Interview – Kate Heffernan and Aisling O’Gorman, Peat @ The Ark
The Ark Cultural Centre for Children presents Peat, a brand new theatre show for ages 8+ by Kate Heffernan and directed by Tim Crouch, which runs until March 31. Relaxed performances of Peat, aimed at children on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities, take place on Thursday 14 March at 10.15am and Saturday 16 March at 2pm. We got to talk to Kate Heffernan, the playwright, and Aisling O’Gorman, Creative Arts Manager at The Ark, about the show, facilitating relaxed performances in the first venue in Ireland to do it, and the journey the Ark is taking on disability access and inclusion.
Can you tell us what Peat is? What is it about?
Kate Heffernan, playwright – So, at its most basic, Peat is the story of two friends, the story of Rayy and Jo who are two 11-year-old boys in this iteration. Jo has suffered a lot, his cat has died. And they stop at this area of a bog on their way home from school, where Rayy encourages Jo to bury his cat. Jo’s a bit more reluctant to do that. So it’s really a story of friendship and loss, but told in quite a light and humorous way, but at the same time asking big questions about life and death and time and history. In digging this hole, it’s as much about what they find as what they want to bury. They unearth objects and artifacts which populate the stage and populate their world, which they discuss at length in some instances, and not at all in others.
How did the show develop?
Kate Heffernan – So, I had an idea early on that it was a conversation between children, that it was going to be a play that was going to feature children and their world view. I thought that if you want to have conversations in that way, the best place to start is a conversation with children. So 2015, 2016 I worked with a group of 3rd Class children in Portlaoise. We explored ideas around the enormity of the world and how it contains us and our place within it through basic storytelling techniques.
Over the next three years, I’ve worked with each successive Ark Children’s Councils with works-in-progress. It wasn’t just ‘here’s a work-in-progress, thanks for your feedback,’ they were real collaborators. We really took on board some of the very structural things they fed back to us that have carried over into this final form. It’s been three Councils, it has been three groups of children. The final form of the play has come through those processes. Obviously not five days a week, there has been time to breathe in between those very structured development periods.
So the Children’s Council and the work with that 3rd class in Port Laoise was really important.
Kate Heffernan – Hugely. I don’t take consultation lightly; if you’re going do it, you do it. You have to be prepared for what the feedback is and taking it on board. So I was very open, and in a way, the three years kind of reflects that, because some of the insights and ideas were big, structural changes that I needed to sit with and make work. It was less the idea of giving us feedback on a piece of paper than actually collaborating on a process.
According to the Ark, what is a relaxed performance?
Aisling O’Gorman, Creative Arts Manager at the Ark – We started doing these in 2012. It was our former theatre programme where Maria Fleming started it, she had come across it in other theatre work. I remember her researching it in Broadway, in really big, flashy shows. And she thought, if they’re doing it in these productions that are full of every kind of bell and whistle and light and overstimulating thing on the stage, surely we can do it here in our nice, intimate space that is so much more easy to control. So, the very first time we did it was in connection with a theatre show that Maria had booked to come as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival family season which the Ark curates every year. It’s now quite a famous show called White.
There was a lot of discussion about a confetti cannon towards the end of that show because the premise is that you’re in a world void of colour, it’s completely white and then colour starts to creep in, and at the very end there’s a colorful confetti cannon moment. Even for all audiences the noise and the bang is a bit like ‘Ah!’ It’s a little bit, not quite frightening, but it’s a bit of a shock. There was a lot of discussion about how to make that more relaxed without losing the moment, and in the end, they came up with such a lovely, simple solution. They just put confetti in a bag or something, or a hat, and they came out and just threw it. It was still there, they didn’t lose the aesthetic idea, but it was so much more gentle.
So from there, we just started to do them whenever we could. Especially when we are producing our own shows, we always include them. It’s not always as possible when we’re receiving work, although we do have that conversation all the time now, ‘Have you ever done a relaxed show or any other accessible version of a show? Have you ever signed a show, have you ever done touch tours or anything else that we might not have heard of?’ More frequently I would say people are going, ‘Yes, we’ve done something like that, we’ve captioned the show once.’ So that’s kind of encouraging. The relaxed stuff is what we’ve done most often. We started with our theater work but we also do music and visual art, and we’ve done some relaxed tours of visual arts exhibitions. We’ve done relaxed performances for quite a number of musical performances at this stage. I mean, obviously, music is a lot louder, on the whole, so we’ve kind of managed the volume levels a lot more and in the preparation packs, we highlight which songs might be a little bit louder than others and things like that so audiences can be prepared.
Some standard stuff we do in the theatre space for any kind of relaxed performance is we keep the house lights up, the doors are wide open, as people come in we offer them stress balls if they want them and also earplugs if they want them. We use our basement area which is very close to the theater as a kind of chill-out space, so if people do feel the need to just have a breather, we just try to encourage them to go back in and not completely give up. In the past we’ve also done things like, if we’ve got full-length footage of a show, we have that running on a TV screen in the chill-out area. We basically press play when the show starts, so if a child does leave they can actually follow the show. That has worked as well, I think it makes it a little bit easier to go back in the room. You know, I haven’t completely lost what’s going on, I won’t be completely confused when I go back in, even if I’ve been out for two minutes. And sometimes, it might mean they just watch the rest of the show downstairs on the video, but at least they’ve stayed engaged.
I suppose those kinds of things, and then obviously we do the social stories, the familiarization packs, they go out to all the audience members in advance through email. There’s a lot of photos of the building, kind of guiding someone in, you know, this is the front door, this is where you’ll get your tickets, this is where the toilets are, all that kind of stuff. A lot of it is quite useful for all kinds of children because in general, lack of familiarity can create anxiety in any of us. So that is kind of what we do with relaxed events in general, but we’re still learning. I wouldn’t say we’re experts by any means, but it does seem to be working and we do ultimately hope that children who get very familiar with us might feel okay to come to any of our events that aren’t specifically labeled as relaxed, that’s the ultimate aim.
In my experience working with artists when we do them, or any of these kinds of things like touch tours, they’re just excited to do them. It’s such a rewarding thing. I guess the work we do is around art and children so it’s quite meaningful anyway, but it just adds another layer of meaning and value to people. It’s really nice to see. Artists are generally curious as well. If they haven’t heard of it they’re usually like, ‘What is a relaxed performance? Let’s give it a try!’ That’s generally the response, which is great.
So, how will the performances of Peat on the 14th and 16th be relaxed?
Aisling O’Gorman – We’ll do similar things to what we always do. We have a social story ready which will go out to people who have booked, so they can prepare the children in advance. We’ll have the lights up slightly, the house lights up, doors open, we reduce the capacity, so we don’t sell as many tickets deliberately. When the house is full it can feel quite intense for everybody which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the performance but it definitely doesn’t feel as relaxed. When it’s less full it definitely feels a bit more easygoing. We might use glowsticks to let the audience know when there are louder sections coming up, and we’ve indicated that in the familiarization pack as well so that if they want to bring the headphones with them to kind of reduce the intensity of the sound, that’ll give them a moment to go, ‘Oh,’ and put them on, and they might want to take them off again after depending on how they’re feeling.
On the whole, because we’re working with children, we’re quite used to people wanting to go in and out during the show, compared to adult’s theatre. We’re very easygoing anyways, but we just make that extra clear because we have the doors wide open. Generally speaking, there’s much more in and out but that’s fine and our staff is used to it and aware of it. We adjust our front of house announcement. So, for example, they’ll point out the thing about the glow sticks in the front of house announcement and just say, ‘yes, the doors are open, there’s a chill-out space downstairs, feel free to come in and out.’ We make that really clear. It’s really just about making people feel really welcome and as safe as we possibly can make them so that they can really engage with the show and enjoy it.
In the six or so years that the Ark has been facilitating autism-friendly or relaxed performances, has there been any change in how you do them? What have you learned so far?
Aisling O’Gorman – Well, I hope we got better! I’m always in a hurry to say that we’re not experts, but I hope we got better. People seem to like them, and it does seem that people come back. For public shows, in particular, there seems to be a sense with parents that while there are other adults in the room, they’re other parents who have a child on the spectrum so they understand. I guess they feel like they’re less likely to be judged and that feels more relaxing for them actually as well. There’s an atmosphere of understanding. The normal expectations that you sit quietly and watch for an hour and you don’t make any noise, that that is not such a big deal. That doesn’t happen.
So, what have we learned? Well, I suppose we’ve learned a lot about the needs of that particular audience, and I suppose we’ve been trying to make all of this part of how we think, rather than a special thing we’re doing, do you know what I mean? It certainly started off that way, which is probably how most organizations start, you have to start somewhere. You start with one or two things and then you try to learn as you go. We do a lot of that in the Ark anyway. We experiment with things and then go, ‘Was that a good idea? Should we do more of that? How do we do better?’ We’ve worked a lot with Arts & Disability Ireland (ADI), and they’ve helped us a lot to improve and learn and they still are. The big learning is you’re just trying to listen more to your audience.
Also there’s that piece of work of reaching out to an audience who may not have realized that the Ark is doing this kind of stuff but it might be something they’d really be interested in. As part of our partnership with ADI we’ve committed to expanding our accessible programming. We’ve been doing relaxed work for a while, we’ve also been doing touch tours for a little while, and we have done a few sign shows in the past but we’re committing to bring that more into our repertoire going forward. We’re doing one with a dance show later this year. We did an access audit of the building, so we’ve improved signage and we also invested in some height-adjustable tables for our workshop for wheelchair users so that you can adjust it to whatever size and shape the chair is. The building is pretty accessible, which we’re very lucky about, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be improvements. We’re going to put an extra mirror inside the lift which will help wheelchair users, because you’ll go in, face-first, into the lift, but it’s when you’re trying to come out that you can’t see behind you. But if there’s a mirror – so these are the things that we learned, like, “oh yeah, that makes sense!” But you wouldn’t think about it unless you’re a wheelchair user or someone who understands what those people need. So yeah, we’re making a few changes like that in the building. But we are fully wheelchair accessible which is great. This building is very open plan and we have a lift which is a major thing, a lot of older buildings don’t have one.
We’re basically very open, and we have a plan within the next two years to commission an artist with a disability to make a piece of work for children. We want to do that very self consciously, and we’re going to do it in partnership with Arts & Disability Ireland. It’s kind of the other side of the coin, really thinking about artists and also representation. There have been things around casting that we’ve started to think about now, in a much more conscious way. Also, it’s making us think of things like recruitment to our Children’s Council, just to be much more aware of the representation of children of various disabilities and needs. We’ve been very conscious of things like socioeconomic differences and ethnicity, and a gender balance. But you know, there are always more layers, and I think this is something that we haven’t really looked at just yet in terms of the Council. So there’s loads to learn and loads to do, but we just want to keep doing it.
A big part of facilitating a relaxed performance is educating the cast on what to expect. What that has been like for this run of Peat, and then in general, for actors who might be in visiting shows from abroad?
Aisling O’Gorman – I think in some ways, because already performing for children is quite an adjustment for people, and there’s a lot of preparation for any show here, I think if you’re pretty used to working with children as audiences, then you can handle relaxed events pretty well. You’re used to the unpredictability of the audience because they’re children, and maybe that’s slightly more exaggerated with the relaxed events, but it’s still kind of in that spectrum.
Kate Heffernan – I think that’s true, Kwaku (Fortune, performer) and Curtis-Lee (Ashqar, performer) haven’t performed for children before, and so week one of performances has been a real eye-opener, a big learning curve. And I actually think the same, relaxed performances are a smaller step.
Aisling O’Gorman – I suppose we’re working at the very young end of things, and obviously when those children grow up, and they become teenagers and adults, there needs to be stuff for all stages and ages, because it’s all very well us making it possible and giving them a cultural experience while they’re young, but if they can’t continue that in adulthood it’s a little bit pointless, or at best it’s just disappointing. From then on there might be a struggle when trying to engage with the arts, even though they might’ve really enjoyed it when they came to relaxed events here.
We called that first White performance an autism-friendly show, but we’ve moved away from that now. I personally much prefer relaxed, because you don’t need a diagnosis, you can self-select. The name change happened organically because it just seemed to be in the ether, everyone started using relaxed, so we did as well. But (in relaxed performance audiences) we would get wheelchair users, children with intellectual disabilities, you get a whole range of additional needs, basically. The audience gets a sense of extra care where we know they’re out there and, of course, everyone is always welcome, but you are extra, extra welcome here, just to make it really, super clear, please come! The relaxed label has definitely made the event more accessible. I think it’s nice for performers to learn about a relaxed performance rather than an autism-friendly performance, which sounds more clinical.
I suppose, even at this early stage of relaxed performances, from the audience point of view if a venue is doing a relaxed performance, you know they are taking accessibility seriously. I think a lot of venues around the country will be interested in seeing how you do it.
Aisling O’Gorman – Well, I would just say – do it, just do it! You know it’s just all about people, it’s about trying to make what you do open to as many people as possible. It’s about thinking about what the unconscious barriers are. We might not think about them, but to somebody else, they could be a really big deal. And actually, a lot of the time, reducing or removing those barriers is not that hard once you know what they are. It’s just identifying what they are sometimes is hard when you don’t have that barrier yourself. Anyways, it’s a joy. We love doing it.
Peat runs at the Ark until March 31. For children 8+, duration approximately 50 minutes. Relaxed performances take place on Thursday 14 March at 10.15am and Saturday 16 March at 2pm. There will be an evening performance for adults on Tuesday 12 March. Read more and book tickets here.
by AsIAm.ie - 12 March, 2019
Last updated by AsIAm.ie - March 12, 2019
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by AsIAm.ie - 12 February, 2015
Being a parent of a child with Autism can be challenging but, as Julie Direen shares, it can also...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 February, 2015
[caption id="attachment_3318" align="alignleft" width="300"] Carrie, centre, at our recent "Back ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 10 December, 2014
The online support and advocacy group for people with autism, AsIAm.ie, has said Ireland needs ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 5 December, 2014
Jonathan Victory shares his positive experiences of Martial Arts as someone with Aspergers Synd...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 31 October, 2014
One stressful aspect of being a parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum is getting the right sup...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 October, 2014
Lisa Domican, Founder of Grace App, talks about the challenge for parents in identifying pain in ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 10 September, 2014
The challenges of "Back to School" for students with Autism, and the launch of the AsIAm.ie "Back...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 25 August, 2014
Many families affected by Autism may be considering possible suitable extra-curricular activities...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 24 August, 2014
There is an old adage: "If you know one person with Autism, you know one person with Autism" It ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 22 August, 2014
Yesterday we were delighted to launch our AsIAm "Back to School" Handbooks for teachers, parents...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 21 August, 2014
AsIAm.ie has today published a series of guides to help people with autism deal with the major ch...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 20 August, 2014
Tomorrow, AsIAm will launch its "Back to School" Handbooks on Autism, for parents, students and t...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 17 June, 2014
Sinead Farrelly bravely tells us what it's been like being an 'aspie' in college. Originally publ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 3 June, 2014
Yvonne Newbold is the author of "The Special Parent's Handbook", a practical, hands-on parenting ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 23 March, 2014
Dr Aoife Lyons, licensed clinical psychologist and university lecturer in UCD and DCU, puts herse...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 May, 2013
Ann Kennedy is a 60 year old lady living with Asperger's Syndrome. In this incredibly honest pie...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 May, 2013
In this article our regular contributor, Carrie Burton, shares her experiences of preparing her d...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 14 February, 2013
Today we finally got an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Gillian Smith, Founder and Principal Pr...[...]