Guest Post Helen Duff

Helen Duff CIN11

“Be more playful!”
“Let yourself go!”
“Stop trying to get it right!”

We are standing in a circle. 12 of the team who keep this fantastic organisation working day to day, from front of house to marketing, logistics to learning, and me. Well, some of us are standing. Others are jogging around the edge, giggling hysterically, having broken the only rule. In this game, everything is allowed except laughter. The team are failing magnificently.

It’s my last workshop as the first associate artist for family inclusion at Attenborough Arts Centre and we are exploring the fundamental importance of play. It’s feels radical to have made this space, carving a couple of hours out of the normal working day to interact with each other in ways that reward messing about, noticing each others idiocy, and generally celebrating silliness. Inviting the imagination to open up in ways that seem completely natural when children are present, or a party is in full swing, but in the context of an office environment, appear awkward at best, at worst, painfully exposing.

So why do it? This is a theatre, a gallery space, an arts centre! The team must be cartwheeling into work, rolling in the aisles, breaking into song as they boil the kettle! If people working in this sector can’t make space to play together from time to time, championing the benefits of looking each other in the eye, sharing a smile, and letting yourself be unselfconsciously silly, what hope for the rest of us?

Having facilitated workshops for mental health charities, digital marketing firms, NGOs and in this context, arts centres, I can confirm that no group of grown ups is immune to the pressure of Getting It Right.
Adults the world over have drunk the cool aid, deciding that in order to be productive, professional people they must be properly serious. OK, so at the time of writing, politics looks like an exaggerated parody of Punch and Judy. But in most work places, people are still trying their best to behave in a manner that befits the professional environment, saving their play for friends, family and ‘free’ time. For all intents and purposes, living double lives.

My job is to convince people that play is at the very least permissible in the work environment, and at best, actively beneficial to their professional relationships, personal development and (dare I say it) productivity. It’s been at the heart of my work with the children, young people, carers and families who participate in the learning team’s programme, proving essential to sensory engagement, development and well being. As I’ve detailed in my other blog posts on this project, none of these ideas are new. Indeed, the participants of today’s workshop are well versed in the benefits of creative play. When asked to play a game in which we elicited anonymous responses to the question: I am at my most playful when, the answers were as follows:

I am at my most playful when…

I’m with my 4 year old daughter
I’m relaxed and happy
I’m not stressed or worried
I’m with people I love
I’m tired
I’m with my brothers
On holiday
Doing creative things
Relaxed with people I trust
I don’t feel like the only one who wants to

Instinctively, people understand that play happens when we feel relaxed or tired, our guard down so that we can allow ourselves off the hook; when we trust and are trusted; when we are with children who give us permission to be our most imaginative, full bodied selves; when we feel loved. I’m not reinventing the play mobile here. These things are obvious because we are all playful people at heart. My aim is to open a space where people are encouraged to remember, in the company of their colleagues, what it feels like to bring their most playful (read relaxed, imaginative, trusted, loved) selves to work.

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The best, indeed only way to do that, is to play. The barking commands the opened this blog – JUST LET GO!!!! – are all well intentioned, and can be found in every book about shaking up your management style going, but they are too often all talk no action. Another objective you have to hit whilst sitting frozen in front of your computer screen. No replacement for the act of whole heartedly throwing yourself into a game. So, after some delicious buddha bowls from a local deli (nobody should be expected to play on an empty stomach) we do exactly that.

Starting in an apprehensive circle, we push the chairs back and things rapidly disintegrate into the makeshift merry-go-round I mentioned at the start of this blog. Next, the staff literally throw themselves at each other in a game not dissimilar to musical chairs (this one really helped the new staff member, who was on her first day at AAC, to get a measure of her colleagues…) before a less physical exercise in smaller groups (clearly pumped, one team chose to turn their lanyards into bandanas) and a final reflection. And that was it. A few games, played over the lunch hour, at a time when people would ordinarily check twitter, catch up on the torrent of horror that is our current news cycle, spill half a sandwich into their keyboard and wish they’d gone for a walk. Reflecting on how they might support their colleagues to be more playful in future, the staff suggested:

Smiling at them
Wearing odd shoes
Leading more drama games just like this
Lunch together at least once a month as a solid space
5 mins games yes/ no etc
Start lunch time ping pong
Be more lighthearted
Encourage them to get away from their work at lunch
Make stronger coffee
Laugh with them
Smile more!

I have a sense some of these ideas might come to fruition; the smiling was already in full flow by the end of the workshop and I would be delighted if wearing odd shoes became a weekly occurrence. I’m sure the experience of connecting with each other across their different departments and disciplines will kick start a conversation about how AAC might employ a more playful approach to their work in future. Throughout my time there, I’ve been reminded why it’s essential I keep a playful approach to mine, too. Especially when working with children with complex needs and PMLD and their families, an area I’m really excited to continue playing within. My huge thanks to the learning team, Marianne Pape, Hannah Pillai and especially Georgina Barney for taking a risk on radical play, daring to go where the rest of their organisation would be fools not to follow!

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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.

For more information about the artists I referenced, please seek out:

 

Mary Booker

Holly Stoppit

Aaron Williamson

 

Guest Post: Helen Duff

I’m on my way to deliver a series of workshops for the Attenborough Arts Centre as
their first family inclusion associate artist. I’m energised by the training I’ve done as
part of Jo Grace’s Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop and excited by the chance to make artist Aaron Williamson’s retrospective at the AAC even more accessible. Conducting the workshop in the main gallery space with children who
have complex needs, PMLD and / or are on the autism spectrum, will be a learning
experience for all of us!

Deliberately confrontational and controversial, Williamson uses a range of mediums –
from photography to performance, video and live interventions – to explore, exploit
and “confuse the normative world’s secure notions of what disabled people represent”. It’s a show full of humour, self awareness and invention, and as a professional clown, I immediately recognised Williamson as a kindred spirit.

At her best, the clown creates an empathetic connection with the audience, looking
them straight in the eye and honestly admitting her humanity, whilst highlighting the
inherent, absurd humour in everyday acts. Play is the clown’s most important
principle. Everything can be a game, and approaching even the most serious issues
with a playful touch, we learn more about ourselves and each other than might be
possible in the heavy, worthy world of “The Arts”.

Williamson assumes the stance of cheeky outsider with idiosyncratic relish. In the
short film Beatles Mania, he and a group of deaf artists stand on stage, dressed in
immediately recognisable 60s suits. Paul McCartney wigs on the wonk, they scream
their hearts out at a silent audience; upending the expectation that the screaming of
a crowd should only go one way. Starry Walker and The Stall of warm Handshakes sees Williamson shaking hands with a variety of strangers on the street, the photographs using CGI technology to merge the artist’s face with the people he encounters. It calls to mind a clown, peering out into the vast audience of a big top, mirroring the astonished faces he finds looking back, quickly switching to someone else as soon as his victim clocks they’re being copied. In a black and white video, Williamson cuts a classic, Heathcliff figure, standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating the rugged landscape, his long, dark cloak flapping in the wind. Slowly, with great gravitas (the clown knows the power of a good entrance) Williamson turns to camera. A close up reveals he’s foaming at the mouth. Watching my participants fascination with this video, their attention captivated by the mix of majesty, surprise, and something inexpressible, spoke volumes.

In his introduction to the exhibition, Williamson states “there are so many more seams to unearth in language. The words themselves, the modes of saying, are as significant as meaning. I am looking for a more physical currency of accord”. During my workshop I will spend time waking up the participants’ bodies – with dancing and mime to spark the skin and fire up the imagination – waking the participants up to the expressive potential of their physical form. Getting care givers, parents and siblings in on this act is key; as Williamson shows throughout his exhibition, an audience must recognise your status as a maker of meaning, before your voice can be heard. Artists cannot exist in a vacuum, and I hope that the game of making an entrance, breaking through a grand curtain, will help the children to perceive themselves as artists, a world of different ways they might express their imaginations unfurling onto the stage.

The sensory story I will tell at the end of the workshop, inspired by the figure of Parachute Suzan, a paraplegic explorer featured in Williamson’s inspiration archive,
will combine classic narrative techniques with smells, textures, spiralling “jet engines”
and waves of explosive foam. I’ve really enjoyed piecing together my plunder from a
scrap store in South West London, creating a narrative that will activate and engage the senses to which each participant is most attuned. This story can be shared with families and care givers so that they might tell it again; all the materials are recycled household items and the repetition of the tale will only enhance its sensory impact, especially for participants who find surprises jarring. In this way, I hope the legacy of Williamson’s exhibition will live on in the children’s minds, as well as the physical memory of our session, and the positive feelings induced by some Very Important Play.

Guest Post: Helen Duff

“In thinking about the feeling of mindfulness we recognise a stillness or a steadiness to the being. Someone whose attention is on the present – but that attention is jumping around – does not feel this stillness. In providing a sensory object that entrances we give someone the opportunity to both be in the moment and to feel that stillness and steadiness we associate with mindful practice. We called this sensory mindfulness sensory-being”

Last Thursday, myself and Hannah Pillai from the AAC Learning Team attended The Sensory Projects’ Ambitious and Inclusive Sensory Storytelling workshop, led by pioneer and all round powerhouse, Joanna Grace. In a room filled to bursting with neon, squidgy, spiky objects (all sourced from pound stores and local scrap shops, Jo was quick to reassure us!) we learned how to make stories that engaged on several sensory levels; exploring the myriad ways in which narrative helps create, craft and communicate ones sense of self.

From a young age, we hear stories that help us to understand who we are. Family regale us with childish slip ups that, several decades later, still raise a smile. Photos spark memories of a scrap of soft muslin we couldn’t leave the house without, and our excitement at the prospect of new tea towels suddenly makes sense! Bodies bare scars that have faded beyond recognition, the once livid pain sucked away by time, leaving only the understanding that you were as foolhardy and ambitious in your early years (in my case, trying to break into a model railway, chin first) as you remain to this day.

Without these stories, passed on by friends and family, reinforced by visual queues, triggered by sounds, smells, tastes and textures, we miss out on building blocks that are fundamental to forming a coherent identity. With the Sensory Beings project, Jo hopes to give children with autism and / or profound and multiple learning difficulties, the opportunity to engage with narratives that appeal to the full spectrum of our senses (Jo expands the standard 5 to include our vestibular system and proprioception), seeing themselves at the centre of the story and building an increased level of engagement through repetition and recognition.

The neon, squidgy, spiky objects were key to understanding the different ways we might tell a story. Neurotypical people place a great emphasis on speech and the written word as our primary means of communication. By waking up our full sensory realm, Jo opened our eyes – and more importantly, ears, noses, fingers and tongues – to the multiple ways we communicate meaning. After a fascinating morning unpacking what makes an engaging sensory story, hearing anecdotes from Jo’s rich experience in the field, and learning first hand how the addition of movement to a song or story supports memory, we were hit by the inevitable post lunch slump. What better way to tackle the afternoon dip than by getting up on our feet, sniffing the floorboards, running our palms over windowsills, and, for the more adventurous amongst us, sticking our tongues into soap bubbles? By engaging the full spectrum of our senses, we observed how our attention intensified. Adding an element of story in here – for example, brushing the skin of your arm with a coarse brush as you describe walking through a forest thick with branches, only enhanced your experience of the narrative.

The advantages of engaging a student’s concentration are numerous. By targeting one sense, in the example given with the brush above, proprioception, you might calm the participant’s nervous system. This in turn allows other senses, perhaps the visual or auditory faculties, to increase in receptivity. Jo highlighted how often, children who’ve experienced trauma or early age medical intervention, struggle to ‘identify their edges’. Hence why anchoring them in the body with repetitive, gently stimulating touch, helps to ground their other senses, too. Of course the level of touch is completely individual to each participant; what might be a relaxing pressure to one person, could be painfully irritating to another. Being reminded of this variation felt strangely freeing, as I realised that finding these things out is an endless process of discovery and discussion!

On another level, we learned how sensory stories can support identity building for participants who particularly resonate with one sense. Hearing a story that takes you to the top of a mountain, with the clear, cold air bought to life by a sniff of a fresh mint shower gel, might help you understand how much you like bright, zesty smells. This allows you to start building your own sensory box or bag, gradually developing a sense of your favourite things and facilitating the means by which you can communicate your preferences to new people. The capacity to indicate what you do and don’t like is essential when it comes to personal expression and freedom of choice. Helping students to tell stories allows them to self advocate later in life, actively shaping their care.

It’s all about finding out what works best for each participant, repeating the story in exactly the same way each time, allowing your audience to get comfortable, build an awareness of what’s happening, and, progressively, anticipate what’s going to happen next. I welcomed the clarity of Jo’s method, as she stressed the importance of consistency, combining a no-pressure approach that sets clear boundaries but doesn’t get flustered when / if these instructions aren’t followed. More details on how to share a sensory story depending on the different needs of your participant can be found in this free to download resource on Jo’s website . It was encouraging for me to hear that my instinctive, open, go with the flow attitude was spot on. At the same time, there was a huge amount for me to reflect on, as my residency as Family Inclusion Associate Artist at AAC will only allow me to conduct two workshops, and building a consistent approach, as well as a continuous relationship with the participants, will be impossible within those parameters. Still, I am excited to pass on my learning to the learning team at AAC, exploring how everything I absorbed at the Storytelling Workshop can support their work going forwards. I know for certain that it will continue to inform the way I approach telling stories, and engaging the senses, in my own work. Whether that be performing a solo show, sharing an anecdote with a friend, or reliving a memory about soft muslin, the sensory realm available to me as a storyteller is far wider than I ever realised.

 

Sensory Atelier Symposium

Sensory Atelier (002)

Join us as we present the outcomes of our collaborative kinaesthetic and multi-sensory artist residencies that support children’s connections with the world through art.

The symposium will present the findings of the two year Test and Explore Paul Hamlyn Funded research project, Unlocking the World Through Art: A Sensory Atelier. Attenborough Arts Centre partnered with two SEN schools, Ellesmere College and Ashmount School to address the physical and curricular barriers to the arts and learning.

The project created a space and process for children with a spectrum of learning difficulties, communication disorders and disabilities within the classroom and at Attenborough Arts Centre.

This is a dynamic and creative approach for delivering the changing curriculum through the arts referencing the Reggio Emilia Atelier method and developing new ways of measuring learning and engagement for children with SEND.

Spaces are limited.
Please book your free space by calling 0116 252 2455

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Visit us
Attenborough Arts Centre
University of Leicester
Lancaster Road
Leicester
LE1 7HA

FREE evening (after 6pm) and weekend parking in the Medical Sciences car park next to Attenborough Arts Centre.

Contact us:
Box office: 0116 252 2455
email: arts-centre@le.ac.uk  
www.attenborougharts.com

Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 9am – 7pm

Box office: Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 7pm. Open later during performances and classes.
Gallery: Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 12 noon – 4pm.
Arts Bar Cafe: Open daily (later during performances and classes).
Balcony Gallery: Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 7pm and Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 12 noon – 4pm

Children’s exhibition: Unlocking The World – A Sensory Atelier

Exhibition at the Attenborough Arts Centre 27 – 28 May 2017 

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Hannah Pillai who is the learning Assistant for the Attenborough Arts Centre tells us more about the exhibition: 

We were delighted to include the beautiful  art work created by children and young   people from Ellesmere College and Ashmount School in our exhibition Seeing Blue.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Attenborough Arts centre and in response to the Night in the museum Ryan Gander curates the arts council collection the centre had the pleasure of hosting a children’s art exhibition Seeing Blue which formed part of a weekend of activities for the Spark Arts Festival 2017.

Seeing Blue celebrates the talent of children and young people who regularly use the centre. Curated by the AAC Young Ambassadors, the exhibition showcased performances, photographs, video, drawing and creative responses inspired by the Night in the Museum: Ryan Gander Curates the Arts Council collection, focusing particularly on the theme of Blue. The exhibition aims to give the same platform to children and young people as the masters of modern art that they are responding to with their work.

The children and young people from Ellesmere college and Ashmount school created the work during their visit to the centre to see the Night In The Museum exhibition. Inspired by what they saw they created large collaborative artworks. Starting with creating sculptures with their bodies they then drew around themselves creating large silhouettes which they decorated using a variety of materials, exploring different mark making and collage techniques. It was lovely to see the work professionally installed and for the young people to have the chance to exhibit their work in a real art gallery.

Taking centre stage at the exhibition the artworks had lots of lovely comments from visitors:

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“I really love the scale they make such an impact”

“Beautiful patterns I love the layers, so imaginative”

“It’s nice to see large scale work!”

 

 

 

I was a real pleasure for me to see the process the young people went through, from gallery visit, to workshop to the final exhibition for the public to see.


Making the work 

Children from Ellesmere college and Ashmount school creating the artwork during their visit to the Attenborough Centre. For more images click here 

Next Artist in Residence Appointed

We are thrilled to announce the next Artist in Residence Sian Watson Taylor has been appointed to deliver residences across both schools.  Students from both schools came together to be part of the selection process and were unanimous in selecting Sian to be thier chosen Artist in Residence.

One student said:

“That was Awesome”

Sian says:

“For me this is the start of an exciting voyage, where the children and young people are in control of the ship, are the power behind the waves and are the winds that set the course. Using the arts in all its different forms, from visual to performance and movement to sound and storytelling we can explore how to celebrate the ideas, emotions and learning of the children and young people, to surprise and engage but also create some that can be shared; experiencing the wonder of all the languages of art and the unexpected destinations they can take us.

We are very excited to see the wonderful journeys that will set sail next term. We warmly invite all those interested to come see first hand what they  create  in The Sensory Journeys Exhibition in our gallery in January 2018