being a collaborative part of the performance should be a situation where the autistic person isn’t having such expectations put on them.”
- This was something that I had not really thought about before somehow, I had not thought about how autistic people are expected to adapt for others in their daily lives. Also it raises the question of what is a meaningful interaction/collaboration for them.
- avoid “moment-chasing”
- I think this applies to everything in life, not only to this performance (including raising my own daughter!?) because as soon as we try to chase “the moment”, it stops becoming genuine. It is easy to fall into this though especially in a performance setting as the time we have is very limited and we will meet with young audiences we had never met before.
Watching Amanda Baggs’s “In my language” was also an eye-opening experience, and I am now reading the book “The Reason I Jump” written by a young Japanese autistic author, Naoki Higashida, that continues to open up my horizons and makes me think about the societies we live in.
We had different groups of young people on the autistic spectrum working with us in short bursts from the first week of the devising process. At first I was a little surprised as I felt that we had not created things to show to them. At the same time, it also made sense to have them from very early on in the rehearsal because that’s the only way to learn from them and test out ideas. Also, just meeting with them itself is a nice introduction for us as sadly in our daily lives, we do not have so much opportunity to meet or simply share a moment with them.
Another thing I realised is that a lot of the ways we live our lives (e.g. the speed of the work, schedules, accommodation, food, expectations towards ourselves and others) are still very much based on the neuro-typical people’s ways of life. I feel that we desperately need more opportunities to live and work together with neuro-diverse people so that we can all coexist together more harmoniously.
When we created the final section of Sound Symphony, I remember being surprised how relaxing it felt performing in this section. The way it ends was something that I did not expect. What Ellie chose to do was, as Max says, “creating a space where different ways of being hold equal value”, and perhaps this is why we all felt relaxed performing in it (apart from hearing a really relaxing sound of washing machine being looped over and over!).
Happy, tingly experiences
I loved the interaction with the audience especially with white noise coming from portable speakers with attached ‘sound funnels’. Seeing the young audience enjoying the sound by putting their heads in it was a joy!
I also enjoyed using the sounds created by the young audience as source of our vocal work, based on a technique called Intensive Interaction. This was something that was added at a late stage of the rehearsals but we learnt that it creates very powerful bridges between us the performers and the young audience, and we have consistently received good feedback about it.
Sometimes during the show, young audience members took away one of my mallets whilst I played the marimba. It was a little challenging the first time but when it happened again it started to feel like a creative challenge like I sometimes set myself when I play free improvisation with my musician friends.
Learning by doing
Sometimes knowing your boundaries as a performer/person and being able to say, “stop” to the young audience who are crossing it, is really useful and good for everyone involved. In my case, it did not come naturally. I always felt it difficult to say “stop”, because I felt like I am rejecting the young person.
Sometimes, when things happen in the heightened intensity of a theatre performance, it all goes so quick that it is very difficult to know what my true feelings towards something happening to me or in front of me are. It is only when I have a moment to reflect back about those moments that my feelings and what I felt comfortable/uncomfortable about at those moments reveal themselves. I think though that through more experience, I will have more confidence to be able to know what my boundaries are and when to say “stop” if necessary. Also, what we wanted to create in Sound Symphony was precisely not to make one way of life the priority but to “create a space where different ways of being hold equal value”. Sometimes this can be achieved by having the respect towards the young person and knowing that it would be fine even when I have to say, “stop” to things that they enjoy.
Depending on the type of venues we were playing, or the ratio between the support workers/parents and the young audience, we sometime had the young audience who were scattered around the performance space during the entire show. In some sense, it was a total delight (I loved the various ways the young people enjoyed the show!) whilst in another sense, it was very difficult especially when we had to perform with more “conventional” performance moments which had a fixed point of focus. Maybe we can continue to experiment with how much we can push a more flexible structure for different types of audiences/venues.
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE:
“The true compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.”
(The Reason I Jump)
One common piece of feedback we get from the accompanying adults of the audience is that they felt that their son/daughter was respected. One parent was even tearful when she told us this. Whilst I was happy that Sound Symphony provided this, at the same time I wondered, what kind of society do we live in when someone with a different lived experience feels emotional to have for once been simply respected? That should be an expectation, not a special event.
Ideas for audience development and social change
I would like to experiment with inviting young neuro-typical audience members to the shows together with the neuro-diverse audience. I think that Sound Symphony has a quality and potential of being enjoyed by anyone. In this project the focus was on making an artistic experience where young people with autism were the dominant culture in the room – we work around them. I think it is also important to create opportunities where neuro-typical and neuro-diverse young people can share moments together because chances are so few. Perhaps we could also create a situation that is opposite to our normal everyday life situation, so that the young neuro-typical audience feel they are the minority. By creating a chance to safely expose them to this kind of situation, we might be able to provide them rich learning opportunities where their “norms” suddenly no longer exist, and they can discuss and reflect back their experiences with their teachers afterwards. An opportunity to explore more ways of co-existing.
I am also inspired to facilitate some free improvisation sessions only using voices, because the echoing/vocalisation in Sound Symphony always seemed to connect us and the young audience strongly. We could look at some ideas from Christian Wolff’s improvisation music in which he uses environmental sounds as the cues for improvisations. I think that the more we can explore the way we use the voices of the young audience artistically and creatively, the more delightful and fun the experiences will be.
2 MORE SHOWS!
I am looking forward to our last shows and the people we will meet. Sound Symphony has provided me with such a rich experience and many things to think about. I am really thankful to have had this opportunity and to the team of great people I have worked with.
The word “symphony” has an origin in Greek “sumphōnia” which came from the word “sumphōnos”, meaning “harmonious”. And the word “sumphōnos” has the meaning of “together” (“sum”) and “sound” (“phōnē”). Isn’t it wonderful? 🙂
Blog by Shiori Usui (https://shioriusui.com).
Photography by Brian Hartley.