Theatre-makers Dan Watson and his partner Christina Serra had their first child, Bruno, nine years ago. Then everything changed.
“Very shortly after Bruno was born, the doctors said we don’t know how much but he’s definitely going to be different. There is some damage to the brain that is definitely going to affect his development,” Watson says.
As a consequence, the way Serra and Watson make theatre has changed.
“We started creating projects with people who identify as disabled. In Ontario there is a real lack of opportunity for adults and for young adults,” Watson says.
Looking for his next theatre project, Watson was introduced to playwright and actor, “Tony Diamanti (who) had a script, inspired by his life, that he wanted Watson read.
Watson says, “I had a look at it and thought, ‘This guy is funny with a lot to say.’ It’s exactly the kind of opportunity we would want for Bruno if he was interested.”
So Watson and and Serra started to work with Diamanti and his partner Liz MacDougall.
Watson says “We all started to share our stories. It went from his story to all of our stories, two real-life couples so as our friendship developed it became all of ours, the four of us.” It became the award-winning play, “This is the Point,” presented at the Cultch, by Ahuri Theatre and the Toronto Theatre Centre, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. It opened Jan. 29 at the historic theatre, the main Cultch stage.
Diamanti is non-verbal, using augmentative and alternative communication(AAC). An example of one kind of AAC is that used by the late physicist, Stephen Hawking, but there are many options for communications beyond just speaking words out loud.
Because “This is the Point” covers adult topics like societal attitudes towards healthy sexuality in adults with disabilities, it’s aimed at an adult audience. It is also a relaxed performance. That means it will be user-friendly, including people on the autism spectrum. Watson says they have designed in factors that make “This is the Point” less jarring in its stagecraft. Both Ahuri Theatre and the Cultch see relaxed performances as a time when the normally strict rules of theatre behaviour are also relaxed.
Anjela Godber, outreach manager at the Richmond-based Pacific Autism Family Network says that it is a good opportunity for all, including people on the Autism spectrum.
“For the most part, most theatre productions for adults don’t allow you to get up and move around in the performance. Theatre that is inclusive to different behaviours has typically only been open only to children,” Godber says.
“We all do them, our “stims,” to help us relieve stress or anxiety or worry or boredom. We tap our feet, bite our nails, twirl our hair, things that are a little more subtle and not overly disruptive,” Godber says.
“For some people on the spectrum, in situations that are anxiety-producing, their stims are little more disruptive. They may yell out, jump up and down, or kick their feet–things that could be very disruptive to other theatre goers.”
She describes the benefits of a relaxed performance, “If individuals are able to get up and leave during a part loud part of the performance or, if lights are flashing, or if they can just get up and walk around outside or at the back the theatre, it’s fantastic.”.
And the autism network represents much more than just children on the autism spectrum, Godber says of their Cessna Drive facility, “Yes, we have autism in our name but we are inclusive for everybody. For people with mental health challenges, for a wide variety of people with different needs. We try to be as inclusive across the board as we can.”
“Whether we are trying to help with pre-employment skills or employment skills, there are a number of different service providers housed at the autism network, across the life-span from preschool children centre-based early intensive behaviour intervention to occupational therapy, there is a really wide range of different service, done by various service-providers that are all found on our site. There is music therapy as well. We’ve got a blood lab clinic for people with a lot of anxiety about getting their blood drawn. It’s in a sensory friendly room with massage chair. Anybody can have blood work done there. It’s Life Labs.”
Godber says, “From young children, youth and adults, there’s a wide variety of service providers who can provide resources of wide variety of people.”
And inclusion of people with a wide range of abilities is just the message Watson seeks to promote with “This is the Point.”
“We find there’s always the message that a disability is bad, that it’s something to be feared. I don’t think people really recognize that it is part of the human experience and we are all on a different spectrum.” They play out the moment when another mother asked Bruno’s pregnant mom if she were scared she might have another child like Bruno. It highlighted society’s attitudes towards having a child who is different from what we think is normal.
“This clinical view of disability is an affliction. When it is the environment around you. You are disabled by the environment around you.”
Today, Bruno is older brother to two siblings, Ralph and Simone.Watson says of Bruno: “He’s a very quiet fellow. He’s a very gentle guy. I think he’s wise beyond his years. He likes music and wrestling–big movements. He really loves his routines and loves his brother and sister who are always climbing all over him. He’s a pretty happy guy.”
“At a point, there was just acceptance that Bruno’s on his own path, so we don’t need to compare him to anyone else anymore and that’s ok,” Watson says.
And of the play and its relaxed performances, Godber says, “It’s so unfortunate that those on the spectrum may not get to experience these things. Live theatre is such a great event to go out and see.To be inclusive for everybody so everybody can enjoy this experience is phenomenal. To have a theatre that recognizes the sensory differences of their audience is truly inclusive.”
With a described performance for people with visual impairment as well as a signed show for the deaf and hard of hearing, planned for “This is the Point” Watson compliments the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and the Cultch: “We are bringing those people with us all the time as well.
Everyone deserves to hear their story told. Everyone deserves to see these stories told. The Cultch puts those beliefs in action.
This is the Point runs through Feb. 2 at The Cultch.