The cast of A Class Act!My wonderful and amazing students from “A Class Act” with The Magic Paintbrush Project performed on April 27th (a play they wrote!) and hit the ball out of the park. They were amazing, they were incredible, they brought the house down. And every single one of them has a disability. I wrote about them last fall, when we were just beginning our process (see “Life is Washable”), but as a result of the show, folks have been asking about children, challenges, and performance, especially children who are on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.

I last posted some specific observations and activities about working with children living with such challenges in January of 2013, but it seems relevant to repost, so here it is. Please let me know if I can be of help to you or your group! I have also posted some additional links to resources at the end of the article.

I am a performer and Teaching Artist with a long history and much training in working with people whose perceptual/interactive experience of the world is on the fringe of typical association. In 2012, I was hired by 3 Tier Consulting to do theater workshops with children on the Asperger-Autism spectrum in Watertown and Fort Drum. Most of these children come from families with a spouse in the active armed forces, oftentimes also facing a possible move to another base; although we ran 2 sets of 2 weekly sessions about six months apart, only one boy was in both sets.

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. Kids in the show But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear.

Fabulously enough, targeted performance skills are targeted performance skills, regardless of whether the workshop participants are professional adult actors or children with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Working on a stage-sharing Ensemble, creating and understanding dialogue, unpacking meaning, developing a gesture repertoire or honing gestural language are things ALL actors must constantly revisit, which means that ‘Going to Acting Class’ is something an eleven-year-old boy can talk about at school with pride. It is also a context that can comfortably absorb people with a wide range of social skills, including typically-developing children.

We had two groups, one for children from four to seven years old, and one for children (who turned out to be all boys) from nine to thirteen years old. The younger group had children all over the Asperger-Autism map (I have found that ‘spectrum’ implies a linearality that is not really helpful or accurate in a performance context), and the older group was made up of boys with various manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome.

With the younger group, I chose the theme of Weather, specifically wind and snow, because it was late fall/early winter, imageand kids ‘on the spectrum’ in particular respond well to themed structure. I knew that they would need the space and a variety of concrete visual, sound and text clues to guide implicitly, so I created a circle with one “opening” made up of soft blankets with differing colors and designs, folded to create a large ‘mat’, knowing the children would gravitate toward them a places to be, lie down, watch, etc, and that they would choose the design and color best for them.

In the middle of the circle were picture books (fiction and non-fiction) and some magazine photographs about winter, as well as crayons, markers, and paper. As children drifted in, they were given the opportunity to draw, listen, read, look, or talk about the weather and the coming winter. Once we were all there, we shifted from drawing, etc to recounting to imagining we were going to go outside and play in the snow.

Each child in turn (the idea of waiting to take your turn and knowing what the appropriate social cue is for that is HUGE) imagesuggested something we had to wear or bring in order to go outside and play (reinforcing life skills). Once we all agreed we were ready, we got off our mats and pretended to do snow things—skate around the circle to music, sit on our mats and go ‘sledding’, make snow angels, and even rip up paper and throw it into the air for it to fall.

The last snow activity we did was make imaginary snow beings and snow creatures in the air, as though the air was the snow that we rolled, stacked and shaped. The children took turns explaining what their snow creature was (“Bunny”) or what their snow man was doing (“throw snow!” or gesturing a pose, sometimes with help). We then took a BIG step. After taking off our pretend outdoor clothes, everyone got a partner.

I demonstrated how I was going to gently turn my partner into a sculpture, we brainstormed some movement ideas and then each child had a turn to turn their partner into something. They could touch, gesture, use words, whatever, but it had to be gentle and it had to be more than one action (we encouraged both arms and legs with optional silly face). The receiver had to wait and then only take the pose suggested. All sculptures were applauded, and then we had quiet music movement time, where children had the option to enjoy the music on their blankets or move around the room to the music as they wished or as the elements of winter I offered (“What if you were a snowflake?”).

imageI try to think of a class plan as being full of the patterns of breathing, inhale and exhale, collect/focus in and expand/focus out, with the pattern of such changing tempo depending on whether I want the ‘heartbeat’ of the group to quicken, steady, or slow. This kind of planning is especially important in working with these children, and one must be constantly on the lookout for when it is time to slow down in stretching ebbs, like mathematical ellipses. The movement-to-music time was necessary to break free the intensity of having to focus on and touch (!) another child, but it had to be gently controlled up to a release and brought ebblingly back to a sweet quiet, each on our blankets after only about 5-7 minutes (which is less than other populations might need).

I then skim-read them Jan Brett’s The Mitten, mostly focusing on the next animal, the actions, and asking things like, “Wow! Look at the bunny’s face! How do you think he feels?” or “Oh no! The prickly hedgehog will be squished inside too! What would it be like to be in the mitten with a hedgehog?” or “What do you think will happen next?” targeting reading expressions and gestures, putting oneself in other’s place, and predicting outcome.

Then we started over from the beginning and everyone’s blanket was a mitten! We could be whichever animals we wanted in our mitten, yelling out “Ouch” or “Move Over!” or “Please let me in!” if we chose. The most fun, of course, was exploding out everywhere at the end when the bear (also in the mitten) sneezes. We finished up with me reading/gesture-performing William Steig’s Brave Irene, with all of us chiming in with movements and sounds and phrases as we went along through the story (sort of participatory street-theatre style), and stopping to imagine how the characters felt or what they wanted or what they would do.

With the older boys, we targeted many of the same skills, but in different ways. We began with shadow puppets, and after imageencouraging them to experiment with design and create whatever characters they chose, they had to tell a short story (it could be silent) using the shadow puppets and the other boys as puppeteers. Each child had an opportunity to be the boss, but was not required to be in any one else’s . If they chose to be, however, they had to take direction and not take over the narrative. It was an interesting challenge for them, as the idea of hiding behind a screen and seeing the shadows appear in the dark room is pretty compelling, although the idea of doing what you were asked and not your own idea until it was your turn was daunting indeed. The ‘cool’ factor won out!

From there we progressed to me reading/showing a book with paper-cut illustrations of the Japanese legend The Warrior and the Wiseman. We unpacked the story as we went as well as afterwards, and then created masks of the characters to wear to act out the story. Mask-making was such a hit, we didn’t have a chance to perform the narrative, although the boys would put the masks on and act out as they developed their masks. Boys with Asperger’s are usually well aware by the time they are 10 or 11 that the language of facial gestures, expression, and subtextual meaning is pretty easily interpreted and used by their peers, but still a murky, seemingly disconnected gobbledygook to themselves. They are therefore, very sensibly, generally resistant to taking risks with face/gesture/subtext/meaning; that they spontaneously took risks and played with this crazy alien language is remarkable, and I believe the masks/mask-making made that possible.

Having explored shape a bit with the shadow puppets, they had to think about color and expression and feeling as it was established in the strong characterizations of the Elemental ‘Demons’ and two main (and diametrically opposed) characters. It’s a great book for pre-teens in general, as it is about what the longer term consequences are of taking what you want versus being generous, and what it means to be a man. It’s even more appropriate for pre-teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, as the Demons respond immediately and impetuously to their circumstances and the Wiseman has to deduce from their actions, dialogue, and expressions how they feel, what his brother the Warrior has done, and what he himself can do to set things back on the right path.

Theatre is always an effective and exciting medium in which to explore, discover, and practice emotion, relationships, and social meaning, but it is especially beneficial for children for whom this kind of stuff is like an alien landscape. The main difference is that the ‘steps’ between one idea/practice and the other need to be closer together and more carefully illuminated.

Helpful links!

IMG_0449These past weeks have held plentiful reminders of the horrendous things we do to each other as people and societies. In the face of large darknesses, we often for get that ignorance and intolerance are bred and cultivated in much smaller arenas long before they grow into mass malignancy. I myself have found it difficult to find anything to write about of late, and I am one of the most pragmatically action-oriented people I know.

With this in mind, I have decided to devote this blog and the next to arts-based projects that are creating opportunities for connection and knowledge. The texts about the three projects are directly from the blog articles themselves, and the title is linked to the original. Here’s an added bonus– you can become involved in these yourself, in one way or another!

Women Artists and Wikipedia

“Many women’s arts organizations have worked to increase the visibility of women artists online.

Women Arts logo

WomenArts created our online directory of women artists, the Women Arts Network, in 2003 because we wanted to encourage women to increase their presence on the web. Any woman artist can create a free profile page on our site, and we currently have about 1,600 active profiles. We have also compiled a list of other directories of women artists. If you know of a directory that should be added to our list, please contact us.

It is important to keep adding information to our women-controlled websites, since Wikipedia has rules and a culture that will be challenging for some women artists, but we agree with the founders of Art + Feminism that we need to make sure that women artists are fully represented in this online encyclopedia that so many people are using.

Documenting women artists worldwide in all art forms is a huge task that will require input from thousands of women, but it is something that all of us can work on – either on our own or in groups. If you are looking for something to do with your friends this year on SWAN Day, this could be a great choice. If you are a teacher, this could be a great project for your students.

Art + Feminism has created some excellent Wikipedia articles to help you get started. There is an article about how to organize an edit-a-thon MeetUp group, and their own Wikipedia Meet-Up page has links to upcoming events and helpful articles about creating and editing Wikipedia listings.”

Raven promo pic

From Raven Brings the Light, with Kakeru

World Theatre for Children and Young People

This is from a Huffington Post blogpost by Lauren Gunderson.Not to sound overly grand (too late), but so much of the toxicity in this world comes from a collective draining of empathy. We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize.

As my friend Bill English of San Francisco’s SF Playhouse says, theater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.

Kids need this kind of practice even more than adults do. This is going to be their planet and they’ve got more time to apply that empathy and make a difference. Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax challenges us to actively and specifically teach children (and vote for presidents with) empathy. Why not take your child to the theater to do just that.”

“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here”

This is holly again, speaking about this book that shares with us the incredible work of artists and performers of Muslim faith striving against the oppressions of fundamentalism. I first became aware of this amazing book and the work of some of the people profiled in it when I read a published excerpt in Theatre Without Borders newsletter. I quote from the book’s description on Amazon: “From Karachi to Tunis, Kabul to Tehran, across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and beyond, these trailblazers often risked death to combat the rising tide of fundamentalism within their own countries.

But this global community of writers, artists, doctors, musicians, museum curators, lawyers, activists, and educators of Muslim heritage remains largely invisible, lost amid the heated coverage of Islamist terror attacks on one side and abuses perpetrated against suspected terrorists on the other.” IMG_0728 (1)

So there it is. Read the book, or add Women Artists, or support incredible theatre for children— it is with these small actions that we change the shape of a landscape or the course of a river.

I write this on my last day in Kabul, where for the past 10 days I have had the honor and joy of working with children at the Afghan Mobile Mini Children’s Circus and being a supporting team member for Eva Vander Giessen in Afghan Friends Network meetings. I have been able to wear bright clothes, walk by myself to the circus in the morning or home at midday, and been to restaurants where men and women are allowed to eat together (although they are uncommon, and are generally referred to as ‘restaurants for foreigners’, even if mostly Afghans are there). Girls go to school in Kabul, and I have met AFN scholarship students, men and women, who are studying engineering, art, medicine, and so much more in Kabul’s many universities.

However, it is best if women are in pairs or more, and it would be very very dangerous to go out on foot after dark. A German woman I have met is careful not to take the same routes all the time, as sometimes foreign women can be ‘tracked’–I am grateful to look somewhat local (I have been mistaken at first glance for being from here), but I am careful not to make eye contact with men, to physically step out of their way, to shield my face from too much attention especially when I am walking alone.

Kabul is a dynamic place where change is happening, albeit slowly. The provinces, the villages, and so on, are another story entirely, almost like another country. There is tremendous pressure to keep women from becoming educated, often to keep them from ever leaving the house, and these two ideas converge in the suppression of women voting. The pictures following are from Bond Street Theatre, and used with permission.

Bond Street Theatre is fostering an incredible Women’s Theatre Company in Afghanistan for women to reach out to other women —including performances in their homes—to make them aware of their rights and the importance of voting. As Artistic Director Joanna Sherman said, “Theatre brings crucial information to life.”

So, here in Kabul, I am encouraging you to learn about and hopefully support this incredibly important project!I quote Bond Street’s Blog “On the Road” :

This is a time of hope and possibility. A new generation is voting for the first time in Afghanistan, and half of them are women. Women’s right to vote is a hard-earned victory, and yet many women are unaware of their right to vote.This is a time for crucial change. In the past decade, women have made great strides, setting Afghanistan on a promising course. But conservative factions are working hard to reverse these advances and prevent women from enjoying the most basic human rights.

Bond Street Theatre has been working for Afghan women for more than 10 years. We trained four women’s theatre groups to create theatre — by women, for women — to spread the word about women’s right to vote, why each vote counts, and how to register. They are a first in Afghanistan!

These women are role models: they encourage women and girls to speak out. Theatre shows like these have a ripple effect through the community and a huge impact. In order to reach as many women (and men) as possible, we must raise $10,000.

Visit our Indiegogo page Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre to contribute!

Women’s voice in government and participation in the election is essential to protect and advance their rights!

“This theatre project has given me new courage to speak out!”

(Ayesha, member of Nangarhar Women’s Theatre troupe in Jalalabad.)

More about this Bond Street program (from a press release, used with permission):

Bond Street Theatre has been working toward peace and social improvement in Afghanistan since 2002 through programs that build the capacity of local organizations and promote creative thinking and problem-solving, especially focusing on women and youth. The Election Fraud Mitigation project builds on BST’s 2010-2012 Theatre for Social Development program, which provided artistic and practical business training to prepare local theatre groups to use their skills for public education.

The six troupes will present 70+ performances in multiple provinces between August 2013 and April 2014. Elections are scheduled for April 5, 2014. Performances are followed by direct activities with the audience to explore potential solutions to voting issues. The goal of the project is to use interactive, mobile performances to educate the electorate on the value of a strong, legitimate government achieved by a fair election process and effective fraud prevention strategies.”

How awesome is THAT?!?!?!?

Please at least check it out—the news media is so very seldom about this kind of incredible work.


As both my readers know, I believe the arts are how we connect to, discover, challenge, deeply converse with, and transform ourselves, our communities, our world.  In previous blogs, I have looked at Performance as Protest, and highlighted a number of practices and projects in North America and abroad;  below I am sharing two incredible arts movements in the Middle East that foster a growing sense of freedom, empowerment, and “voice”.

The first, from an article by George Azar and Mariam Shahin (link below) is about a performance form called “free running”, which is like parkours and movement improv mushed together. Youth in an isolated and forgotten section of Gaza finsd freedom and a way to speak to the world in a way where the limits become the liftoffs.

Named for the trading clan that once dominated it, Akkad is one of those places where even aid workers, who now visit the Gaza Strip in increasing numbers, never seem to come. It is hardly on the map.

For thousands of years, small cities like Khan Yunis were central to the trade routes that connected Egypt and Africa to Arabia. It was to Gaza City that the Makkan merchant Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf, great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, came to trade; he died there in 497 ce while heading a caravan. To Palestinians who relish their Islamic history, the capital of the Gaza Strip is still known as Ghazzat Hashim, “Hashim’s Gaza.”

To the young people who make up more than half of the Strip’s population of 1.7 million, Gaza’s historic role connecting cultures and continents makes up part of an identity intimately tied to the freedom of movement and travel enjoyed by most of the world’s population but routinely, almost universally, denied them today.

It is here in Khan Yunis, in Akkad, that in 2008 Mohammed Al-Jakhbeer and Abdullah Enshasi began practicing “free running.” Jumping from rooftop to windowsill to the ground, running along Akkad’s unpaved, sandy alleys, they found a way to both express themselves and reclaim a sense of freedom in movement.

– See more at:
This second article, by Juliet Highet, is about a movement in visual arts, using silence as a voice. I don’t know how else to describe it. I hope these two projects inspire you and your work as much as they have me and mine.”
“Middle Eastern artists, whether they live in that culturally kaleidoscopic (and ill-defined) region or outside it, are at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic movements in contemporary art.
Leila Essaydi, “Les Femmes du Moroc #7,” 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Waterhouse & Dodd.

Leila Essaydi, “Les Femmes du Moroc #7,” 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Waterhouse & Dodd.

Shadi Ghadirian, from “The Qajar Series,” 1998-1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Shadi Ghadirian, from “The Qajar Series,” 1998-1999. Courtesy of the artist

Their work is suffused by themes of identity, memory, grief, rage and a sense of belonging to ( or alienation from) the place or culture in which they live. The traumatic ruptures of wars, exile and migration that have affected them all are partly responsible—but a different consciousness has emerged in the last few years. What’s new is a cultural confidence and optimism, stemming from the fact of survival and the rising expectations that go with global recognition of the quality of their art.”


My mom, zip lining

Last weekend was Memorial Day weekend, and I struggled with what to say. I opted for a moment of silence instead.

But here it is..the next week!

Many people of late have asked me about my own history as a teaching artist, when I began, who shaped my initial thinking, what were my first forays into this dynamic field. Without question, my practice continues to change and grow as I strive to learn from colleagues, mentors, writings by Teaching Artists here on ALT/space and elsewhere, workshops, and the groups with whom I work.

However, my core frame, my nutrient-rich context into which the seeds of all things Arts/Education/Community are sown, is a gift from my mother, Barbara Lucia Adams.

Let me quote her. “I had a passion for theatre, but more importantly, I saw what it could do. I could see theatre was beyond just doing the plays, that it impacted people in their every day lives, that it was pretty magical and powerful. I saw that even when I was in high school. So I decided I wanted to teach theatre.”

My mother, a passionate, delightful, creative and dare I say somewhat mischievous person, got her Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre (with an emphasis on Children’s Theatre), with the additional majors of English and Psychology, although she says, “It wasn’t really like it sounds; some of the English and Theatre classes counted for both.” She also got a minor in Education and became certified to teach high school Theatre and English, and, at first, taught creative drama with 6-12 year olds for a summer program in Sterling, Illinois.

In truth, her own mother was an accomplished pianist (and quite the rabble rouser in her youth) who returned to teaching kindergarten when she was widowed. My mother was nine years old at the time, so the idea that arts and teaching, change, hard work and delight all intersect was a part of her own growing-up.

My mother again: “Then I decided to get my Masters in Social Work so I could work outside the confines of an educational curriculum.” So she did, having to justify in an interview, why and how an undergraduate degree in theatre prepared her to even enroll in an advanced degree in Social Work, let alone become an excellent social worker. She then got accredited by NASW, and licensed in New York state as a clinical social worker.

Into this context, I was born.

The mother I knew directed community theatre plays, made puppets and did shows in hospitals for very sick children, developed a use for

Malta League of Arts: Mom is in the back row on right

creative drama and puppets in her practice at a time when the phrases ‘Play Therapy’ and ‘Drama Therapy’ did not exist, as the fields were so very new… with youth in juvenile detention and residency centers, severely traumatized children, children in foster care, civil rights activists, the list goes on. She was about taking purposeful actions of empowerment and healing, always with a sense of social justice and social well being as an intricate part of emotional and physical wellness, so her practice was always activist as well as compassionate, often humorous, and taking no guff.

Although retired, she is still a force to be reckoned with, volunteering for projects that unify arts, community, and the well-being of children.

Is it any wonder that I believe the arts are how we process our lives, our most powerful tool and matrix for discovery and transformation—of self, other, and community, of paradigm and process, of social structures and values? I believe that art is how we really connect to, process and understand our world, each other, our communities, our learning, our living, our dying; art has the power to make us think and make us invest emotionally. Making art together makes meaningful change, and I am one piece of the conduit.

This paradigm has informed my seeking and growth as well as my practice; it’s not that I ‘bring’ these ideas into a classroom, group meeting, arts activist project, clown therapy program, script or stage; they are where I come from.

Thanks, mom.