Kids Meet World – On Their Terms

Published on 23 September 2017

Bamboozle Theatre Company's production of Storm at West Gate School in Leicester. (Courtesy of British Council Singapore)

The people at Bamboozle Theatre Company don’t say ‘Good’, ‘well done’, or any other form of praise. Instead, they create magical interactive worlds where kids with learning disabilities decide for themselves what feels like the right thing to do.

By Jo Tan

Courtesy of British Council Singapore

Perhaps surprisingly, Christopher Davies’ passion for working with learning-disabled kids began even while teaching more enabled ones in primary school. “It wasn’t a special school, but there’s always a range of abilities in every group, and I had to communicate differently with each of them. And I was always interested in bringing all of them along to art activities so that they could benefit,” says the educator with several decades of experience.

“There still aren’t many places that train people to work with children with special education needs, but these years of working with and learning on the job from various young people have solidified my belief that all children, no matter their abilities or disabilities, have a right to access the highest quality art, and the educational benefit that brings. Theatre in particular, is not only entertainment, but enables kids to get access to the world – which children with learning disabilities might find difficult otherwise.”

Courtesy of British Council Singapore

In 1994, Davies co-founded Bamboozle Theatre Company (for which he is also the writer, director and artistic director), where performers present shows and programmes with theatrical elements for children with learning difficulties. These might be in a theatre, a schoolroom, or even a family home, with audiences as few as four a time. Spaces are transformed to provide a highly sensorial experience, with elements like puppets, live singing, instruments, essential oils to perfume a room, floaty fabrics, bouncing ping pong balls, even basins of water with deliciously crackly leaves and dried petals for young people to dip their hands in. And the young audience is allowed to interact or ignore everything, without fear of anybody saying no, stop, or even, perhaps surprisingly, ‘Well done.’

Courtesy of British Council Singapore
Bamboozle Theatre Company's production of Storm at West Gate School in Leicester. (Courtesy of British Council Singapore)

Says Davies, “The Bamboozle Approach stems from two main beliefs. 1. Children know more than we think they do, and 2. Judgment inhibits learning. Judgment comes in many forms – tests, grades, even when we tell a child, ‘Good’ – Because that implies that something or someone else wasn’t good, or creates the fear of them not being as good next time.  Yes, this often flies in the face of everything many educators know, but it’s something we’ve developed from over twenty years of experience.”

Nicole Arkless – Bamboozle’s Education Co-ordinator and an actor/facilitator in several Bamboozle programmes- elaborates on how these beliefs are applied. “You often cannot discern responses from our young audiences the same way you would discern them in neuro-typical children. In our shows for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities for example, the audience are usually in wheelchairs, without spoken language, only limited intentional controlled movement and usually several accompanying medical problems. To many people, some might seem only to be staring at the ceiling, and it’s easy to assume they don’t understand anything that’s going on.  But when the actors are up close to them as we are, we can pay attention to the whole person and see something very subtle, like the blink of an eye or the wiggle of a foot. And you can build incrementally on any response.”

Courtesy of British Council Singapore

“Accordingly, we make sure the structure of each show or residency is elastic enough that while there are certain points to hit, we can spend more time on something people appear to be responding to. No responses are wrong – If a kid yells, maybe we’d yell with them. If they want to hold onto an instrument that the musician was supposed to play, that’s fine. If they are uninterested in what we offer them to touch or smell, that’s also fine – everything is an invitation, not an obligation. What is important is the communication with them.”

While something this seemingly lacking in targets might seem to some to be far from educational, Bamboozle boasts countless stunning success stories. Says Davies, “On one particular occasion, a child on the autism spectrum said goodbye to the performers while they were performing the goodbye song. The teachers fell off their chairs because he had not spoken for two years and we’d only spent forty minutes with him. He didn’t tell us exactly what had happened in his head, but what we believe is that he had recognised this was a safe space where he wasn’t being asked to accomplish anything. He could relax because what was happening was all obviously for him, and so perhaps he thought, ‘nobody’s going to judge me if I say anything, so I will.’ The headmistress later said he spoke to her in the corridor several times since. One of the reasons people don’t want to do something is because they’re scared they’ll get it wrong, or it’s not going to please their teacher or mother. But when you create an interesting space like a multi-sensorial, theatrical environment, then people are free and excited to explore.”

Courtesy of British Council Singapore

“Then there’s Amy, a girl who had very limited movement, no spoken language and a facial expression so unvaried that her attentive parents only discerned she had broken her leg a week after the fact. In our exercise about a bear hiding in a cave, she actually lunged forward in her wheelchair to try and see the creature. Another example: When we toured our show to Shanghai, a father said it was the first time he had seen his daughter be herself, because this time he had felt safe enough to sit back and let her run around the set during the show. If he’d done what he usually did – staying close to her and informing her decisions and picking her up before she was in any danger of hurting herself – she would not have been able to make choices and show her personality.”

Davies concludes, “Teachers and carers are constantly telling us that in our shows and residencies, they see the kids do things they have never done before. We believe the reason is this: Often in teaching, it’s about getting a result. Instead, we are exploring possibilities and enabling a safe and interesting space. We are providing an opportunity –whether with stories, or characters, or just a multi-sensory place to play – in which things can happen.”­­

Christopher Davies and Nicole Arkless were in Singapore from 19-21 September, sharing the Bamboozle Approach with artists, educators and disability professionals in a series of workshops presented by The British Council and National Arts Council.

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