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he was struck by the inclusion of arts programmes that welcomed the active participation of children with diverse support needs and disabilities. “It was a wonderful, inclusive event for children with different kinds of challenges to be able to participate in physically interactive activities,” he remarked. Such programmes help his children to regulate their energy better, “like a window for them to express their emotions,” he added. After all, the arts have always been a way for children to connect with and discover the world without the pressure of being “wrong” or “making mistakes”.
Every child should have the space and opportunities to be creative, to express themselves in unique ways, and to explore the possibilities of their world through the arts. However, arts programmes for children have not often taken into consideration the needs of children with disabilities. It’s even rarer to find productions that integrate elements of accessibility and inclusivity within the story itself so that children with and without disabilities can participate with ease and enthusiasm.
In 2021, Edward was invited to be part of a focus group meeting conducted by the programming team behind Octoburst! – A Children’s Festival, which featured mainly digital productions. With accessibility and inclusivity as the central priorities of the festival, the focus group brought together caregivers of children with profound needs to gather deeper understanding on the needs of children with disabilities as well as how digital media could be best utilised as a platform for artistic engagement.
Pressing issues highlighted by the focus group included the tendency of some children to feel over-stimulated, the lack of engaging interactions on digital platforms, and the ever-present barrier of technical glitches online. Nevertheless, parents affirmed the value of attending arts events with their children, whether in-person or online. One parent, Juliah, mentioned that art events bond the family and “heighten the senses” for her children. Digital productions, in particular, save money and time on travelling, which is particularly significant for children with bulky equipment and mobility aids. It also allows the child the security of “having fun in a familiar set rig, at home,” Juliah shared.
The festival’s focus on accessibility is part of larger efforts to curate programmes that cater to children with diverse needs and disabilities. Learning points from the focus group discussions fed directly into the creation process of some of the featured performances. Two productions from Octoburst! 2021 strived to seamlessly integrate elements of accessibility and inclusivity into their storytelling.
The children made music with us, not just watching us make music at them.
Ilysia Tan, co-creator, Video Bon-Bon: Precious Planet
Video Bon-Bon: Precious Planet, written and composed by Ilysia Tan and Noah Diggs, is a digital production that also promises interactivity to overcome the barrier of physical distancing. It is recommended for children aged three and above to watch together with their caregivers. In order to engage different forms of stimulation for children, it is framed in three acts. A storytelling segment, to build excitement, is followed by the climax of a dance party, and finally resolved with a “cool-down” video, which are all interspersed with activities and educational resources. The story tells of the Precious Planet, a land in which nature has been withering away during the 100-year sleep of the Stoney Gardener. It’s up to the children in the audience to awaken the Stoney Gardener and save the planet from decay, engaging elements of sight, sound, music, dance, and touch along the way.
Artists Tan and Diggs had previously worked on another children’s production titled The Enchanted Garden—a precursor to Precious Planet. “We wanted to build an immersive experience incorporating music with more interactivity and to embed possibilities of moving around, touching, interacting and playing, into the work itself,” Tan explained. “The children made music with us, not just watching us make music at them. When we were invited to make Precious Planet, it was something we were familiar with and passionate about.” The only difference is, Precious Planet is an entirely online performance—a challenging medium for any artist to work with, but the focus group discussions gave the team insights on how they could best engage their young spectators.
“The discussions helped us envision methods to bridge the physical and digital mediums of storytelling,” shared Tan. For example, considering the issue of overstimulation and aversion to over-long performances led to a hard limit of less than three minutes for each video, ensuring succinctness in each act of the story. “Another tool that we found through the focus groups was the idea of story massages,” Tan remarked. Story massages are a series of physical touches that caregivers may perform on children, with each touch representing actions, objects and emotions to bring a story to life. “It combines the tactility and intimacy of a massage with the entertainment and adventure of storytelling. Combining activities and physical play with video storytelling makes the entire experience more immersive."
Tan explains that what they hoped to achieve for children to take away from the production is the reciprocal act of giving and receiving care. “We wanted to tell a story about nature and the environment, and we believe that now more than ever, we should be fostering an appreciation for the natural world, and should be paying attention to and caring for it, as it in turn cares for us.”
Imagination Station, written by Perry Shen and directed by Lim Junjie Jey, is a live in-person performance incorporating puppetry. It was presented as a work-in-progress showcase in Octoburst! 2021 and is set to run from 29 Apr – 15 May 2022 under Esplanade’s PLAYtime! series. The story tells of a shy and awkward young girl, Jamie, who is one day suddenly lost and out of her comfort zone in a place called Imagination Station, from where she learns to find the courage in herself to find her way home.
Both Shen and Lim have had experience teaching and engaging with students at special needs schools like Pathlight School, AWWA School and Rainbow Centre, and the specific skills they gained through that experience led to the decision of casting an actor with special needs for the production. “It's important to know [the actor’s] needs, to play towards their strengths and to be flexible,” Shen shared.
Working under the mentorship of special needs educators, the team also received useful advice that shaped their approach to the production. One of the pointers they received was to pay attention to the way scheduling was included in the performance. Scheduling is a method to help children with autism cope with the unpredictability of experiencing a live performance, where the structure of the performance is flagged by narrators or through visual aids. “Our mentors pointed out that the schedule might not be as effective or useful as we had imagined,” Shen shared. “It was making the performance and narrative chunky and clumsy. We had to balance the accessibility techniques we used with the artistic quality of the show and try to find a good middle ground.”
A crucial aspect of the development of this work was to smoothly weave in special needs teaching techniques into a performance, allowing it to be theatrical and accessible at the same time. Through their research, the team decided to incorporate the technique of “pre-teaching” instead: when the participating child is informed about the various elements of the production, which allows them to emotionally and mentally prepare themselves, and assuages anxiety. Pre-teaching may be done before or during a performance: if, for example, the performance includes a loud noise or a blackout, the characters might inform the audience beforehand. “A lot of it has to do with the stage directions and the script itself,” shared dramaturg Wu Yahui. “The accessibility techniques used to help children with different needs understand the show better should feel like it is part of the performance.
Parents and caregivers who have participated in the focus group sessions organised by Octoburst! as well as in other children’s activities at the Esplanade are looking forward to future hands-on arts activities like dancing, music- and sound-making and opportunities for interactivity that children with low and high support needs may participate in. With a variety of programmes that have unique needs of children in mind, there’s certainly a lot to dive into for parents and children at Esplanade in the years to come.