Thursday 8 August 2019

Helping Hands - Theatre Review

What: Helping Hands
When: 7-10 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Directed by: Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonzalvez, and James Matthews
Performed by: Tara Daniel, Vanessa Di Natale, Emily Griffith, Dee Matthews, Artemis Munoz, Aislinn Murray, and Alexander Woollatt
Set and lighting by: John Collopy
Costumes by: Hannah Aroni
Sound by: Jacinta Anderson
Stage Managed by: Jacinta Anderson and Loughlin Turpin
Tara Daniels (with Uncle Bob) - photo by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
Helping Hands is a phenomenal piece of theatre now showing at La Mama Courthouse and I strongly advise everyone to go and see it. Presented by neurodiverse theatre company A_tistic, this show is a comedically serious investigation into how neurodiversity manifests in our society and what help does and might look like in order for people to flourish.

Helping Hands is devised theatre show inspired by an essay called Quiet Hands. The theatrical project began as a creative development and spun off into a array of explorations including: Them Aspies, Pinocchio Restrung, and Alexythemia. This fourth show looks at what help for people on the Autism Spectrum looks like. It doesn't leave it there, though. Helping Hands goes on to model what might be more positive ways to guide and assist people with neurodiversity to experience their lives to fullest.

Beginning with a talk show interview, the comic tone is set by Munoz (host) and Murray (mother) talking about the difficulty of raising an allistic teenager (not autistic). The mother bemoans the tendency to lie and other problems which would never happen if the daughter was autistic. It is an outrageously funny beginning and the laughs don't stop for the next hour and half.

Helping Hands is a serious work though, and throughout the hilarious sketches of appalling ignorance in the health profession and our seriously flawed welfare system, we follow the story of Donna (Murray). This little girl is attached to her red ball and the parents engage a therapist (Matthews) to help Donna separate from her comfort toy.

The therapist uses the common place ABA (Applied Behavioral Training) to teach Donna new techniques. ABA is a process based on positive and negative rewards. A criticism posited in this show is what Donna actually learns is her body is not her own and the definition of fun and happiness is defined by what people around her say it is and not her own personal experience.

The story then goes into nightmare territory as we learn about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Centre which still, to this very day, use electric shocks to 'train' their students in a manner not dissimilar to how shock collars are applied to dogs. As you can see, hidden inside the humorous sketches and outstanding theatrical techniques are issues of great pain and horror and we need to understand what we are doing and make sure when we help that is exactly what we are doing - not causing more harm!

And so we watch a film noir sketch which takes digs at academia's inability to demonstrate flexibility unless you are formally registered as special needs (I know a bit about this myself so I can speak to the accuracy of this depiction). We see a college party where the line is blurred between what is awkward social abilities and more common social ineptitude. We see an overbearing mother harangue her children but is she just house proud or is there something neurodiverse going on? An important question because historically it has been assumed the occurance of autism in females is much lower than males - an assumption which is now being questioned.

Everything, theatrically speaking is done simply but very, very well. The design and staging is extremely minimalist, but not careless. The dramaturgy is excellent and the story telling clear, dynamic and completely engaging. The acting is uniformly engrossing and the lighting (Collopy) and sound (Anderson) work to shift between a world of nightmares and safety.

What sets Helping Hands in a stratosphere rarely reached by most theatrical performances is the team manages to create safe spaces for the audience to get what they need for their comfort and safety. By this I mean they do not shy away from using techniques such as flickering lights which can cause problems for people with neurodiverse abilities for example, but as a part of the structure of the work, the audience are given the opportunity to provide their own self-care.

Such options include pre-show warnings and a chill out room for people to access whenever they need it. A break is built in half-way through the evening after a particularly challenging sensorial moment to allow for rest and quiet if needed. Given that a portion of the cast also identify with neurodiversity this also allowed them to recentre and recover before moving forward. This may sound like it slowed everything down, but because of the excellence of the theatre making and the pace and cleverness of the work, it really just felt like a mini interval which was much enjoyed by everyone.

The second half of the show thrust off most of the negativity and began exploring what good and positive help might look like. Donna's carer (Griffith) learnt how to positively help when a panic attack occurs without interfering with Donna's autonomy as a person. Matthews and Di Natale show how just lifting light levels can calm a space down for the neurodiverse and it does not destroy the artistic integrity of the piece - you could say on many levels it actually improved the integrity part of the phrase artistic integrity...?

Most importantly, as well as presenting a story about Autism, the production proved their message of positive contribution and interaction by having a cast facing these kinds of challenges participating in creating and performing this clever and magnificent piece of theatre. It does not fail in either areas of art or integrity unlike television shows such as The Good Doctor for example.

I really cannot speak too highly of Helping Hands and I am not being nice because it is work created by a neurodiverse team. Anybody who reads my reviews knows I can never be accused of being nice... The company are engaging in a Q and A after every show of the season so you can ask questions about what you have seen or what their process was, and the show will also be available on-line for viewing - check the A_tistic website for more information on that.

5 Stars

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