Touch The Sky Performance Group Education Essay

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Introduction

In this study, I aim to explore the argument that individuals through drama and theatre making, can break borders and barriers. Borders and barriers that exist internally and externally within people's lives can be explored through performance, collaboration and creativity.

My focus will be on the Sligo based ensemble group 'Touch the Sky', their devising process and performance. It was while working collaboratively with Touch the Sky that my attention was captured to the process and performance of drama and theatre. Through exploration of methods, selected practitioners and a sample of approaches including; Devised Theatre, Dramatheraphy through to Applied Theatre and its categories of Drama in Education, Theatre in Education, and Community Theatre. I hope to highlight the empowerment and theatrical significance disability ensemble groups contribute.

I will begin by reviewing relevant literature, key methods and practitioners that enrich and underpin the process and performance of drama and theatre in this context.

I will examine the process and outcome of workshops held with 'Touch the Sky' ensemble group between. I will interview group members and practitioners to gain understanding of their experiences and responses. These workshops and interviews will be an important source for the argument that drama and theatre breaks borders and barriers.

In the field of Disabilities and the Arts I have found that there is a lack of documentation and information in individual and group perspectives on participating in the process of drama and theatre in a performative sense. I am drawn to this research as I view drama as hands-on, experiential learning that engages mind, body, voice, and emotions to interpret and convey to others the reality of life. I am also interested in the personal and performative outcomes of drama that emerge from participating and facilitating in the drama process. I hope to create awareness amongst a wider audience of the work that is going on in the field of integrated performance.

TOUCH THE SKY

'Touch the Sky' performance group formed four years ago when, Declan Drohan lecture of Performing Arts at Sligo Institute of Technology and practitioner in field of drama and disability began working together with The Model Arts and Rehabcare Sligo. It is a unique collaboration that engages drama and theatre. The group seeks to mainstream arts and disability practice through new approaches to performance. It is an example of how the arts can challenge perceptions of disability arts practice through innovative projects and public performance. The group participants are fully committed to developing their skills and capabilities to the level where they can challenge public perception. Therefore they seek to inform and educate, with a commitment to the principles of inclusion. 

I began working with 'Touch the Sky' as part of my work placement from Sligo IT. Before I joined the group on at the beginning of May (2010), the group have successfully preformed to sell out audiences at The Model and the Factory Sligo. Their performance called Sleepwalk was part of the Cairde Festival in July 2007. They also performed at Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, Co. Tyrone In March 2008.

For their current project, 'Touch the Sky' meet once a week to participate in a two-hour workshop, which focuses on the groups, and indivadul understanding of Northern Ireland, past and present. In this research I examine the process of the workshops and the performatve outcomes. Together with Decaln and myself the group members focus on what the term 'cross border' and 'crossing the line' means. Through disscusion and improvisation their ideas are translated into preformance. The group also challenges the stereotypes of what borders or barriers are. The workshops are planned as a precursor to another performance group 'Limepie' Theatre. 'Limepie' are a deaf artist initiative based in Belfast. This current project and performance is a cross-border arts initiative under the Peace III funding programme.

More information will be provided on Theatre group Limepie ad the Peace III funding programme.

DISABILITY DEFINITION

People living with disabilities face a variety of struggles in their lives. They face continual challenges in finding valued roles in society. In making drama and theatre they can express themselves in varied roles, along with their opinions and their creativity. But more importantly they can create, creditable, informative, dramatic theatre and art.

The members of ensemble group 'Touch the Sky'; have a mixture of mild, learning and impairment disabilities. The term 'disability' can have an affect on how people with disabilities are treated and perceived. The National Disability Authority says; "There are many definitions of 'disability' and the issue of a definition has proven to be one of the most contentious issues...." [1] . In 2005 the Irish Goverment introduced the disability act defining;

"'disability' in relation to a person, means a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State or to participate in social or cultural life in the State by reason of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment." [2] 

In relation to this study I would prefer not to use the term 'disability' when talking about members of the ensemble group 'Touch the Sky'. Yes, they may have disabilities, however I believe that disability does not mean inability. Regardless of impairments or disabilities this ensemble group works collaboratively along with director Declan Drohan, to voice, create and perform drama and theatre.

Some preconceived ideas show disabled people as innocent and therefore they are over protected. They are not asked for their opinion on social, cultural or political topics. Because of this, borders or barriers are created. On working with 'Touch the Sky', I have found that their views and ideas on these topics could be an integral part of society. Their personal limitations do not exempt them from experiences'. Their views and opinions are very real. Drama and Theatre is a safe and creative environment, open to all people regardless of limitations.

DIFFERENCES/DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN DRAMA AND THEATRE

One of the greatest things about 'drama' or 'theatre' is that there is no single way of doing 'it'. There are various methods, theories and techniques, which allow everyone to adapt and learn. Creating and devising drama or theatre under this view, allows individuals irrespective of their limitations or abilities to create meaningful and purposeful drama or theatre.

We are all individual people and through 'drama' and 'theatre' we can express our unique individuality. Through various methods and techniques individuals can separate from their actual lives and express themselves in a safe environment and way. The ability to transform is at the centre of all dramatic and theatrical action.

However it is important to outline the distinctions between 'drama' and 'theatre'. Both terms are used interchangeably, however both terms have different meanings. In practice, they rely upon each other. Theatre is a contrived art form, usually done for and performed to an audience. Drama is about role-play, process of ideas and exploration of subject matters. Drama's focus is not always on performance although it may be part of it.

In this research the ensemble group 'Touch the Sky' relied on both drama and theatre. They used drama to process their ideas and to explore the subject matter of borders and barriers in Northern Ireland. While the term 'theatre' created a devised performance of still images on the subject matter along with a film.

LITERATURE REVIEW

In the literature review I will examine various drama process, methods and theorists/practitioners. Devised Theatre provides a freedom to work collaboratively and produce original work. Applied Theatre covers the practise of theatre and drama in non-traditional settings, it includes, Theatre in Education, Drama In Education, and Community Drama. Dramatherapy has proved that within drama there is significant potential for healing.

I will begin by looking at the process and practitioners behind Devised Theatre. Alison Oddey writes in Devising Theatre,

Devised theatre can start from anything. It is determined and defined by a group of people who set up an initial framework or structure to explore and experiment with ideas, images, concepts, themes, or specific stimuli that might include music, text, objects, paintings, or movement. A devised theatrical performance originates with the group while making the performance, rather than starting from play text that someone else has written to be interpreted. A devised theatre product is work that has emerged from and been generated by a group of people working in collaboration. [3] 

In this description Oddey highlights the collective creation in theatre. For disability groups devising gives collaborative ownership to work, and provides a voice for individuals. Theatre and Drama's strength, lies in its universality. The collaboration between the members and the director of Touch the Sky supports Oddey's description. The devising collaboration allowed each participant to be physically and practically creative in the project. It was spontaneity, improvisation, freedom and intuition that helped form ideas. Music, text, books, research, objects, and images were used to create ideas around the piece of film and performance images. Oddey talks about multi-vision in the process of devising, she says,

"The process reflects a multi-vision made up of each groups member's individual perception of that world as received in a series of images, then interpreted and defined as a product. " [4] 

Through a 'multi-vision' of resources the ensemble group Touch the Sky, reacted and gave individual and group responses to Northern Ireland, Identity, transformation, cultural and social context. The external borders in Northern Ireland and the internal barriers within members and society were explored through devising and various stimuli. Hence supporting my argument that drama and theatre not only breaks borders and barriers, it also opens their structures for examination.

Devised theatre is anchored within collective art making. Traditional roles of directors, performers, designers, writers and dramaturge's blend and mix together. Although working this way is collaborative, the director has an important role to play. In Devised and Collaborative Theatre, practitioners Tina Bicat and Chris Baldwin highlight the role of the director "as a facilitator of tasks, as a project nurturer, and often as the key person to move between creativity and objectivity." [5] The director can provide shape and structure to discussion and ideas, while "ensuring that the production is conceptually and aesthetically coherent." [6] While the director and collaboration is important, Oddey points out that when pursuing or devising theatre,

" the primary appeal is to be able to make a personal statement within a group context, to feel that one is part of the making of a theatrical experience, not an interpreter of something already written." [7] 

Oddey's statement supports the process within the workings and members of Touch the Sky, all collaborating on this project are "part of the making of a theatrical experience", and it is an original piece of work.

Some of the methodologies behind Devised Theatre can be seen in Applied Theatre forms. David Pammenter a practitioner of Applied Theatre, working in Community Theatre and Theatre in Education writes, "Theatre, at its best, is the communication and exploration of human experience; it is forum for our values, political, moral and ethical." [8] This statement is reflected in what Oddey said about devising theatre, that, "the primary appeal is to be able to make a personal statement…" In the field of Theatre in Education and Drama in Education practitioners such as David Pammenter and Dorothy Heathcote, have acknowledged the use of drama and theatre making, as being beneficial to both social and personal development in adults and children.

The terms Theatre in Education and Drama in Education share a commitment to the exploration of theatre's use as an educational medium. While both terms' roots are in education and theatre, they have differences. Theatre in Education is usually performed for schools or youth groups by professional drama groups or actors/teachers. It's usually a devised or written piece of theatre centred on 'real life' or topics relevant to the school curriculum and students. Its message is communicated through dramatic interactions between actors-in-role and the audience/students. Drama in Education is based more on drama workshops, that teachers or facilitators use in a classroom environment with students. Devised by the students, it may or not have a performance as it utilizes drama as a learning method.

Dorothy Heathcote a pioneer of Drama in Education says,

"Drama is a means of learning, a means of widening experiences even if we never act in a play or stand upon a stage. It is a human instinct to have a 'willing suspension of disbelief' (attributed to Coleridge)." [9] 

Betty Jane Wager a recognized authority on the educational uses of drama writes about Dorothy Heathcote as, a specialist on improvisation in drama. Heathcote uses drama to,

"expand children's awareness, to enable them to look at reality through fantasy, to see below the surface of actions to their meanings. She is interested, not in making plays with children, but in, as she terms it, burnishing children through the play. She does this not by heaping more information on them but by enabling them to use what they already know." [10] 

Heathcote was concerned with the experience within drama, the involvement, transformation and communication of what students undergo once presented with issues in a dramatic moment. Her methods allowed students to learn through drama, while it also challenged students to confront their understandings' of issues or topics. Heathcote's emphasis was not on performance, but "upon social drama, seeing the prime value of the drama in the 'living through' situations and the insight there is to be gained from them." [11] 

As Theatre in Education has a process and performance method, its learning outcomes are reached in a different way. David Pammenter writes that if learning is to happen through 'experience' then there must be a connection between the actors devising and the audience.

"an experience that has been well planned, has depth, truth, usually has its own internal logic and has an artistic integrity that reaches and involves the child, and is challenging to both child and performer." [12] 

If there is a lack of understanding or commitment on both sides, "the experience will not hold much for the child, and the TIE team may become agents of mystification or dogma."

Touch the Sky acknowledges that learning from, and understanding the devised content is key in process and performance. Research for the production of Crossing the Line necessitated the ensemble members visiting Belfast and collaborating with theatre company LimePie. They toured the city of Belfast visiting the Peace wall to gain inspiration and understanding. In the workshop that was held, both ensemble groups confronted their understandings of the North and its troubles, past, present, and future. There were discussions held on the 'experience' the members felt as they toured the city of Belfast. While Touch the Sky has devising, collaboration and performance at its core, segments of the processes in Theatre in Education and Drama in Education have quietly contributed also. The visit to Belfast gave the members 'drama' as Heathcote said, " 'living through' situations and the insight there is to be gained from them." We returned to Sligo and our workshops with a greater understanding of the history, people and creative arts in Belfast and the North.

Another form that lies under the heading of Applied Theatre is Community Drama. Community Drama is usually devised and produced within specific communities. Declan Gorman, practitioner and Associate Artistic Director of Upstate Theatre Project in Ireland defines Community Drama,

"In broad terms, it refers to original work for performance that has been generated from within communities, often in the context of community development or educational objectives. [13] 

Community Drama uses 'drama' as a medium to explore topics of interest or issues relevant to the community. Its "relevance to the writers own world and that of their communities" give it collective identity. Susan McDonnell writes in, The Theatre of Possibilities: Mapping Drama in Community and Healthcare Contexts in the Northwest of Ireland, "Inclusion in drama activities affords an opportunity to access and contribute to as aspect of cultural life from which many people feel alienated." [14] McDonnell goes on to say that,

Participation in the devising and staging of a dramatic piece may have a number of positive outcomes for individuals and communities including strengthening community identity and contributing to social cohesion, learning theatre skills, developing co-operative competencies and organizational skills, enhancing self confidence, and raising community and public awareness on social and political issues of importance. [15] 

Barry Cullen implies in Creating Connections, that creative activity can aid "community development practice". [16] Cullen's findings on Community arts are reflected in the collaboration between community and drama. Community Drama helps to identify the needs of a community, it encourages expression and participation within groups, it contributes to personal, group, and community development by generating a performance from within the community. It appears that within Ireland, groups who could be characterized for various reasons as marginalized or disadvantaged gain a voice through Community Drama. When a community works collaboratively to discover external and internal barriers within their community and themselves; barriers through drama become inter-related and participants find that there insecurities, fear, or opinions don't exist in isolation.

Applied Theatre forms encourage creative input and process that seek transformative and learning experiences through devised drama and theatre. It explores society and the human condition through a variety of methods and processes to improve the creative needs and well-being of individuals and communities.

"The festive act of people coming together through drama and theatre is seen to have social and psychological importance. Theatre is both an activity set apart from everyday reality, which at the same time has a vital function in reflecting upon and reacting to that reality. (Phil Jones P.3)" [17] 

The above quote by Dr. Phil Jones a leading practitioner and theorist in Dramatheraphy could be associated with Applied Theatre forms. Theatre in Education, Drama in Education and Community Theatre all take advantage of the social and psychological impact that drama and theatre can create. However while Dramatheraphy also takes advantage it has a healing intention at its core.

Jones defines Dramatheraphy as,

Dramatherapy facilitates change through drama processes. It uses the potential of drama to reflect and transform life experiences to enable clients to express and work through problems they are encountering or maintain a client's well-being and health. (Phil Jones P.6)"

Dramatheraphy can apply to indivdual and groups settings.

On submission the Literature review will be complete, I do not feel I can relate to some of the findings until the ensemble group Touch the Sky perform.

RESEARCH FINDINGS

On final submission research findings will consist of the ensemble group 'Touch the Sky' performance and film. It will also include interviews from members of the Touch the Sky, Declan Drohan director or Touch the Sky and practitioner. It will also have interviews from other practitioners and theatre groups in the field of disability.

WORKSHOPS AND DEVISING WITH, TOUCH THE SKY

In this section I will highlight some of the processes and methods used when devising with 'Touch the Sky'.

In the final submission extracts from workshops will be highlighted.

PERFORMANCE

On final submission this section will review the performance of still images Touch the Sky held on the 1st of December 2010.

FILM

For this project and performance, the director and members of Touch the Sky collaborated with local filmmaker Caroline Clancy. On December the 1st 2010, a film documenting the creative process of 'Touch the Sky' entitled "Crossing the Line" will be shown at the Model Arts Sligo. The film highlights the workshops focus on borders and barriers with the topic of Northern Ireland and its troubles at the core. It shows how the group researched their topic by visiting Northern Ireland and by working collaboratively with an ensemble group there. The content of the film underpins the performance of still images that 'Touch the Sky' will perform live on the night.

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