Red Kite Toronto Training Project

From November 25 – 30, 2013, Theatre Direct Canada partnered with The Chicago Children’s Theatre to bring Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell and production manager Dawn Akelis to Toronto with the aim of creating a scratch performance for children with  autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Red Kite” is the title of an exciting series of multi-sensory theatrical experiences for children with ASD. Developed by Jacqueline Russell, Red Kite performances are created for small audiences of no more than 10 children and encourage direct interaction between the audience and the performers.

A complex and multifaceted disorder, autism presents differently in each person who is on the spectrum. But one generalization that can usually be made is that children with ASD respond to sensory experiences. Because of this, Red Kite projects are built of sensory events, with little dialogue or narrative story. Under Jacqui and Dawn’s expertise and guidance, Theatre Direct’s goal was to train a group of artists in the methodology behind creating a Red Kite play.

The other fundamental partner in this project was Beverley School, a Toronto public school dedicated to supporting the needs of children with developmental and/or physical disabilities. Working with teacher Linda McLaverty, we arranged to go to Beverley School to meet the children with ASD who would be our audience.

At Beverley School, Jacqui led the children through a drama class. Theatre Direct Artistic Director Lynda Hill had worked with this group throughout the fall, so the children were somewhat familiar with the concept. For the Red Kite team, however, this was our first introduction to our audience and their first introduction to us. It gave us a chance to see how they responded and to understand Jacqui’s methodology.

After our morning at Beverley School, the project became specific. We knew who we were designing the piece for. They were individuals and we and busily learned their names, their likes, their dislikes.

Over the course of the next three days, Jacqui fleshed out a framework for the show. The boxes were packing boxes. A family had just moved into a new house and the children in the family are having a hard time going to sleep – they wanted to keep exploring the boxes and find treasures. A series of sensory events were developed, each bracketed by “Papa Tim” trying to get the children to sleep. A pillow fight, dance party, flashlights in a tent, a car wash – all created with textures, sounds, lights. The culmination was a lullaby and the whole theatre space filling with stars – points of light gently moving outward. It was a calm, dream-state event that filled everyone with wonder. “Red Kite, Brown Box” was born.

In addition to the play, we created an art installation. Since the children were in two groups, one group would view the play while the other explored the installation at their own pace. Because the play took place in a “house”, we decided that the installation would be the “garden” right outside the house. Creating the Garden was like building a whole other show. We used the same principles as we did for the theatre piece (sensory experiences), but in this case the children would be the ones to find and discover things on their own.

No one could predict how the kids would respond. When the time came, everything was predictably unpredictable, just as Jacqui and Dawn said it would be. In the garden, a child dove into the tent and played happily with a pile of crayons for fifteen minutes. Another crumbled a pile of dried leaves and pinecones. One ran erratically. One had a meltdown. One shredded all of the paper boats in the water pool. All behaviours were acceptable. We were fascinated by what captured their attention, and what did not. Each child responded differently and what appealed to one child was often disregarded by another.

The “Smile Family” came out into the garden and guided children into the “house” (the theatre) as they sang the song “Our House”. Each actor was responsible for two children and helped them into their own bed/chair built out of a cardboard box. The bed was a home base, but the children weren’t expected to necessarily stay in it. The play then became a series of negotiations and offers that guided the children’s engagement: “Hey, why not hit me with the pillow, instead of hitting the light?” “Would you look after this bedtime bear?” “Do you want to take your car through the car wash?” “Dance Party!” It was the most intense, exacting and in the moment theatre I have ever seen.

After the children left, and we had a chance to de-brief, everyone on the team overflowed with excitement. We wanted to see those kids again, right away, to have the opportunity to perform for them, be surprised by them, learn from them. From the perspective of the teachers and caregivers from Beverley School, the students were amazingly engaged, and had had a number of breakthroughs in which they expanded their repertoire of responses.

It is hard to convey how unique and moving this project was. It was work that stretched us all as artists, and as people.

Amanda Lewis, Associate Artist And Project Coordinator