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Dear Aadyam

“I have heard that theatre can change the life of differently abled people. It is also used as a treatment method and an aid in their development. How is this achieved? Also are there opportunities available for students that are mentally challenged in the field of theatre?”

– Flora Grace Stan and Jayasoorya ma – Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore

I would like to begin with stating that I am not a certified special educator, although I have worked with children with learning and physical difficulties. I have not formally researched this area and can speak only from my personal experiences and observations. Here we go.

Drama as a tool for change.

To begin with let’s put aside abilities or “disabilities” and examine how process based drama teaching (I’ll clarify that in a bit) can help anyone – child or adult.

Let’s do the following exercise. Yes please, let’s do it, or else a large pink elephant will fall on you. #DramaTeacherQuirk

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Sit comfortably.
Visualise a glass tumbler, one that you would normally use to drink water or juice.
(Don’t rush this now. The pink elephant is watching!) I have left dotted gaps for pauses. One dot for a short pause. Two dots for longer. Follow your own instincts and ignore if it doesn’t help.
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Become aware of your breathing. Don’t control it. Don’t seek to align your chakras. Just observe it.
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Observe your thoughts. Perhaps examples like these may come and go. “Can I not do the exercise and just read this?”, “Ooh exciting!”, “Has my spouse remembered to do that thing?” and so on.
Let those thoughts come and go like a river.
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When you’re somewhat ready, bring your attention to the glass tumbler. Perhaps it’s in front of you on a table.
What colour is it? Do you see any designs or engravings? Does it have a flat base? Circular or square like?
Let these sink in.
There is no right or wrong answer. There isn’t any need to spin a Booker Prize winning story about glass tumblers and ancestral angst. Simply accept the simple.
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Now let’s visualise liquid in the tumbler.
Maybe it’s orange juice and it’s chilled. You may or may not like orange juice but it doesn’t matter. You can replace orange juice with a juice of your choice.
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What are the sensations in your mouth? Did your body become alert or did it relax? Is your mouth watering because of citrus? Is there a citrusy fragrance that you are sensing? Spend time with these sensations.
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Does a memory of an awful restaurant or a wonderful evening with someone special come to mind? Spend time with that.

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Now, are there visible signs of the lower temperature of the glass? Condensation? Vapours?
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Imagine drinking it. Don’t pick it up. Just think of the idea of drinking the juice.
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What’s happening in or to your body now?
What are the emotions you are feeling? Try to get more specific.
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Wonderful! Stay with this now, we are almost done. As long as you’re not rushing, but putting in an effort, you’re doing well.
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Now, noting the size and weight of the tumbler, reach out at a normal pace and lift the glass.  Maintain its size and weight. Try not to crush the glass! It’s expensive!
Observe the glass now while it’s in your hands. Can you see more details in the glass or in the texture of the juice?
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Taste it, one sip. Observe your senses again for a few seconds. Don’t rush now, we are almost done.
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Now drink it. Empty the tumbler. And if you’re honest you’ll drink it without rushing…be it gulps or sips…but with precision… until the last few drops are emptied out.
Savour that experience.
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Now return the glass to its original position. Look at it.
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Smile. 🙂
Pat yourself on the back for indulging in “silly” fun. (Do it). Wave goodbye to the Pink Elephant.
Literally shake and pat your face a bit to come back to the present. (A very important step). Take a deep breath and exhale normally.
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Okay, now that we are done, let’s review. It is possible you may have had no reaction to the exercise. That’s alright. Ask yourself why and try it again some other time.
If you did have some experiences ask yourself, how many faculties or senses did you exercise or stimulate in this one simple exercise?
Quite a few. Your memory, creativity, maybe motor skills, hand-to-eye coordination and so on.
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Imagine if this and other exercises were done regularly, say on a weekly basis. (Just like exercise or meditation.) In theory one would gradually become more and more aware of one’s faculties and behaviours, and eventually develop and manage them.
Very importantly, imagine this in a space where you or a child is free from the expectation of giving a perfected final performance. You are free to explore, develop, FAIL, and get stronger each time. You are in training. This is process based training. As the term suggests we are concerned more with process and effort, and not the final outcome. We are concerned more with developing and monitoring skills in areas not related to acting per se. (Not initially at least). This is largely in opposition to what one does when rehearsing for the “Annual Day” school play.
To illustrate further, here’s an exercise one of my trainers put a bunch of us actors through.  He asked us to create a skit where the following conditions were met.
  1. There must be newspaper prop, and it must be passed (with justifiable reason) from one member of the cast to another during the entire performance.
  2. There must be one song and dance sequence
  3. There must be a slow motion fight sequence.
One can say this is an exercise in creativity. I’d say it’s an exercise in problem solving as well, and there’s so much more!
In the above exercise, one’s social skills, teamwork skills and even leadership skills are put to the test. Be you “starving artist” or “corporate slave”, you would know what it feels like at any meeting where you have to navigate egos (even one’s own), give each other space or take charge, listen to or negate someone and so on.

I can go on and on with several exercises and games and what their application might be towards memory, creativity, social emotional learning (big buzz word these days) and so on.

Here’s where we come specifically to people with learning difficulties.
After many years of working in mainstream schools I had the pleasure and honour of teaching drama at the Gateway School of Mumbai, a school for children with mild learning difficulties.
What I did at the school was merely the same things I did at other schools, except of course  the instructions had to be more specific or simplified and at times personalised to a single student. Each student had a different kind of challenge or “behaviour”.
Consider a child for whom merely standing still for a minute is extremely difficult. He has an urge to jump around constantly.
Imagine this same child in a performance, waiting in the wings for a cue to enter stage.
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Pause for a second. Are you getting edgy waiting for this blog post to end? Is there an unread Whatsapp message you couldn’t wait to reply to. Did you get a bit annoyed with this interruption? Multiply that feeling by 500.
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Just by practising waiting in the wings, the child is exercising patience, focus, memory etc.  We hope, with this kind of practice, he will be able to sit through a movie or wait in line for a train ticket.

Consider another child who has problems negotiating space. Merely reaching her designated spot on stage without placing markers is an achievement to celebrate.

Organising props, remembering your lines…these are analogous to dealing with and organising your own life.
The hope is that the skills we address in training filters into the other areas of life.
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So can process based drama teaching “change the life of the differently abled”? Yes, in varying degrees, if it is accompanied by clear goals, a long term view, trust and faith in the process by schools and other institutions and last but definitely not the least,  the support and advice of professionals like counsellors, occupational therapists, speech therapists and other such professionals.

Let it be known, that the drama teacher cannot work this magic without the help of these professionals. My work at Gateway was built on the work done by these and many other hard working individuals.

Pause for a second to imagine an Avengers Movie poster but with the kids, drama teachers, therapists, PARENTS and yes let’s not forget music, art and dance teachers.

Performances

With respect to opportunities to perform, let’s consider two kinds, school performances and  professional/ticketed performances.

School performances

Performances are touted as another way of building confidence. But why not just perform for the pure joy of performing?
If the concern however, is what the child will gain from a developmental point of view, then take the case of the typical mainstream school Annual Day performance. In a school with a  cast of 100, 500  or even 1000 children, the biggest challenge for the teacher/director is to  give each child at least two or three lines and hope the parents will not be too upset. #notallparents.

Then, as is often the case, the main goal is the “show”, the extravaganza, which means only the most skilled students get the best roles.
By role, I also mean roles related to costume, set design, poster design, backstage management and so on. With all the focus on the above, if there is no reasonable support for a child with learning needs, then the opportunities will be few or merely token.

Support could mean, merely accompanying the child to the restroom to help her or  explaining what the head teacher/director is trying to say or literally carrying the child if need be and so on.

Nowadays a shadow teacher is assigned to solely support a child with certain difficulties. The question to ask is, does the shadow teacher and for that matter the drama teacher/director have the skills to direct the child?
Sincere intentions notwithstanding, would they be able spare the necessary extra time and effort to go beyond the token role?
Would they even have the time and energy to devote to this, when the show is a few weeks away and the principal has expressed “concern” about  readiness and there are still two songs to be choreographed plus five remaining scenes and your life is falling apart?!
Oh and someone dropped out because they don’t have a good role.

These are realistic situations to consider alongside our sincere intentions.

I would like to clarify that I am not saying that efforts are not being made. Not at all. This is not an attempt to bash mainstream schools. Just highlighting important things to think of, if we are to consider performances as either enjoyable or learning experiences for a child with learning difficulties.

I have to also say that on a few occasions when I tried to cast the “weaker” or less confident student in meaningful roles, I have faced resistance.
Once, in an IB school, in the year 2006, I asked a counsellor for advice on how to work with a child who had both learning and physical difficulties. This is what she told me “she has memory problems. Let her do something simple. Don’t give her dialogues”. I of course ignored her and this young girl surprised me with how well her memory was developing.
Again let me say that this is not an attempt to bash mainstream schools. And my observations can be anecdotal.

#FactCheck #ReaderBeware #ChillOnTheOutrage #BuyMeIceCream

The scenario in a school like Gateway School of Mumbai was obviously different. We all would expect and push the child to do more than what was expected and there would be support from all quarters, right from the support staff to teachers to counsellors.
But remember, this is a school specifically focussing on children with those needs.

Let us stop short of judging anyone who does not have the knowledge or skills for this. The need of the hour is sensible and reasonable systemic change. Not forced benevolent ideas better suited for delusional activism of social media.

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On a related note, I’ve seen such great sensitivity and patience in children towards their peers with challenges. Obviously in that respect schools are doing a great job. One hopes that this never devolves into charity or token sympathy. #notcynicalbutreal

Some schools have done away with the big shows and do smaller performances in each class. This is more manageable for the teacher/director thereby allowing for more opportunities. Parents are also informed that the performances may be raw or works in progress. This somewhat takes away pressure and allows for “risks”.
So is there value in this scenario, where in a mainstream school, ANY child with disabilities or not child spends two to three months of rehearsal and  gets to perform for only one evening and for only a few dialogues? Or be backstage and not be seen at all? YES! Why not?
The hard work related to becoming performance ready and furthermore performing well under pressure and under a deadline is analogous to real world scenarios.
Also, as a director of many annual days I can see how the child with even the smallest role has a blast leading up to the performance. It’s not just about the performance, it is the journey…the adventure, the fun leading up to the performance.
Apart from lessons learned during the process of rehearsal, an annual day performance can be one of those wonderful experiences that cannot and should not be measured pedantically. To what extent a child with difficulties is able to partake of the same adventure is the question.

I have spoken! *he said dramatically as he raised his sceptre*

Now here’s a thought. Can these performances be taken outside of school? Yes, but it’s highly unlikely. Children have academics, tuitions, extracurricular activities, pick up and drop issues, holidays to Spain or “didi’s shaadi”. #facepalm.

Additionally for children with learning or physical difficulties there could be after school speech therapy classes, physiotherapy and just once in a while… a “meltdown” due to which a child will need time maybe even days to get centred. This can be a logistical nightmare not to mention pressure on the child and parents as well.

Can the drama teacher/director take charge of taking a performance outside of school?
Taking a play outside of a school is actually a core skill of a producer, not an educator, even if that educator is involved with the performing arts. Not every actor can produce or direct. After several attempts I can cook a decent khichdi but that does not mean I should be allowed to cook Bisi Bele Baath.
The same applies for educators.
Also remember, that a teacher always has several non-teaching duties that we never see.
In the case of a full time or even a part time teacher, the job does not end when the school bell rings. It is not limited to that 30 to 45 minute class.
Any teacher, can easily spend 10 to 12 hours a day creating lesson plans, reviewing the day’s classes, managing this and that club or planning for some ridiculous “day” like “Pomfret Fry Day” or “Be nice to your Puppy Day”.

Then there’s fielding parent queries/complaints, writing and sending reports, break ups and… What? Umm. Moving along…

Professional productions?
Again here, there is no simple or easy answer. Productions with children are already rare.
Theatre groups can take the initiative to explore the possibility of casting someone and seeing it through. Just as in the case of school plays, it’s not that simple.
As we know, there are various kinds of behaviours that need to be supported and managed.  The actor could have memory issues or have extreme anxiety simply by being within three feet of another person or react adversely to sharp noises.

In the case of physical limitations, just grasping a prop may be next to impossible. Scripts may have to be adjusted. Co-actors will have to be sensitised. One needs experienced professionals to help them along the way. Empathy is not enough. These are the ground realities that a sentimental post on social media will never address. #DoesShaunNotLikeSocialMedia?

Am I saying it’s impossible or that we shouldn’t even try? HELL NO! It just requires much more than good intentions and hashtags. #hashtag.

We already do have dancers who are deaf. Actors with Down syndrome have been seen in films. What about theatre?

It has to be noted also that there may not be that many performance ready actors around as well… as of now.
Divya Arora is a pioneer wheelchair bound actress with cerebral palsy who herself has directed more than a hundred plays. In an informal conversation she said that the performing arts is associated with entertainment and entertainment is not associated with disability, hence the lack of casting opportunities.
A cursory search led me to become aware of the Kolkata based group, Action Players that used to do ticketed shows with an all deaf cast from Oral Deaf School for Deaf Children.
However as Ms. Arora would say, (not to take away from the achievements or efforts of such groups and one-off “NGO productions”) the goal is to have those with disabilities act alongside mainstream actors and not in separate productions.

It seems to be that both opportunities and performance ready actors are few… as of now.

Where can one learn to work with those with learning or physical difficulties?

As I mentioned I am not a certified special educator and I merely tweaked my existing lessons and methodologies. The performing arts and its teaching have been largely unorganised or unregulated and most drama teachers are theatre practitioners who take up education. The new education policy seems to be addressing this, at least for mainstream drama teaching and it will take time for the ideas to take formal shape.

A simple google search for “Drama Therapy” or “Drama Children with Autism“, will yield many results. It would be imprudent of me to comment or recommend any, without properly reviewing courseware and doing a comparative study. I am also not qualified to make that comparison.

As far as learning how to teach drama is concerned, I was trained and mentored at a company called Theatre professionals. Do look them up.

Whew! This has been long and there’s more to talk about, but we shall end here. I hope this has been meaningful for you. I have tried to articulate this as honestly as possible and I do apologise for any fallacies in thought and opinion.
As a parting drama exercise. Ask your child or your spouse to imitate you. Let me know how that goes! #couplechallenge #okbye. #pinkelephants

PS. For those interested, the youth theatre festival Thespo will be conducting a panel discussion on this on December 19th at 5:00 PM. In addition to myself we will hear from representatives of Baltazar Theatre, Hungary that casts actors with Down syndrome and Flute Theatre, London which adapts Shakespearean texts and devises games that they then perform for, and along with, members on the autism spectrum. Each show employs one member on the spectrum interacting with the troupe.

– Shaun Williams

About Shaun Williams

Shaun Williams is a drama teacher, acting coach and actor with a combined experience of twenty years. He has had a brief stint in the corporate world as a publicist for Warner Bros. India. As a trainer he is most known for having trained the child actors for several Flipkart.com TV ads. He has taught drama at Gateway School of Mumbai a school for children with learning difficulties. As an actor he has been seen in TV commercials like the notable Men will be Men "Lift ad" for Pernod Ricard, KFC, Volkswagen, Vodafone, Idea Cellular and more.

Website: www.thecellardoor.in.
IG: Shaunjee
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/shaunwilliamsactor

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