The Freedom of Inclusive Theatre
By Daphna Weinstock
When I was first starting out in making theatre for people with cognitive differences, I was worried I was doing it so wrong that I was going to break my audience members, as if they were dishes in a china cabinet. That fear that you are “doing it wrong” is something many first-timers to inclusive theatre feel, and it is that fear that fuels the misconception that making inclusive theatre has a lot of restrictive rules and far too many boundaries. I certainly felt tied to that misconception, but as time went on, and I learned and experienced more in inclusive theatre, my whole perspective on the field and the population I was serving changed. And from my 3 years working with Seesaw Theatre, my then-student group at Northwestern University committed to devising and performing immersive, multi-sensory theatre for children and adults with Autism and other cognitive differences, I can tell you my experience was the exact opposite. Quite far from being laden with rules, inclusive theatre is some of the most artistically freeing theatre around. When I say free, I mean:
- Free to go anywhere, and I mean anywhere.
Seesaw, like so many other theatre companies doing this work, is not nearly as interested in a strong linear plot as it is with engaging the senses (to learn more about theatre for the senses, you can watch my TEDx talk on Seesaw). Once working outside of linear plot, you would be surprised how wonderfully wacky your show can become while still holding onto its artistic integrity. You can join a French tea party and then find yourself on a nonverbal farm. You can work with concrete settings, like underwater, and/or you can explore the abstract world of string. The imagination can run wild in sensory theatre, and you would be surprised by the different corners of the mind the imagination reaches when you’re working with this population. Seesaw’s audience has certainly invited me out of my comfort zone in that regard, and working with them has opened my eyes the gift of the limitless imagination. Social constructs tell us that “A” needs to lead us to “B.” Inclusive theatre would beg to differ. “A” can lead you just about anywhere.
- Free to do anything
In the world of theatre for people with cognitive differences, the actor-audience contract is completely transformed. Asking someone with cognitive differences to sit in one place for two hours is unreasonable and unrealistic, so instead of keeping them out of the theatre, inclusive theatre companies open their doors and change what is expected of their audience. And what is expected is an experience I wish for every theatregoer at least once in their life. There are no rules for how one experience a show. Sight and sound do not rule supreme in the enjoyment of a production. Audience members are encouraged to feel the costumes, smell the props. If they’re feeling restless in their seat, they’re encouraged to run around. And as an actor or an adventure guide—or audience aide—you are encouraged to do the same. Following the impulses of your creative audience member leads you to places you never thought to go in a theatrical context. I have run for 30 minutes straight with an audience member who didn’t speak much English, only to stop when he asked me to pick him up and spin him around, and that was some of the most exhilarating—albeit exhausting—theatre I’ve ever experienced. I once witnessed a fellow ensemble member having full conversation with her audience member, speaking only through animal noises. In Seesaw, and other companies like it, this isn’t bizarre in the slightest. It’s an embrace of the human impulse.
- Free to be silly…together
Have you ever really danced like no one was watching? If you haven’t, if you need a little help breaking down that steel-tight socially conscious barrier we all seem to develop, I recommend you create some theatre for people with cognitive differences and watch what happens. Part of what makes the neurotypical world at times unfriendly to those with cognitive differences is that there’s a lot of emphasis on how we look and that we behave correctly by society’s standards. People with cognitive differences don’t always adhere to those same rules, and it is in harnessing and learning from that individuality that we experience true freedom.
In this past year’s Seesaw production, we ended one of our experiences in a groovy disco dance party to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” As the director, it’s difficult to explain in mere words what I witnessed in those dance parties, but the best word I can use is genuine. The dance party was supposed to last a couple minutes. Often it lasted up to seven, with the same song on repeat. Audience, actors, parents, everyone was dancing for the sheer joy of the movement. No forced smiles, no prodding to bust a move. Seesaw has taught me that there is much freedom in looking silly in public if it means enjoying yourself to the fullest extent.
- Free to experiment
Making theatre for people whose minds work differently than one’s own opens up worlds that would never have been accessed otherwise. Inclusive theatre is currently living in its most exciting time, and more and more people are taking interest in this exhilarating, bizarre, and extremely freeing type of art. And the most exciting part of working in this field is that it’s still too new to have rules. Theatre artists everywhere are experimenting with what inclusive theatre means, and they are discovering wonderful new places to take the art form of theatre every day. Now more than ever is the time to get involved with inclusive theatre and bring your new ideas to what theatre can be.
Those with cognitive differences can now experience theatre made just for them all over the world, and though this field is small, it is mightier than it’s ever been, and interest is growing. In my mind, one main roadblock keeping this work small is people’s fear of what it entails and the fear of “doing it wrong.” But in this type of work, there truly is no wrong. And that is the most freeing thing of all.
Daphna Weinstock is a teaching artist, storyteller, and inclusive theatre advocate living in New York City, and she would love to talk to you about any of those things. Drop her a line at email@example.com to share your own passions in celebrating what makes each individual unique. She is excitedly awaiting to hear from you!