Posted by Morgan Leek, June 7th, 2012
Over the past six months I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside four local artists who’ve undertaken a very inspiring endeavour – to form Australia’s first sensory theatre company for children with special needs. Headed by Francis Italiano, Michelle Hovane and Bec Bradley with Rachel Riggs, Sensorium Theatre create immersive, intimate worlds which invite children touch, taste, smell, hear and see stories unfold around them.
In March the collective launched their 2012 tour of The Jub Jub Tree. I caught up with Francis to get an update after being artist in residence at Malibu, Sir David Brand and Kenwick School and to find out what kind of impact sensory theatre has had on the students so far.
Words: Sarah Rowbottam (SR), Francis Italiano (FI)
Photos: Sarah Rowbottam
SR. From creating large-scale spectacles to writing scripts for short films and plays – you’ve had quite an eclectic history as an artist. What are you currently working on now?
FI. At primary school I was the resident storyteller and growing up I was an avid drawer and painter, so it’s always been about words & pictures for me – stories & visuals – and I like using those elements in performance-based projects. Over the last couple of years I’ve been exploring immersive interactive performance-making through sensory theatre, in particular ways to use this medium to make shows for kids with complex disabilities – like the current show we’re touring, The Jub Jub Tree.
SR. The Jub Jub Tree is the first piece created under the banner of your newly formed company Sensorium Theatre. Can you explain what sensory theatre is and how this performance was devised?
FI. Sensory theatre is a totally interactive way of performative storytelling that’s particularly magical for kids because it’s theatre as a hands-on experience for them. Small audiences of say, 12 kids max, get to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the story unfold around them on a purpose-built installation-style set that they sit in with the performers. So, with The Jub Jub Tree, for instance, Sensorium comes into a school and “grows” a totally tactile “forest” for the kids to engage with up to a week before the actual performances.
This show originally grew out of a modest seeding grant from Barking Gecko in 2010 that got us working with a visiting UK artist, Amber Onat Gregory, to expand on solo sensory story sessions she’d been giving to kids with special needs. Amber would “tell” her stories using simple props for the kids to touch and “activate” as well as basic sign-language, rhymes and a few masks – encouraging them to use their senses to follow along. While the writer part of me was intrigued by the possible non-verbal “access points” in the story, the designer part of me got excited about making life-size super-tactile puppets of the characters and putting the kids and puppets together in an interactive sensory environment for the story to play out in. Co-performer and Sensorium composer Bec Bradley went to town with the music and aural possibilities and has kept refining the live score and soundtrack since then, and (following physical-theatre performer Sarah Nelson’s movement and puppeteering in the first development), current core-artist Michelle Hovane has been perfecting the movement dramaturgy and physical language of the show, while associate artist Rachel Riggs has been layering in her early years expertise in imaginary play and visual theatre. An amazing 14 week AIR grant residency last year at Carson Street School gave Bec, Michelle, Rachel and myself time and space to trial loads of different approaches to making our audience’s experience deeper and simply get better at acting for/interacting with kids with complex disabilities. Devising this show, and the workshops and resources that frame it, was very much enhanced by the influence of the educators, therapists and especially the kids we worked with there.
Photo: The teachers at Sir David Brand School are taken through a sensory walk-through experience
SR. All of us in the office are absolutely amazed at the creativity and ingenuity found in your work. What made you passionate about making sensory theatre for children with special needs?
FI. Sensory theatre is totally hybrid and very collaborative in the way it’s put together, so from the beginning I loved being free to wear designer, maker, writer, performer and facilitator hats all at the same time. But more importantly, once I started working with these kids in this way I couldn’t help thinking that, with the best of intentions, a lot of the mainstream theatre that special needs audiences get to see under the banner of “access and inclusion” can end up being mostly colour and movement that goes totally over their heads. I started to get excited at how the sensory theatre we were devising– with all its hands-on puppetry, music & interactions – could get kids with special needs swept up and carried away by a story in the way that all kids everywhere love to. As a theatre-maker who’s loved live shows since I was a little kid, I’m really conscious that it’s a universal experience that many of them have missed out on.
SR. Over the next three months you will be undertaking residencies at Malibu, Sir David Brand, Kenwick School and Kalamunda Education Support Centre. What are you looking forward to most?
FI. I really enjoy the intimate one-on-one interactions with the kids in the workshops and especially the performances – the “buzz” of connecting. Sometimes a response can be as subtle as one of the kids blinking vigorously or reaching out to touch your hand when that’s not normally something they’d readily do – and because you’re only centimetres away from them that response is magnified and even more appreciated as a performer. It’s very much a heart-based way of working. It’s hard to explain, but it can be really joyous as an artist to have such resonant interactions with your audience.
Photos: Sensorium Theatre perform The Jub Jub Tree to students at Malibu School in Safety Bay.
SR. Working with children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (pmld) obviously presents a number of unique obstacles. How is The Jub Jub Tree residency and performance structured to meet these challenges?
FI. Sensorium has developed a kind of “embedding” approach to help the kids’ understanding and enjoyment of the show which happens over a week-long residency before the performance. We install the sensory forest on the first day and let the kids explore it before individually introducing each new puppet over the next days in “make and play” sessions based around the characters and story. Along the way the kids and performers get to know each other, with the performer/facilitators tailoring the workshops and then spending the last day re-rehearsing the show for that specific audience. We’ve also designed a 2D storybook of the show and recorded a CD of the songs which go out to the schools before the residency. It might sound counter-intuitive to how you normally save up all your “magic moments” for the actual performance, but all these elements combined make for stronger engagement with the show from the kids – which ultimately makes the experience more magical for them.
SR. You recently visited the UK with Michelle Hovane to learn from Oily Cart Theatre, Bamboozle and Horse & Bamboo. What was one of the most exciting moments on this trip?
FI. Falling in love with this kind of work and then getting to learn so much by working with world-leaders in the field was pretty exciting across the whole trip, but getting to London and fronting up a day later, still jet-lagged, to the city’s flagship children’s theatre venue next to London Bridge to meet Oily Cart – and finding ourselves on-stage with tech-guns in our hands within minutes felt so “real” it was surreal!
SR. Both yourself and fellow ‘Sensorium’ core artist Rebecca Bradley recently worked with Spanish company Teatro de los Sentidos on the Perth Festival show Oraculos – has that experience shaped this show at all?
FI. Working with director Enrique Vargas and his company was like inhabiting a dream – and re-learning a whole new appreciation of the aesthetics and vocabulary of the senses. For instance, we’ve noticed that our appreciation of the power of touch (one of the senses we use a lot of with the kids) is way deeper. Sentidos’ way of working from the heart and using sensory theatre to co-faciliate experiences with the audience-member as an active participant rather than a passive recipient is totally relevant to what we’re doing with Sensorium.
Photo: The teachers at Malibu School are taken through a sensory walk-through experience
SR. After the schools tour wraps up in early July – what’s next for Sensorium Theatre? Do you have plans for a new project?
FI. We’re very focussed at the moment on how best to grow the company alongside our artistic development – so the next 6 months is about longer-term strategic planning around where we want to go as a company, with the next 12 months including building on the touring potential of this show while working through the creative processes towards our next show. The next show will be a bit of an underwater odyssey that might use performers more as main characters rather than puppets. We had a fair amount of discussion with our UK counterparts around experiential vs narrative-based shows for special needs kids, with most of them swinging back towards story-driven sensory theatre – so we’re also keen to keep exploring the balance between all-out sensory experiences for the kids and sensory approaches to getting stories across.
Photo: Michelle Hovane offering students at Malibu School jub jub tree fruits.
Francis is a Hybrid Artist with Writing, Design, Performing and Visual Arts skills that have lead him to design/devise for Theatre, Large-Scale Spectacle Events and Short Films, and have numerous scripts for plays and short films produced. In particular, he has developed his practice as a Community Cultural Development artist, working with marginalized groups to produce theatre, films, performance events, publications and exhibitions. He has also been a core artist of WA’s spectacle & CCD multi-arts collective, SWERVE. He has worked extensively for DADAA-WA, leading multiple projects in writing, visual arts, and theatre for people experiencing disabilities. Most recently he performed with Spanish company Teatro de los Sentidos in the2012 Perth International Festival Show Oraculos.