Since January, Helium has been working in partnership with the Jack and Jill Foundation to develop a new piece of multi-sensory theatre for children under three with complex needs. The performance will visit families in their homes. Four families in County Kildare volunteered to work with us during the development phase and the team – director Joanna Williams and performers Niamh Lawlor and Thomas Johnston – visited each of the homes a number of times between January and March to test out some ideas. Tim Webb of Oily Cart (UK) has acted as a mentor on this project and made a number of visits to work with the team and support the development of the piece. Artist Orla Kelly also came on board during the devising week to source and make props.
A picnic theme
It’s been a very busy few weeks. Following the initial visits, the team had a week of devising where they further explored the ideas they had tested with the families and began to develop a number of experiences which would contribute towards the final show. The team decided on the theme of a picnic – a sensory picnic rug would act as the central point and children would be offered a number of experiences based on the elements which worked most effectively during the initial visits.
A vital aspect of this piece is that each of the children will experience the performance in different ways – for some, touch and smell may be more important that the visual elements, and all of this was carefully considered. It was clear from the visits that there was huge benefit in engaging with the same families on a number of occasions. The children and their families became more familiar with the performers and the types of experiences they bring. The picnic theme will allow for the elements of the picnic to change in future visits while maintaining a familiar structure.
Developing a multi-sensory picnic
At the end of the devising week, the team selected two pieces (out of many more) to further develop for the final work in progress performance. The first act chosen was oranges which includes an orange massage, an opportunity to touch and smell the oranges and a few other very magical experiences The second act was honey which included bees and flowers – both pieces took in elements that the children responded to best during the initial visits. A very intensive rehearsal week followed during which the two pieces were developed and refined. Orla worked to develop the props and the all-important picnic rug.
Family picnic visits
In early March, the team made their visits back to the four families with their picnic. Each visit was very different as the children have very different needs; some houses had siblings present and the performance spaces differed from home to home. The team had become familiar with each family and worked hard to find the elements that appealed most to each child.
Responses from the families were very positive with parents commenting that they would love to have more visits, that they would like to try out some of the ideas themselves and that they were delighted with how the performance had stimulated their child. One little girl loved the bee sting game and the sounds the pollen balls on the flower canopy made when they knocked together. A little boy loved the visual elements of the “light” bees and the honey jar. The orange massage was popular with everyone (parents included!) and one older sibling gave his baby sister a massage. The joining-in songs and props that were handed out were a great way for everyone in the room to join in – parents became actively involved rather than just engaging as audience members.
Helium is working on the next phase of the project and it is hoped that a tour of the work will take place in late 2016 / early 2017.
This new early years project is produced by Helium Arts in partnership with the Jack and Jill Foundation. The project was approved by Government with support from the Dormant Accounts Fund. The project is further supported by The Arts Council, Kildare Arts Office, The Ireland Funds, The Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the Civil Service Credit Union.