Gráinne Hallahan and individuals affected by aphasia
Funded by the Arts Council Artist in the Community Scheme
Irish Aphasia Theatre (IAT) is a socially engaged theatre and arts and health company working in professional theatre, community and health settings. IAT uses theatre to artistically engage, train, facilitate and produce the work of participants who have cognitive, communication and physical disabilities. In particular, IAT works with participants who have aphasia and/or acquired brain injuries related to ageing conditions and other brain traumas. Irish Aphasia Theatre was founded by theatre director, writer and facilitator, Gráinne Hallahan, in 2018. This project was funded by the Arts Council’s Artist in the Community Scheme Project Realisation award and Fingal County Council Arts Office.
During September 2018 to July 2019, there were more than 20 participants and members of their families visiting and engaging on different levels throughout the project. Three consistent members who have aphasia and brain injuries attended IAT workshops every week over 10 months.
The professional artist facilitators were:
Gráinne Hallahan, lead theatre artist and facilitator
Ainé Ní Laoghaire, actor and assisting theatre facilitator
Jessie Keenan, dancer and choreographer
Robbie Blake, singer and composer
The principal aim was to establish the first Irish Aphasia Theatre Company to provide:
• A weekly accessible platform, with full-time professional performance artists, facilitating the artistic expressions of an isolated and excluded Irish community who find engagement in theatre and the arts extremely difficult due to their profound communication and/or cognitive disabilities
• To examine and showcase the health benefits that theatre can offer those with aphasia and other acquired brain injuries due to the communicative and cognitive nature of the artform
• To create new work that pushes forward multi-disciplinary theatre with participants who express themselves in unique and compelling ways outside of the canonical norms
• To raise awareness by offering a professional arts space for participants who wish to express their experiences (pre-recorded or live) to a public audience as brain injury survivors and individuals living in a society that is often unaware of their access needs, which is causing their societal exclusion.
Establishment of IAT
Following a period of research and development, including a pilot begun in Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City Arts Office The LAB, IAT was established in Fingal in 2018. It was funded by the Arts Council’s Artist in The Community Scheme Project Realisation Award (managed by Create), with continued partnering and support from Fingal County Council Arts Office. Participants were recruited via promotion and referrals from local community and health organisations, with some rejoining from the TCD pilot.
Experienced collaborating artists were recruited to add multi-media layers to the work. Their monthly master classes were a valued part of the project, offering participants many access points around their individual disabilities via dance (choreographer Jessie Keenan), song (composer and singer Robbie Blake) and theatre (actor Ainé Ní Laoghaire). This enabled quality educational opportunities for participants’ artistic engagement, growth, health and own artistic expressions. The artists were present at various points with the lead artist throughout the facilitation and creation processes with participants.
IAT began with an open night event in Draíocht Theatre in September 2018 with 20 guests: people with aphasia and other acquired brain injuries, their families and friends. An IAT workshop introduced attendees to character acting, vocal acting tonalities, movement and some singing, as a sample of what our weekly process is like. After the workshop, attendees were brought to the Dublin Theatre Festival show, HOME, at Draíocht, a socially engaged theatre performance about the lives of a cross-section of people living in the Fingal area. The aim was to immerse participants in socially engaged professional theatre from the offset, showing examples of people and stories that are outside the ‘normal’ narratives we are typically offered in the arts and media.
Discussions of HOME and other theatre works became our weekly workshop focus in the month that followed. We practiced elements of staging that were used in these theatre works. We also facilitated introductory theatre exercises without set performance goals e.g. uses of gesture, tableaux, characterisation, soundscaping, direction, writing exercises, movement, choral improvisations etc. to grow participants’ skills as actors/communicators and creators in performance theatre.
The lead artist designed the weekly workshops based on each individual participant’s strengths and their cognitive, communicative and physical access needs. Crucially, Gráinne also designed workshops around their personalities, lifestyles and passions along with input from the collaborators. Vocal and physical acting elements of theatre were focused on to take the pressure off participants using words, supported by Jessie, the choreographer, and Robbie, singer /composer. Participant ownership was key and we always allowed room for things to change in a workshop around their wishes.
Short feedback sessions after each workshop exploring how each participant was developing in terms of their health and therapeutic development and how this intersected with their artistic engagement and enjoyment. This time was very beneficial to ensure the best experience for the group.
Over autumn / winter 2018, we focused on more detailed communication and performance techniques in projection, breath control, energies, stage presence, physical pictures, physical textures and qualities, tonal qualities and rhythm in voice, among others. With this work, we found new ways to communicate together in spite of communication and cognitive challenges. After three months of developing these performative skills, we began exercises in improvisation and creative writing, soundscaping, dance and singing. Each participant began to create originally written and devised theatre pieces of their own.
Developing performance work
In March 2019, the theatre pieces were woven into a 30-minute one-act show, performed by the participants to a public audience in Draíocht’s Studio Theatre. The show was group-led and discussed throughout the winter and spring with final decisions and staging elements decided on by the lead artist for fluency. The pieces were personal to each individual.
One participant was very taken with a Samuel Beckett play that had been introduced to the group. He identified with the character’s struggle and despair and enjoyed the surreal and practical comedy elements in it. He got very attached to the character and we taught him a lot of psychological acting techniques and movement physicality work in his development and delivery of the piece.
Another participant wrote many poems during writing exercises we tried in the workshops. One love poem she wrote was particularly special to her and fuelled her performance. She imagined it was in Venice where the group scene was acted out with her building into it a reading of her own poem.
The final performer/participant was a rugby-mad fan who’d lost most of his verbal ability due to his aphasia and had to give up work after his stroke. Together we wrote a piece where he plays an RTÉ rugby pundit who’s had a stroke and lost his voice, which also results in the loss of his job and identity. In his piece, we watch him go through feelings of isolation and depression only to find his voice again in the beauty of singing, which he did live on stage. The piece ended in a group choral performance.
Overall, the methodology was more challenging and labour intensive than anticipated but the project delivery was of high quality both artistically and in terms of accessibility. It resulted in compelling personal and artistic outputs by the participants. All three performing participants are still weekly attendees of the group and have begun to pass on their skills and knowledge to new members.
• Establishment of the first Irish Aphasia Theatre Company
• Development of theatrical and performance skills for participants’ own communication tools, empowerment and artistic expression
• Creation of three new short theatre pieces, performed at Draíocht Theatre in March 2019
• Creation of a short film documentary on the work
• IAT has continued to grow in membership and artistic collaborators
• IAT has begun developing work with the National Rehabilitation Hospital and Gráinne has been invited to deliver a similar project for them in the future.
As an artist and facilitator, Gráinne Hallahan evaluated each workshop before designing the next one. She paid particular attention to how the participants’ access needs were being met through each artistic challenge and how their own theatre and performative skills and knowledge were developing.
Participants were asked about their favourite exercises and which they liked least or found too difficult or boring. When collaborating artists were assisting in the workshops, there was team prep the week before and a feedback session afterwards to assess participant engagement. We also looked at how to improve on meeting participant needs and how their development through the medium of theatre (acting and creation), dance and singing was progressing. This was very beneficial in guiding the group work to more enriching artistic engagements and therapeutic goals.
Gráinne organised quarterly coffee meetings with each of the participants to see how they were getting on and what they’d most like to do next, which also supported the participant-led ethos of IAT. It was useful to have feedback sessions both within the group and in non-group scenarios to allow people to express themselves freely.
Participants also evaluated each other’s artistic work during the workshops to constructively discuss what worked and what didn’t and what was most interesting to them and why.
• Participants and their families wanted the theatre work to continue on a regular basis; they felt it enhanced their lives and health. Phase two commenced with participants in Fingal in September 2019.
• It became apparent that the accessible theatre format designed for the work assisted with participants’ neurological, communicative, social, emotional and physical development and continuing rehab.
• As an artist, Gráinne’s exploration of original theatre work with participants who have aphasia further expanded her own practice, which focuses on experimental theatrical forms and new narratives around identity and representations.
• There are a variety of challenges working with this community. As an ageing community with many health and mobility conditions, it is a big challenge for participants to travel to weekly workshops without assistance and to consistently be well and energetic enough to do so. As such, other non-performing participants came on an ad hoc basis which required a flexible approach from the artist facilitators. While it was labour intensive to cater to each person’s individual disabilities, it also became an opportunity to increase our creativity and ability to adapt.
On a personal note, these workshops reiterated for Gráinne the empowering impact of theatre as an artform in working with marginalised groups. As a theatre artist with disabilities since birth herself, she understood the participants’ enthusiasm and sense of growth in creating and performing their own work. The theatre company was giving a place for new voices.
Documentation & Dissemination
• We created a website for the work, to document its continuing journey and raise awareness around the conditions.
• We ran two open, sample workshops to invited audiences. These were attended by members of the aphasia and brain injured communities and their families, arts professionals, healthcare professionals, and local and national government representatives.
• RTÉ Radio Drive Time produced a feature on IAT in June 2019: reporter Liam Geraghty attended workshops and interviewed those involved.
• We collected feedback letters from participants and some of their family members to understand their experiences and comments on the process to date.
• Photographs of weekly process and the performances have been captured from the outset
• A short video documentary was created which has been shared with various healthcare and arts professionals.
This case study was adapted from an artsandhealth.ie case study.