Abbotsford Convent in conversation with Artist Amelia Ducker
Posted by Huw Cushing on 8 Nov 2017
Celebrating the differences and strengths of those who think differently is 'Genius' an immersive live-art performance from six neurodiverse young people who bring you into their wonderful worlds. We speak with the genius behind 'Genius', Amelia Ducker, to learn more about this peerless performance, which opens at the Convent tomorrow night, 9 – 12 November.
How did you go about selecting the six young performers in ‘Genius’
The idea developed over a number of years, but started when I met Max, (now one of the performers) on my lunch break when I was working at a school in my first year of teaching. Talking to Max about his Royal Letter writing always made my week, for it made for such interesting and captivating conversation.
Will (the artist) came into one of my classes at St Martins about three years later. I had a lot of difficulty initially integrating him into the class, and I know at the beginning this was quite frustrating for him too. But I remember one day when I walked past the whiteboard that he had quickly whipped up up a drawing ‘The Evolution of all species of the Universe’ which was done whilst the other kids were having their snack break. It was such an intriguing cartoon that was both mature in observation, whilst also being quite ironic. It actually just blew me away, and I felt really intrigued that this could come from the mind of someone who was nine at the time.
Julian and Summer have also both been part of the St Martins Youth Arts Centre teaching program, so they felt like a natural fit. And Ted and Christian came into the cast through a series of call outs.
What level of collaboration was there in creating the ‘Geniuses’ performance spaces? Do they create the space themselves to preserve their unique perspective on the topic as much as possible?
The process had an exceptionally high level of collaboration. And it really could not have worked in any other way. My role within this project (as well as the creative team) has really been to guide, shape and work as something of a translator between the ‘Geniuses’ and the audience. Most of the work has gone into framing, so that each exchange is in line with the desires of the cast, as well as being clear, comfortable and hopefully engaging for an audience. It’s been a continual pursuit to find that sweet spot.
There has been a few times where I have wanted to take a section or idea in a particular direction, but have resisted because it has gone against the energy of a cast member. A lot of trust has been needed to just follow the energy line of each of each young person and trust that with provocations suggestions, and time that each world could form it’s own unique identity.
The structure of 'Genius' also came about through understanding which type of exchange would suit each individual. Ted, Will and Christian all preferred working in smaller groups, and Summer, Max and Julian opted to present something more performative for a larger audience. Ted really liked the idea of a tight structure, and Christian works well with a structure that is slightly looser. Will, also needs the option to leave the space at any time. So the cast’s preferences turn into creative parameters, that then, in turn form the overall framework.
Did you always expect ‘Genius’ would result in the presentation of information as eccentric and diverse as royal families of the world and endangered Australian animals?
I think it can’t be anything but be eccentric and diverse. I find this diversity a really refreshing and important break away from what we are traditionally fed through the media and mainstream narratives. What I didn’t expect when I first started this process was that the areas of interest are only a small part of the work. For me, 'Genius' is becoming more and more about authenticity, what it means to be non-conventional, and how we perceive and understand difference.
Last year you debuted ‘Genius’ at the St Kilda Town Hall – an extremely large space that can seat up to 800. Do you anticipate performances at the Abbotsford Convent being different due to the scale of the performance space?
We actually felt that the Rosina Hall was a great next step due to its similar size. Last year we divided the St Kilda Town hall in half, and made it an interactive walk through for the six spaces.
This year the Rosina Hall is very similar to that initial structure, except that we are now utilizing the stage and turning the finale into a rock concert, which feels like a natural extension from last year.
What other differences if any can audiences expect this time round?
I’ve learnt that it is somewhat impossible to re-present this work in the same way. Because each the year the cast members grow and their interests also change and evolve too. Some of these are subtle changes and others quite radical. You could compare it to the changes that might happen with your own identity over time.
This was quite a big lesson, as I had to continually let go and not attach to the ideas that worked the first time. It’s a process that demands you to be present to what is presenting at each moment. It’s impossible to forge ahead. This also means that 'Genius' will never be finished and has to constantly evolve.
Julian presented his performance as Gough Whiltam last year, and while he still loves Gough, he’s fed up with the political system in general. So this year he is exploring bolder social and ideological frameworks over politics – and I’d say his ideas this year are even more captivating.
Will (the artist), moves pretty quickly with his ideas too. So his space is completely different from the world created last year. He has been working with Convent-based animation artist Sal Cooper this time around to make his world more sustainable to sit within.
Tell us a little bit more about ‘neurodiversity’.
Neurodiversity is an approach or paradigm that emerged in the late 1990s and brings forward the idea that neurological differences like autism, dyslexia, ADHD and other neurological conditions are a result of normal variations of the human genome rather than a medical disorder.
Neurodiversity suggests we need to recognize, celebrate and work with the strengths of those who have neurological differences in order to progress as a society. In fact, it would be safe to say that a lot of the technological and cultural advancements that we encounter in our lives now can be attributed to the work of neuro-typical thinkers.
With the recent claim that there has been a 250 percent increase of children in Australia diagnosed with autism over the last 30 years, it is useful to consider how do we as a society, choose to work with this rise in diagnoses. And how can we move beyond social stigma into acceptance and positive integration.
What was the biggest difficulty in bringing this show to life? Did you receive criticisms during development from those who interpreted the show as exploitative?
This is something that I have been continually mindful of. Before I ran the first creative development I went back to study Art & Community Engagement at the VCAM through the Centre for Cultural Partnerships, which really helped me to question my intentions, methodology and name the values of the project. I initially questioned even putting the work up, because, who was I to even do this? But then I realised that if I was to go ahead with this process it would have to be completely collaborative, democratic and ‘with’ the cast each step of the way.
Within the first creative development I worked with Tom Middleditch as dramaturg. Tom is a neurodiverse theatre director and his presence and ideas helped me to really sharpen the framework for Genius. Mid way through the first development I remember also asking the cast how they all wanted to frame the work? Do we talk about autism? Where is it mentioned? In the performance? In in the program? Is it subtle? Is it obvious? Do we talk about it through the neuro-diversity paradigm or autism paradigm?
It was quite a profound conversation as everyone shared generously. Together we all decided the best way was to frame it through the neurodiversity paradigm, and keep this focus subtle. The cast and I ultimately want the audience draw their own conclusions and not enter the work with any pre-conceived ideas. It was really great to be able to find this common ground together.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder are often diagnosed with a lack of social awareness – but the interactive nature of the performances in ‘Genius’ hints at another side of that. Can you tell us about the interactive nature of the piece and how the performers have embraced it?
If you’ve only met one person on the autism spectrum it’s safe to say that the next person you will meet will be completely different. Like all of humanity, we all have our strengths, quirks and differences. And so every encounter in 'Genius' has been customized to play to the strengths of each cast member who determines the exchange that they would like to have.
An example of this can be seen in Julian’s Utopian Civilisation lecture. Julian has prompt cards for audience members to suggest questions that they could ask him. There is also room to ask an alternative question, but the cards assist by offering a layer of predictability for Julian as well as helping direct the audience so that the questions further extend the ideas that Julian would like to voice.
I’ve found that working in this way has helped to challenge the idea that all people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have a lack of social awareness. All of the cast have actually really loved the audience interaction within their spaces. I think it’s actually just been about meeting them, at their level of comfort rather than making an assessment based at arms length.
As neuro-typical people, we forget that a lot of the public, educational and institutional spaces have been created to cater for the majority. So the spaces within 'Genius' are intentionally different.
Almost everyone at some point has a unique obsession or interest, but is often left by the wayside. Does ‘Genius’ aim to remind us of that and use our own obsessions and interests as a way of finding common ground with the ‘Geniuses’?
The more I am within this process, the more I am realising that this project is much deeper than just presenting a cast of neurodiverse people with eclectic hobbies. 'Genius' reminds me of the many overlaps between neurodiverse and neuro-typical people. The qualities that the cast bring to this work actually resonate with me just as much as the content itself. I’m constantly reminded of how we can all work to be a little more honest and little more authentic. The lack of ego within the room has also been astounding. There is a really beautiful purity here.
Most of us grow up and instinctively learn how to fit in and assimilate. Even if this means assimilating into groups that are non-conventional. So it’s really an opportunity for self-reflection, understanding others and hopefully also embracing our own uniqueness.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
I don’t want to pre-empt any particular reaction, but the work’s intention to open up and reveal some alternative ways of seeing and perceiving the world around us.
What are you working on next?
I’ve got a few very loose ideas of projects, but I need a bit of downtime and a bit of space. So I’m spending a month at the beginning of next year away at a residency to have some dreaming time away from the city.
'Genius' is at the Abbotsford Convent form 9 – 12 November. See the What's On page for more information.