A devised work by Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Fairfield & Accessible Arts (2003)
Case study by Katrina Douglas, Director of Sucked In!
Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) is the leading youth theatre company in Western Sydney. By engaging with young people from across the region, PYT creates new, innovative and inclusive performing arts opportunities lead by collaborative processes and participation. Accessible Arts (AArts) is the peak arts and disability organisation across New South Wales. Sucked In was the first integrated performance that both PYT and AArts had produced.
Sucked In was a multimedia performance devised and performed by young people with and without a disability in June 2003. Sucked In took a light-hearted, satirical look at how young people perceive our computer-dominated world, the digital revolution and the next stage of human evolution – cyborgs. During a routine computer link up twelve young people are sucked into a strange cyber world. Trapped with nowhere to hide, the group are tested by the mysterious ‘deus machinca’. Those ‘chosen’ by the deus machinca are assimilated and upgraded into super humans – part machine part human. Over the course of 40 minutes Sucked In took the audience on a journey through a brave new world where humans are obsolete and the next super power is an internet fridge hell bent on revenge.
Sucked In was created over a five months by a team of eight professional artists, two emerging artists and a group of twelve young performers with and without a disability. This creative team devised a 40 minute multimedia production that was given a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night. PYT staff, artists and performers all received outstanding feedback from family, friends, funding bodies and other artists.
Sucked In was produced by Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) in association with Accessible Arts (AArts). Sucked In was funded by Australia Council for the Arts and Arts NSW.
Sucked In was initiated in 2002 by staff at PYT and Accessible Arts (AArts) namely Neridah, Claire Havey and Katrina Douglas. The original idea was to explore how marketing and mass media targeted young people and how young people responded to and negotiated their way through the ever expanding world of marketing and new technologies. From the outset both PYT and AArts agreed that the project should integrate young people with and without a disability, and that we would not target any particular disability. One of the core objectives of the project was to enhance understanding and promote acceptance between different groups of young people.
At the time there was little happening in the disability arts sector in NSW and most of the artists involved had had no experience working with people with a disability, so AArts and PYT arranged two training sessions run by Caroline Downs. The first session was held before the workshops began and focussed on exercises and ideas on how to devise a performance with young people with a disability and dealing with problematic behaviour. The training was not specific as at that point we did not know the make up of the group. The second session was held after workshops had started and dealt primarily with problematic behaviour and working with a large group many of whom were high needs. It was generally felt that the second session was more successful and appropriate for this project. It’s interesting to note that no one involved, including AArts staff, had worked with an integrated group on a performance project before and there was no training that we knew of that we could offer the artists. We all effectively entered the project ‘blind’.
A call out for interested young people was distributed in December 2002 and again January 2003. The call out was coordinated by PYT and AArts, and was sent primarily through the organisations’ extensive networks. Email, paper flyer, print media and word of mouth were the main methods of getting the word out about the project.
While disability services were aware of Sucked In, and asked to refer on interested young people, this project worked entirely outside of the disability sector. This proved to be both a blessing and curse. It definitely worked in our favour when dealing directly with participants and their families rather relying on services to pass on information. Also in general the participants felt freer to reach outside themselves. Everyone started the projected with a blank slate, including those without a disability, and there were no pre-existing parameters about what someone could or could not do. Working outside the disability sector did mean that we had no support workers in the room and this was problematic. It also meant that we were not able to attract an audience from the disability sector. Please see below for more details.
Workshops began in February 2003 at PYT’s home, Fairfield School of the Arts, with approximately 22 young people. The majority of the group, roughly 65%, identified as having a disability. The disabilities ranged from physical, intellectual, Down Syndrome, acquired brain injury (ABI), mental and visual. This initial group had such diverse abilities and high needs that often the artists, and some of the participants, were forced to baby sit the less social and more problematic members of the group. Over the first 4 to 6 weeks of workshops, nearly half the group dropped out and we were left with 12 performers. Of these 12, 7 identified as having a disability ranging from physical, intellectual, Down Syndrome, acquired brain injury (ABI), cerebral palsy and visual. The overwhelming response from all the artists involved was that the initial group of 22 was too large and difficult to work with, particularly as we did have carers in the room. The loss of almost half the participants during the process was viewed not as a problem but as essential for the ongoing success of the project. It is important to note that the final 12 performers functioned remarkably cohesively and despite some small problems were extremely supportive and caring toward each other.
The group met 10am till 4pm every Sunday for 5 months. It quickly became apparent that the majority of the group had no or very little performance experience and the first 2 / 3 months were focussed on skills training. All artists ran workshops in their speciality, and participants gained skills in acting, physical theatre, voice, script development, sound, digital technology and design. Caroline Downs ran the first two workshops to help ease the other artists into the process. Caroline was not involved in the project after the 2nd workshop.
From day one we made it clear that no one would be forced to perform in the final production, but that we wanted everyone actively participate in the workshops, including the artists. This approach was important, as several in the group were nervous about performing. For example Ashley wanted to write scripts for the production but was adamant that he would not perform. Ashley has cerebral palsy and was worried that the audience would not understand him. We encouraged Ashley to attend the workshops and participate in the exercises and improvisations, though we made it clear he did not have to perform in the final production. With the support of the artists and the other participants Ashley’s confidence grew and it became clear he was not only a skilled writer but also a wonderful actor. In the end we couldn’t get Ashley off the stage, and after Sucked In he pursued other performance and writing opportunities at ATYP and NIDA.
We worked very hard to ensure that the workshop space was safe and supportive but no one was allowed to use their ‘ability’ to get out of trying an exercise. As a result everyone in the group developed new skills and achieved things they thought (and were often told) they were incapable of doing. For example at the beginning of the project Hakki had a habit of withdrawing and saying he could not do an exercise because he was blind. It became obvious that in certain circumstances he used his lack of vision as an excuse to pull out of an exercise he did not want to do. At first we encouraged him to join in, then we gently pushed him to do activities and eventually we forced Hakki to try different exercises. By the end of the project he had huge shift in attitude and gained a lot of confidence in himself. One of my favourite moments was when we did trust walks. Everyone had to be guided blind around the room and trust their partner to be their eyes. Hakki loved this exercise and was thrilled to be given the chance to be someone’s eyes. It was very empowering for him to be the one guiding rather then always having to be guided.
About a month into the process it was obvious the group were not interested in the original concepts. They didn’t want to make a show about advertising and marketing nor were they interested in discussing their different levels of ability. When ideas about ability were raised they either fell silent and refused to talk or stated that it was not an issue. The most interesting and thought provoking ideas emerged when discussing new technologies, futuristic worlds and popular culture. For example we asked the group to name a digital or technological invention that they would like to see developed and how they would use it. Andrew suggested a robotic arm so he could pick up girls!
The artists debated long and hard about what to do and how far we should push them to talk about something they did not want to discuss. As the performance season loomed and with few ideas around marketing, we made a conscious choice to abandon the original concept and create a production based on their thoughts and ideas. We all felt that it was more important the work come from them and that they ‘own’ it. Hence the evil internet fridge and Sucked In was born.
The final performance was a mix of pre-written scripts and group devised improvisations. We generated as much material as possible through group improvisations, script writing and design workshops. Then at a production meeting all their work was tabled and we pulled out the most interesting and dynamic ideas. I provided a framework for the show, which the group all fed into and agreed on. Then the last 4 to 6 weeks were spent refining, re-writing and developing the final performance.
As we entered the final few weeks of rehearsals it became apparent that several in the group were struggling to remember the story and structure. To help them learn it, all the devised scenes were transcribed and a script of the entire show was compiled. With a written script in hand all the performers were encouraged to learn their lines and remember their movements. The thought of learning a script proved to be a massive hurdle for some of the group and in hindsight it might not have been the solution. However what could have been a disaster turned into a major achievement for the participants. For example Lina had been told over and over again that she could not remember lines because of her injury (ABI). She spoke quite openly about her supposed ‘inability’ however it was obviously a source of frustration for her. When we gave her the script she was horrified. She genuinely did not believe she was capable of learning and retaining it. We encouraged her to forget what she had been told in the past and to learn as much as she could. With a lot of support Lina learnt all her lines and nailed them each night. She was absolutely thrilled to have achieved this and after the final performance spoke to me about how much confidence she has gained and how glad she was that she had conquered this fear.
The final two weeks were focussed, hectic and pushed all the participants to do and achieve things they thought were impossible. No one was allowed to say ‘I can’t do that’ or use their perception of their own ability as an excuse. And it is a credit to everyone involved that the final production was pulled together in a relatively short space of time. The week of performances was exciting, scary, exhaustive and extremely satisfying. The opening night was probably the best performance with all the nervous tension and excitement exploding in a fantastic performance. The standing ovation given by the audience speaks volumes about this performance.
Subsequent shows were all fantastic however five proved to be too much for the group and many were extremely tired by the end of the week. Audience numbers were strong throughout the season and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
One of the greatest strengths of Sucked In was the sense of community that developed between the participants and artists. It was not an easy task integrating a group of young people with mixed abilities however by the end the group had a strong, supportive, friendly bond that was noticeable both on and off stage. This achievement is extremely important and significant particularly when there was so little work of this type happening in 2003. The positive relationship between the participants also had a huge impact on the audience, including funding bodies and people who worked in the disability sector. I was told numerous time by audience members how surprised and impressed they were that the group not only worked so well together on stage but that they had obviously established close friendships.
All the performers benefited a great deal from their participation in Sucked In. They all collaborated successfully with peers they would not normally work or ‘hang out’ with. It was the first time that the young people without a disability had worked with a large group of peers with a disability and vice versa. They learnt a lot about each other and their own preconceptions about ability and disability. For me this was the important objective of this project – to breakdown some of the barriers and stereotypes that exist between young people with and without a disability.
The supportive relationship was the direct result of the working process and environment set up and nurtured by the artists. From the outset we ensured that the group were not split into those with a disability and those without. We endeavoured to get feedback and ideas from everyone in the group and ensured that the group listened and considered everyone’s thoughts. We noted that our behaviour was ‘copied’ by the young people without a disability in the beginning however as the project progressed and friendships developed, they did not need us to set an example.
I think it is important to recognise the young people without a disability, as often they can become lost in an integrated group. These young people all volunteered for this project and stuck with the process despite the difficulties that arose. The size of the group meant that artists were swamped coping with the different needs in the room. This was particularly true at the start. Often the young people without a disability stepped in and assisted without any prompting on our behalf. Their assistance included encouraging ideas and participation, helping with lines and at times (literally) babysitting. These young people are remarkable people who displayed maturity beyond their years. It was important however that we (i.e. the artistic team) ensure that they also were been pushed and challenged. It was definitely difficult finding and maintaining a balance and we succeed as much as we failed but was an issue that we always raised at production meetings so we were constantly thinking about how best to meet the needs of everyone in the room.
A really important outcome of the project was that the written and visual material was either initiated or developed by the performers. The participants were able to see how their ideas and input were essential to building the show and hence they all felt a strong sense of ownership over the project. Ashley Walker and Robert Jenkins wrote several scenes for the play and a team of five co-wrote the short film and nearly all the other scenes came from improvisations. Some of the funniest moments came from comments or ideas suggested by the participants during the final two weeks of the rehearsals. Sucked In was very much a participant driven performance.
I think all the artists benefited from the project and enjoyed working with the group. A very strong bond developed amongst the artists and our process on the floor was very fluid, supportive and open. It was however an extremely difficult and exhausting project. Everyone worked above and beyond the original guidelines, and we were all required to take on extra tasks. But all the artists generally enjoyed working with this group and gained so much from the project. We all learnt new skills and as a result are confident working with an integrated group and/or people with a disability.
Sucked In was not without its challenges. The initial size of the group was too large for the artists to handle. The first few weeks were spent solving problems and dealing with the participants with high needs. This meant artistic process and skills development took a back seat. At times we felt like we were running respite care and child minding service. I have never been so relieved to lose nearly half the participants of a project.
We discovered that many of the participants had behavioural problems and/or trouble with social interaction. Some of the problems we were dealing with included theft, mild physical violence, sexual harassment (verbal & physical), refusal to participate, refusal to listen to or accept direction or suggestions, and a high number of arguments between participants with disabilities. All the artists were pushed to the limits of their patience and tempers. We were all forced to deal with problems and issues that drew their focus away from their main artistic role. For example Richard spent most of the last few weeks sitting next to one participant with an ABI who could not censor his thoughts before thinking. Not surprisingly this caused numerous problems and the only solution we could find was to ask the participant to say everything quietly to Richard first and then Richard could filter out anything that could offend others. We would have benefited from the presence of trained carers and more assistants in the room. I would also recommend that future projects have systems in place to de-brief artists during and at the end of a project.
One of the biggest challenges of this project was that it struggled to attract an audience from the disability sector. It was very difficult to secure bookings from disability organisations for several reasons including lack of notice, all the performances were at night and because we were working outside the disability sector. I also believe the project needed a dedicated PR person. Both PYT and AArts had limited staff and it was impossible to dedicate the time required to effectively publicise the project to the disability sector. We did as much publicity as we were able but this was primarily to local papers and company networks. In hindsight we should have budgeted for a PR person.
The final performance was a great success and is a tribute to everyone involved. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive and we were rewarded with a standing ovation on opening night. The final production, I believe, was able to combine sound, video, design and digital with the live performance to create an integrated production. The sci-fi nature of the story provided the ideal scenario for the multimedia aspects of the production.
The audience numbers were high throughout the season (215 over 5 performances) with some attending several performances. The performances were attended by Arts NSW, the Australia Council for the Arts, Fairfield City Council, Holroyd City Council and of course family and friends. Numerous youth theatre practitioners also attended. I know there were people, other directors and artists who criticised Sucked In for not pushing contemporary theatre practice or for been a bit rough and ready. But it’s interesting to note some of the artists who criticised Sucked In, went away and initiated their own integrated theatre project, and that in it’s self is a successful outcome.
Finally I think it was a major achievement that this project was produced. When we set up the project I was not aware of many other performances that were created and performed by an integrated group. It was exciting to work outside of our every day parameters, and watch that group grow, develop and support each other. Most of all it was exciting to be able to have the opportunity to be part of Sucked In.
Mary Jekki, Robert Jenkins, Kylie Matthews, Teresa Nguyen, Andrew Pall, Simon Parkes, Emma
Plant, Lina, Pollifrone, Megan Power, Hakki Soyvermis, Julie Trunong, Ashley Walker
Producers: Powerhouse Youth Theatre in association with Accessible Arts
Project Managers: Rayce Coyte, India Zegan & Katrina Douglas
Director: Katrina Douglas
Dramaturg: Richard Lagarto
Musician / Digital Artist: Nick Wishart
Designer: Lisa Mimmocchi
Lighting Designer: Rodney Bertram
Stage Manager: Padaric Meredith-Keller
Movement Director: Karen Therese
Drama Tutor / Mentor: Caroline A Downs
Assistant Director: Eva Cashel
Design Assistant: Katrin Kircheiss