A COUPLE of weeks ago, the Nuns Island Theatre hosted a remarkable multi-sensory and participative play entitled Fruit Full.
Performed for an audience of five severely intellectually disabled viewers and their carers, Fruit Full saw performers and audiences combine to create, celebrate, and experience the many sounds, sights, and textures of the passing seasons.
With mood-enhancing music and visuals, skilled interacting from the performers and a gentle, welcoming, atmosphere, Fruit Full proved a magical, deeply engaging experience for the participants.
Fruit Full is the second production from New Moon, the most recent initiative from the multi-faceted That’s LIFE project, which runs a variety of arts-centred programmes for people with intellectual disability under the overall aegis of the Brothers of Charity.
Making a difference
That’s LIFE is co-ordinated by Claude Madec, a native of Brittany and yet another of the many gifted ‘blow-ins’ who came to Galway for a visit and ended up staying and making a big contribution to the fabric of the city’s life.
A cabinet-maker by training (“it still comes in handy when we’re designing sets” he quips ), in his early years here Madec did volunteering work with people with intellectual disabilities, then started working with the Brothers of Charity in 1993.
“At that stage the services were not as rich as they now are now in terms of opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities,” he recalls. “In those days there was very little that people really had to say about themselves, sadly enough, and the amount of choice people had was quite poor. It was only the very beginning of the idea of inclusion.
“I started working with Fiona Coffey, who was a VEC teacher, and we started a drama project that became Blue Teapot Theatre Company. We worked very hard and had a lot of support from people like Mike Diskin at the Town Hall. Blue Teapot kept developing more and more and once that was up and running it gave me opportunity to start developing others.
“The next project we initiated was a music project that is now called Soundscape and is co-ordinated by Jon Reynolds, it’s all about making music accessible to a wider audience and people with intellectual disabilities. We also have a gamelan music project, an ensemble of Indonesian percussion instruments. We recently did a gamelan concert in The Ardilaun hotel and representatives from the Indonesian Embassy in London came over to support us.
“Another programme we do is Away With Words, a creative writing project for people with intellectual disability working with writers Mary Madec, Kevin Higgins, and Susan Miller DuMars. This year saw our first publication with Salmon Poetry, Jessica Casey and Other Works. It is quite magnificent and gives a voice to people who don’t always have one, it’s amusing and profound and celebrates people’s lives and engagement with the arts.”
And so to the New Moon theatre project which is geared primarily toward people with severe intellectual disabilities and complex needs, including autism. Madec outlines how the project has evolved up to now.
“We started three years ago,” he says. “We teamed up with The Gombeens - Miquel Barcelo and Jonathan Gunning - and produced Sail Away, a multi-sensory and participative exploration of a sea journey. We ran that for two years and it was really successful, people were telling us it was exactly what they were looking for. For people with severe disability it was the best show they had ever attended because that they had really engaged with what
“What we were trying to do was to bring in to our show the immediacy of the Gombeens’ street theatre. We wanted to bring people with severe learning disability into a very simple narrative so that they would not feel stuck by their cognitive disability but would be able to engage in many ways through the irresistible invitation of colours, sound, texture, music, songs and of people – a lot of the show depends greatly on the interaction that the actors have with the audience.
“The audience of the show is always very small, it is limited to five people and their carers – five is our magic number, we initially started with an audience of seven or eight but that proved to be too large to be able to give people individual attention. The shows usually take about 45 minutes. New Moon is the only one of our projects that prioritises people with severe intellectual disability and the team here are very committed to developing this project further.”
Madec stresses that the different arts programmes run by That’s LIFE should not be seen as arts therapy.
“We’re not talking about therapy here, we’re talking about engaging in the arts,” he asserts. “Of course there are great therapeutic advantages in all this but primarily what we want to do is to give people greater accessibility to the arts and have them wanting to see more and engage more.
“We try to link up with really good facilitators, people like ourselves who would have something to contribute, a vision, and really believe that art has something to offer to wide audiences including people with intellectual disability.
“One thing is clear, we are not art therapists and none of our facilitators have trained as art therapists so Fruit Full was a challenge for Miquel and Jonathan but there was enough in their practice that they could adapt into a new context. If you’re talking about Away With Words, the writers were able to adapt their huge experience of workshop facilitation to this new audience and the work that is being produced there is quite beautiful.
“We do use arts from time to time on the more therapeutic side of things but that’s not our primary goal. We want people first of all to have an arts experience.”
What’s next for New Moon?
“Given the success of Fruit Full, and following many requests, we are going to re-run it next year,” Madec reveals. “Our dream would also be to have greater access to families, I think Fruit Full would be a wonderful outing opportunity for families that would come to support their son or daughter or siblings and discover what a multi-disciplinary, participative, theatre experience can be. They would see that despite huge cutbacks in the services that there is still room for piloting something that is very rich and stimulating and unique.”
Madec concludes our interview by paying tribute to the commitment and energy of his fellow team-members in That’s LIFE, John Reynolds and Bernie Rowan, and also acknowledging the vital support the programme receives from the likes of Ability West, city and county arts officers James Harrold and Marilyn Gaughan, Arts Disability Ireland, and the Arts Council. At a time of widespread cutbacks to the services, Madec also points out that the Brothers of Charity have been doing their utmost to sustain their backing and commitment to That’s LIFE’s activities.
Without doubt Madec, his fellow co-ordinators and the artists who collaborate with them on their various projects are together doing fantastic work. Long may it continue.