Trinity Centre, Bristol; 29th September 2016
The special preview of He Ain’t Heavy from Grania Pickard and her newly formed company, Oddly Moving Circus Theatre, was accompanied by an invitation to a group of local writers and circus enthusiasts, facilitated by The Circus Diaries. Like a book club, but for circus, the show was followed by a discussion, a chance to chat with Pickard about her work, and the opportunity to develop a greater body of critical discourse around circus art, which also helps provide documentation for the production, premiering next autumn.
The raked seating studio setting is established as an Extra-Live environment, as we’re welcomed in the door by performer Grania (as the show begins she gently introduces herself – we’re definitely on easy, first-name terms here). As we find out details of her own autobiography, inextricably linked to the biography of her autistic brother Sean (and, to a lesser extend, other members of her family), we are encouraged to make sounds, touch objects, taste cubes of jelly, and fill the parts of characters absent from the stage.
Absence, in fact, is a key element of He Ain’t Heavy. Grania shares the stage with performer and stage-manager Sophie Postlethwaite, and the pair conjure a sense of the adored younger brother who has been missing for so many of Grania’s significant life events. A pair of shoes, cunningly lit with tiny arching lamps, provide the repetitive walking steps and swinging soles that signal Sean’s presence on the stage, while a glowing, bobbing carrier bag gives, if not a head, a focal point that confuses his physiology and physical substance a little more. We get to know Sean in the abstract, and his concrete reality comes as a jolt at the end of the show, shining a subtle spotlight on the way first encounters with disabled people often trigger particular preconceptions.
A giant swing, proportioned to turn Grania’s aerialist body into that of a clambering 8yr old, is masked at points with a stretch of yellow screen fabric. We get to watch a favourite episode of children’s television (which repeats, as any parent might expect), and an amusingly resonant Star Trek clip where the darker side of incommunicable difference is suggested. Instead of a seat, the swing has just the parallel bars of a seat frame, allowing for movement through the centre.
Lighting designer Tom Richmond has only just joined the project, but already there are some unusual and effective choices evident, and more hinted at. When Grania demonstrates the ways in which people look at her and her family when Sean is with them, the grimaces all look the same in the stark sidelit shadows.
He Ain’t Heavy is not a show that wears its circus on its sleeve. There is a story, and a world, to be communicated here, and it just so happens that Grania has trained and worked as a circus artist, and so it’s these skills that get incorporated at times, in emotive movement sequences rather than flashy display of tricks. Although, we’re left considering that, perhaps, this choice of career path could have been a direct result of her experiences growing up with Sean. Most of all, the show reveals the connection between presumed states of ‘adulthood’ and ‘childhood’, and their amorphous boundaries. We all have quirks. We all have our own ‘normal’. This one happens to be Sean and Grania’s.
Nicole A’Court-Stuart gives her thoughts following the show, beginning with the transition it has made since she saw a work-in-progress two years ago:
What struck me watching He Ain’t Heavy today, was that the choice of puppetry form was key to my feeling permission to enjoy it. Making a show about someone in their absence throws up problems of representation. Problems that are amplified when that person can’t comment or represent themselves.
This is a sensitive issue in the support of people with Autism and learning disabilities, as historically there has been an assumption that many of these people are unable to communicate and, as such, do not have autonomy of identity or the ability to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. With this in mind, when I attended a ten-minute progress showing two years ago, I remember feeling uneasy with the concept of a show that featured a person with autism represented by the life-sized puppet the company were using at the time. Although soft bodied and cotton coloured, it had realistic sewn features and there was something very literal, mute and final about it; Sean’s body so physically represented that, beyond that, ‘he’ felt completely absent.
Maybe because of his size, the puppetry then was also much a case of holding and manipulating ‘him’ rather than bringing his presence into the room; it represented Sean in a way that, to me, made his dependancy paramount. As Grania asked the audience to learn Sean’s names and responses for everyday items and activities, I felt uncomfortable imitating his voice: I felt almost like it was going on behind his back. Either the show needed to represent itself more strongly as Grania’s perspective, or the performers needed to find a way to make Sean feel more present on stage.
In this full version of the show, however, I feel that the company accomplishes both of these things, most strikingly through their actions as puppeteers and their choice of a less representational puppet. Grania manipulates Sean’s individually lit shoes, and Sophie floats a glowing orange plastic bag above them. In some beautifully lit in-between-text moments, bringing the constructed ‘puppet’ to life is the focus, which creates a place for the spoken stories to settle, for Grania’s memories and experiences to mix with the strong sense of Sean’s presence and with the autonomy that’s created by the motion of this puppet.
A moving puppet looks, above any character that may be attributed, like an animate being. In semiotic categorisation this is known as iconic signification, as it looks like that which it represents. Puppets can also function as indexical signs as they come to signify the human activity and agency that moves them (Green and Pepicello, 1983; p.157). As Grania and Sophie are animating objects rather than the more heavily iconic life size puppet I saw previously, their endeavour as puppeteers is far more obvious to us, creating a visible tension between the puppet’s iconic and indexical states (1983; p.157).
There is something particularly ‘circus’ about this tension between physical skill and the spectacle it conjures, with the brilliance of one state somehow not undermining the other. In traditional circus, the skill and control exhibited give us permission to enjoy the ride of the spectacle, so whilst we ‘know’ no one is going to die, we can fully experience the thrill of the fear that they might. Here I feel, somehow similarly, that Grania’s strong presence as author and animator gives me the permission to go with her in imagining Sean and their relationship, whilst the spectacle created by these elements holds space for him rather than defines him.
Grania’s child-like and childhood perspectives let us in to the normal experiences of families with an autistic member. With humour, we grasp the repetitive reality of ‘wittering’ – the often social and soothing, rather than informative or conversational, function of speech in her household. Whilst Sean is fitting, on the floor of a supermarket, we are pulled into a zoomed in, stripped back image of Grania’s efforts to replace fallen stock on the shelves. Coloured cards representing shopping items are arranged and rearranged, whilst she describes staring shoppers stepping around and over. At home, after a seizure, she appreciates that Sean is affectionate, soft, they can cuddle. These images jar against common understandings of social interaction and medicalised perspectives of seizures. It is shocking, but also completely relatable, that she sees the peace in Sean’s exhaustion or the polarised practical vision that trauma brings. Similarly, we empathise with her multiple roles, her desire to punch her brother, her need to protect him and her need to protect others. I really appreciate the honesty of these moments, I feel they will be great points of connection for audiences of young carers and siblings of people with learning disabilities.
Whilst Grania’s sibling experience is permeated with a feeling of distance – with words often wittered for feeling rather than content – she builds for us a sense of being together that surpasses that. We see Sean’s reflection in Grania’s life stories and the childlike spirit that she shares with him. In an out-of-time moment, Grania and Sophie animate Sean walking, slowly, off the ground and into the air. With each step, the lights that illuminate Sean’s shoes dart rhythmically into the audience, for a moment blinding us, becoming all we can see. I am reminded that the evasive nature of Sean’s spirit can be seen as a turned up version of the experience we have with all those we share life with. Particularly family, who can only for so long be identified by their social role and their ability (or lack thereof) to fill it. Once this has fallen away you realise that you haven’t so definitively put your finger on them after all.
During the discussion after the show, we focussed on five particular questions, and Vicky Vatcher‘s written contribution responds to them directly:
The performance piece He Ain’t Heavy was authored by Grania Pickard, with the apparent intention of presenting aspects of her childhood, largely shaped by living with an autistic younger brother. It isn’t a vehicle to demonstrate autism as such, but to share a personal point of view. Starting with an adult event – Pickard’s own marriage and independence – and her family’s responses to an unconventional wedding, the show brings us to know them as a family who have leant to reshape the norm. Her father, rather than ‘give her away’ resists attending, protesting that “No one wants to see a fat man cry”. He is presented as the figure that spoke to her child’s heart, while her mother was – and is – the pragmatist. Rather than discuss the mechanics of the performance I would say that I enjoyed it and found it heartfelt in most of the elements but tinging on sentimentality at times – hamsters peeing in the doll’s house and the like.
What was Grania trying to achieve with the show? Authoring her experience for performance creation – using the ‘drawing on what you know’ method.
Who will really benefit from seeing the piece? Audience might be families with members who are ‘different’ or autistic, with a view to sharing sibling experiences. In the Trinity, among other performance people and specially invited guests, we expect the sort of audience contact the show offers, but I wonder if it could be too much for people who don’t attend much performance? Some families might not take their autistic/special needs relatives to public events because of fears around erratic behaviour, especially in a formal seating arrangements with other members of the public around. I wonder how expectations will be managed?
What role does circus play in the piece? I saw clowning as an important element, and the work on the swing. The former, although less overt, was more important. I enjoyed the work on the swing but wondered if it could be linked more strongly with the saying of the word ‘swing’ that takes place separately.
What do the verbal/non-verbal elements bring to the show? They bring variety and allow for a change in direction, passage of time and new lines of thought.
Did you learn anything more about autism than you knew before watching the show? I had never thought of Postman Pat as being so dysfunctional in terms of an early learning experience. I thought Thomas the Tank Engine was worse until I saw this. Very comic and illuminating passages.