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Tour de Inclusivité: neurodiverse theatre across the pond

After ten months of meetings, rehearsals, and classroom workshops leading up to fourteen performances in two weekends, you’d think Alison Mahoney, Bluelaces Co-Artistic Director and Out There! Director, would want a break. If you call a week-long educational tour of England's top performing arts companies a "break," then, sure; she did that.

To begin her three-month backpacking trip through Europe, Alison went on a business trip in England, meeting artists and companies breaking down the walls of conventional theatre—including what is "conventional" for audiences with developmental differences. Before she visited greenhouses in Cumiana or ate Neopolitan pizza in Napoli, she devoted her first week to learning. Early in July, Al found a cafe or a hostel or, heck, probably some free European city WIFI to dish about her tour de inclusivité.

How did you go about finding five different companies with similar missions to Bluelaces's, all in England?

I've known about Oily Cart for a long time—as far as I know, they were the first company to start performing specifically for audiences with Autism and what they refer to in the UK as PMLD (Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities). I've done a couple of workshops with Tim Webb, their artistic director, but had never seen one of their performances in person. Knowing that I would have the opportunity to see an Oily Cart show kicked off my idea to reach out to the other companies.

Since our first show at Northwestern [University], I've spent a lot of time researching multisensory theater-making and came across Bamboozle and Frozen Light. I also reached out to Upfront Performance Network, which was created by Ellie Griffiths, an Oily Cart performer and smart theatermaker in her own right. The network's mission is to bring together artists and companies who strive for neurodiversity in the performing arts. That's how I connected with Spectra Arts in Birmingham and SoundTracks in South London.

Oily Cart, London

"... we can't assume that just because a theater piece is multisensory it will work for all audiences with developmental differences."

Between these five companies, what's the most exciting thing you've seen?

Honestly, [it’s] the breadth of styles that exists throughout England in a field that I think a lot of people consider to be a small niche in the theatrical community. You've got Oily Cart, whose work is almost entirely nonverbal and feels almost more like a gorgeous, multisensory art installation; Frozen Light, who tells multisensory stories with much more grown-up themes (their newest show will take place in a post-apocalyptic desert!); Spectra Arts, who was rehearsing a multisensory, promenade style show with a neurodiverse ensemble that took place in an outdoor garden; Bamboozle, whose show for MLD (Moderate Learning Disabilities) audiences involved actors in a proscenium space climbing through the audience as they told a multisensory adaptation of Hansel and Gretel; and SoundTracks, who hangs out in a classroom with a group of PMLD adults and leads multisensory storytelling workshops about the history of South London.

Those were only five companies, and the work they're doing is wildly different... It makes me so excited that these audiences have choices. No two neurotypical people have the same likes and dislikes, so we can't assume that just because a theater piece is multisensory it will work for all audiences with developmental differences.

How does this all of this compare to what's being done in the U.S.?

South London

The language used to talk about audience members in the UK is very different from the way we talk about it in the US. It made it a bit difficult at first, since I had trouble drawing parallels to their MLD/SLD/PMLD audiences (Moderate/Severe/Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities). In the US, we tend to speak more specifically to a diagnosis—Autism, cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome. It has more to do with the way the educational system is set up than anything else, but it's an interesting distinction.

I'd also say that, because of the prevalence of government funding through Arts Council UK, the work happening there is a few years ahead of the work in the US, mostly in terms of quantity but also experience. Oily Cart has been around since the 1970s, so they've had a chance to refine their practice and aesthetic. Even some of the younger companies, like Frozen Light, have had the opportunity to learn from [those] years of experimentation. I think work for audiences with developmental differences is part of the larger theatrical conversation more so than it is in the US, although everyone I met with in England will tell you they still have a long way to go.

Is there anything you're eager to bring back to Bluelaces?

There are so many things! I loved the multisensory SoundTracks's storytelling workshop. It's such a great format for classroom engagement and works for people of all developmental levels, and I'd love to bring some of that into Bluelaces's educational programming. Oily Cart, Bamboozle, and Frozen Light all incorporate some sign language into their shows for hearing impaired audience members, and I'd love to do that in our future shows. Oily Cart also gives each character a tactile recognition device in addition to their name; for example, there was a character named "Plane" whose recognition device was a paper plane. If audience members were hearing impaired or visually impaired (or both!), they were offered this each time they interacted with Plane so they knew who it was. In the past, they've even had a character named "Mud" who carried a plastic bag filled with mud!

I truly could go on and on, but those are a few of the big ones.

The best thing you've eaten so far: go.

Oh, boy. That's a tough one. It's a toss up between all the incredible Iberian ham in Spain and the pizza in Naples, Italy. The fritto misto (lightly fried mixed seafood) we had in Palermo, Sicily is up there, too!

Napoleon Pizza

Last one: What's your favorite city so far?

Lisbon, Portugal. Definitely. It was a spur of the moment decision to book a cheap flight there and I'm so happy we did. The architecture is stunning, beautiful fado music is everywhere, the food is delicious, and the people are unbelievably kind and generous. We only spent two days there, but I'm dying to go back.

Alison Mahoney is the co-artistic director of Bluelaces. She directed their inaugural production, Out There!, which will be touring to select outer boroughs during the 2016/2017 season. She's still in Europe, but she looks forward to seeing her cat Zazz in Brooklyn soon.

All photos by Alison Mahoney.

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