A devised work by sliced bread attraction (2007)
Case study prepared by Alison Richardson, Artistic Director of sliced bread attraction.
The production of My Space, My Place (MSMP) was produced by sliced bread attraction in October of 2007. I established sliced bread attraction in 2007 in response to the need for more creative opportunities for people with a disability particularly in Western Sydney. I recognised that there was a lack of quality and innovative creative opportunities for people with a disability outside of the art therapy model.
Over the last two years sliced bread attraction has received funding from local councils and through the Community Development & Support Expenditure Scheme to produce inclusive events for International Day for People with a Disability, workshops in performance, photography, sound and also Bakehouse an inclusive arts festival which was held at, CarriageWorks in Eveleigh & also several other venues across Sydney.
The idea for MSMP came from an article I read by Hugh Mackay in the Sydney Morning Herald. The article spoke about indigenous people’s strong attachment to place and how regardless of our age, gender, race of ability that is the one thing we have in common, we have all come from somewhere- a Place. So this idea became the stimulus for the devising of a new theatre work with six people from two disability services in the south west of Sydney. The rehearsals and the performance took place at Powerhouse Youth Theatre in Fairfield, Sydney.
The rehearsal process occurred over 22 weeks from May – October 2007, one day a week. So all up we had 22 rehearsals of about 3 hours each. The cast was drawn from two disability services in Western Sydney that had previously engaged in sliced bread attraction and PYT’s workshops & programs. Ideally all the people that participated in the Get Toasted Performance Training Program (a performance program for people with a disability) would have made up the cast but in reality and due to practical considerations this could not be the case.
However, this didn’t matter as the cast was made up of participants from Stage 1 and 3 of the MSMP project so they had already explored to some degree the notion & idea of Space and Place. Funding for this production was from Canley Heights RSL Club through their Community Development Support & Expenditure scheme. The venue for rehearsal and the show was generously given to us in kind by Powerhouse Youth Theatre.
It was vital to the success of the performance to be rehearsing in the space that they group would end up performing in. It also became apparent that the set needed to be workable and in the space as soon as we knew what it was going to be in order for the cast to start working with it. Abstract concepts such as, “Michael, imagine there is a window and you open it” was too hard a concept to grasp. Luckily, we had the most brilliant and dedicated set designer, Kate Shanahan attached to the project who was present at every rehearsal. She was able to design and create a set that was fantastic, adaptable & flexible enough to be able to pushed to the side when we weren’t in the space so that the space was free for PYT and other hirers. Kate was not only a great designer but a fabulous support for me who at times felt like I was really flying solo.
The process was divided up into four stages, these were the ideas generation stage (7 rehearsals), creation & the shaping of show stage (9 rehearsals) and then straight rehearsals (6 rehearsals) which meant that there were no new ideas or creating taking place. This was a tight timeline but I knew we could achieve a quality show if we managed our time effectively and had the full support of the two services were working with. I was conscious of when working with people with intellectual disabilities consolidation and rehearsing scenes over and over again was needed in order to produce a quality show that could sit alongside any theatre production in Sydney.
The actual material for the show was generated by the group. I came in with the concept of us as humans having one thing in common which was that we have all come form somewhere, that is a Place and that we all desire to belong to and have a connection to somewhere. As a group we then began devising around this topic. We had brainstorm discussions on each individual member’s favourite & least favourite places and from this ascertained if there were any recurrent themes that could be explored more by the group. Themes of ‘safety’ and ‘escape’ were a couple of common themes so we began to look at how we could use boxes on stage to represent these feelings of being trapped, wanting to escape or feeling safe and comfortable inside something that was your own.
Other exercises used to generate material for the show were getting each person to map their home on the floor with electrical tape (like a blue print map) and then walk the group through it, explaining parts of their home. They brought in an object and photos from home that held significant meaning for them, drew their dream homes, wrote group haikus about their home, explored concepts of leaving home by dressing each other to leave, created object sculptures and sound scapes from objects found around the home, told stories through the use of shadow puppets and over heads and objects placed on an overhead projector. Once the idea generation phase was completed we then moved onto shaping the show together- selecting what ideas we wanted to keep and explore further and making sure that everyone had their moment to shine.
The reason why I really love working with an ensemble of performers with intellectual disabilities particularly is because of the fresh new and unique generation of ideas and new perspectives on exercise & activities that I would throw at them. It’s then being able to spot these ideas, respect them, pick them out and embrace them and work out how to best use them in the creation process. I did this by posing open ended questions and having activities broad enough for their own creative self expression to flourish. It was exciting when an exercise would go off on an unexpected tangent & bring to the process ideas that I would never have thought of or intended at the beginning of the exercise. This was when the process was at it’s most exciting for me- a true collaboration.
The cast were extremely creative and brought so much positive energy, unbridled enthusiasm, and joy to the process that it made it a fabulously creative and supportive environment to work in for all. No sense of ego or pretence was brought into the rehearsal or a second guessing of what was right or wrong but rather a fantastic sense of play and exploration.
The support from Powerhouse Youth Theatre was invaluable. They lent us the space in kind and were understanding of us having to have the set up very early. We made the set as such that it could be moved to one side to allow for other activities that happened in the space to still occur. They also auspiced the grant that I received and also helped promote the show. We also had good support from one of the services who’s support worker stage managed one of the performances and also did hair and make up. Our set designer, Kate as mentioned previously was outstanding in her set design but also became almost a co-director alongside me as well. We were also mentoring a young person as assistant director through the process who was also a huge help in the execution of the show.
The show also worked alongside the My Space, My Place Outreach Exhibition so the foyer displayed the result of sound and photography workshops that were conducted with participants of day programs & special schools across Western Sydney.
The challenges were actually having all six cast members present at each rehearsal. It wasn’t until the 4th workshop that two of the six cast members came from the second service but the other four were away as their van was in service so as a consequence none of them could make it. So it was the 6th workshop where we actually had a full cast. These absences were largely due to staff ratios if one person was sick or away no one from that service could make it or the van been serviced or the volunteer driver sick. So being flexible and understanding was essential but sometimes it did make me wonder if the show was ever going to get off the ground.
Before the process started I was very mindful of communication issues. I was trying to put into place preventative measures very early on to ensure that the process would run as smoothly as possible. I set up a meeting with the team leaders from both services to run through with them what level of commitment was needed by them in order for the show to be of a certain standard and quality. I was aware that the workers were not from arts and theatre backgrounds so may not realise the importance of having the cast there at every rehearsal. I also wanted to discuss the production week and to see if there was the opportunity of fitting in one extra rehearsal that week (so that would be two rehearsals) and the possibility of a night show (which meant services giving their staff time in lieu to be present). So after these efforts and ensuing phone calls it was hugely disappointing that one of the services didn’t hold up their end of the deal by contacting parents and letting them know what was happening. As a consequence one performer could not make the Friday performance as she had to work and no matter of negotiating and offering to pay her the same wage she’d receive for her work that day could convince her or her mum to let her do it. A huge let down for the cast and crew. Another member‘s father was not going to let his son out at night to perform the night time show so this was also hugely disappointing for him and the cast. Consequently we then had to hurriedly rework parts of the show and find other people to fill in sections (including myself). I had done my level best to avoid throwing new ideas to the group at the last minute but this is what I found myself having to do. To their absolute credit I was so proud of them being able to remember new tasks and changes. It really showed their ability as performers to be adaptable and take on new ideas without complaint and with confidence. They were brilliant.
Basically, not having direct contact with the parents was very frustrating and not having the full support and commitment for one of the services was very upsetting and disappointing for those performers who didn’t get to perform due to the lack of communication with the parents.
The outcome was a hour long group devised piece of theatre that explored with six people living with a disability their ideas of belonging and personal connection to space and place. It was a theatre piece that didn’t rely on loads of dialogue or a linear narrative but rather moments and abstracts based on the central themes of escape, belonging, isolation, searching and loss.
There were 4 performance were held at Powerhouse Youth Theatre from October 24th-26th, 2007.
Maria Revoltar, Michael Micallef, Nadya Silbanof, Melissa Huntsman, Holly Dempster, Tom Nazor, Digby Webster (Friday day performance), David Doyle (Saturday night performance).
Director: Alison Richardson
Set/ Costume Designer: Kate Shanahan
Assistant Director/ Stage Manager: Mary Jekki
Sound design: Nick Wishart
Production Manager: Tim Dennis
Assistant production manager: Ashton Whitwell
Stage Manager (Thursday): Christie