Guest Post: Helen Duff

Laughing at Art – a series of workshops and reflections.

Last week I had the privilege of running a series of workshops with the Attenborough Arts Centre Learning Team as their first associate artist for family inclusion. As hoped, it was a learning experience for everyone involved, and there are many frames through which I could assess the ‘success’ of our sessions. In preparation for the workshops, which as well as introducing my practice as a clown to the participants, aimed to explore the Aaron Williamson exhibition currently in residence at the AAC, I started reading Developmental Drama: Dramatherapy Approaches for people with Profound or Severe Multiple Disabilities, Including Sensory Impairment, by Mary Booker. It was recommended to me by the brilliant Holly Stoppit, a multi talented drama therapist, facilitator and clown teacher, with whom I have created solo shows, practiced Fooling, and forged a rich friendship. You can find out more about both women’s work in the links here or included at the bottom of this blog, and to read more about my original intentions for the workshops, please read my earlier blogs on this site.

I finished Developmental Drama on the train home from my workshops at the AAC, and it gave me a great deal to reflect on, especially with respect to how we might evaluate the impact of facilitating an inclusive play space. Booker recognises that we live in a results driven world, with the success or failure of an enterprise judged via presupposed outcomes. In contrast, her work is process orientated, which she elucidates thus:

‘Developmental Drama is a social experience. It is about being, learning and developing together in a social and dramatic context rather than about achieving tasks or ‘doing’ drama. It is a process orientated way of working. Process is understood as everything that is going on inside each person, between people and within the group as a whole while engaged in an activity. It is the change that happens within individuals and within the group over time – whether that time is a few seconds, an hour, a year or a lifetime. It can be useful to think of it as a dance – in contrast to the steps…’

In addition, Booker lists several potential benefits of developmental drama as it enables people to:

  • “express themselves in response to what is happening within and around them in a session, and know their expression has been received, understood and valued – in other words, communicate with others
  • experience their input as having an effect on the events and people within the session – gain a sense of what is happening in order to form meanings, develop anticipation and participate to their fullest within the session
  • feed their imagination with accessible sensory experiences and images, within meaningful contexts
  • encounter and deal with new situations and challenges within the session, discovering new resources within themselves
  • develop their emerging emotional intelligence”

Though I was not practicing developmental drama in the precise terms described in Booker’s brilliant text, I find the principles by which she measures the impact of her work illuminating. They were built into the games, activities and sensory stories we explored at the AAC. Creating a frame within which participants can be recognised as makers of meaning, and encouraging their creative expression to expand within the space that’s been set up, was a key principle I hoped to explore. With the help of family and care givers, as well as the Learning Team at the AAC who know regular participants well, I was able to recognise moments of significant response, change and connection.
Where possible, participants variously:

  • made and held good eye contact
  • recognised and celebrated fellow members of the group
  • engaged in imaginative play and shared their imaginary visualisations with the group
  • interacted with and ‘played’ different emotional states
  • allowed themselves to applauded, entering the stage and taking the space
  • created costumes that they found stimulating and fun
  • emulated elements of the exhibition in their choice of ‘characters’
  • danced to music, solo, in front of an audience
  • engaged with and followed an emotionally affecting narrative enhanced with sensory stimulation

Watching care givers, parents and siblings enjoying themselves and recognising moments of significant engagement from participants (that I will likely have missed!) was really encouraging. Creating a space where participants enjoy positive interactions and develop a greater sense of their impact on other people is key to the development of empathy. In her text, Booker recognises the value of empathy as a developmental tool, allowing participants “the capacity for an ‘as if’ experience of another’s emotional state that promotes a sense of understanding and connection with them”. At points during the workshops, I feel we saw the seeds of this empathetic connection being planted. I am fascinated to explore with the AAC leaning team how its growth might be supported further.

Booker writes repeatedly about the importance of ritual, with sequences at the opening and closing of each of her sessions kept essentially the same to give her clients a common language, clear expectations and a means of processing what has taken place in the middle of each class. Myth, and the use of ancient, classical stories to explore our most fundamental emotions and feelings, is primary to Booker’s work, and this struck me as a significant cross over with Aaron Williamson’s exhibition at the AAC. Throughout his retrospective he references recognisable archetypes; a King Midas figure photographed in explicit close up, bloodshot eyes and pore clogging make up plain to see; a wannabe Sun God whose dreams of being on screen were frustrated by the Hollywood studio system; a wrestler who realised his talent for no holds barred violence and villainy, only after he’d become deaf. The stories that Williamson includes in his exhibition are deliberately framed around a challenge that must be overcome; a learning experience for the protagonist that is emotionally testing but ultimately leads to growth. Similarly, Booker writes about the importance of transformation, both in terms of the gradual, progressive development of each client’s engagement with the sessions, and in the choice of stories her sessions explore, with the Odyssey and Beauty and the Beast favourites. Stories that employ an emotional change as the key pivot point for dramatic action, allowing the participants to become more familiar with the way in which events, emotions, and some form of transformation interact.
Booker’s approach recommends a series of at least 10 sessions, allowing the group to explore a single story, split into sections and repeated as required. There isn’t space for this many sessions during my current residency and the average age of my participants is markedly younger than Booker’s examples. Still, I found her insights into this long form engagement inspiring, as it encouraged me to think about how I might support the AAC Learning Team in examining their continued work with regular attendees. Key areas I’m intrigued to explore include:

  • how to establish a clear language for the ways in which workshops open and close
  •  how to create a sense of ceremony that enables participants greater autonomy as they become familiar with the way sessions run
  • building feedback from care givers into the workshop in a way that ensures it’s an integral part of the work
  • allowing for feedback to reflect on the care giver’s learning and growth in addition to the responses shown by participants
  • returning to stories that might allow for a more specific, thematic exploration of certain emotions in depth
  • integrating other members from the wider AAC community into the work.

This last point was inspired by a conversation I had on returning to the AAC the Friday after my workshops, where I chatted with audience members after a fully accessible performance of Sourpuss by Lori Hopkins. We discussed the scope for local performance groups to perform for and with members of the Inclusive Youth Arts Programme, and this again chimed with my reading of Developmental Drama. Booker describes the positive impact for all involved when local university students studying drama volunteered to play a role in her sessions, with both participants and volunteers benefiting greatly from the work. I am gaining so much from this residency, and I know it will impact other aspects of my work, whether as a collaborator on the Care Home Tour, where myself and a group of fellow comedians are travelling the country performing with people who have dementia; in my writing for television, where I continue to develop a script that will bring aspects of the stories shared with me at AAC to screen; and on a personal level, as I better  understand the rich seams of meaning running through our world, and explore the multiple ways in which they might be shared.

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