Sensory experience overwhelms in Whoosh!

23 September 2020

Disabled and autistic reviewer Patrick Gunasekera has concerns about ‘Whoosh!’, Sensorium Theatre’s latest show for neurodiverse children which is part of AWESOME Festival next week.

During the last fortnight we have received feedback expressing concern about this review.

We thank those who took the time to send through their thoughts, in particular Sensorium Theatre whose response you can read here.

We are always looking for ways to refine and improve the service we provide to the public, and we are reviewing and adjusting our processes in response to those concerns – Seesaw Managing Editors, 9 October 2010

‘Whoosh!’, Sensorium Theatre, presented by AWESOME Festival ·
Studio Underground, Monday 21 September ·

Whoosh! is the latest offering from Sensorium Theatre, Australia’s only company making live shows specifically designed for young audiences with disabilities. The company have an international reputation for their theatre work which aims to improve the lives of children with disability by sparking their imaginations. Whoosh! invites a team of young audience members to be space cadets on a thrilling intergalactic journey all the way from Planet Earth to Planet X and back again, from a brightly- lit geodesic dome-shaped spaceship which has landed in the Studio Underground during AWESOME Festival. On board the spaceship, the assistance of all space cadets is required to manage its “piloting controls”—a suite of interactive tools responsive to the participant’s sensory interactions, in the form of computer coded light and sound-based games activated by touch.

Leading us through the story are core crew members Captain Zola (Michelle Hovane), engineer Bing (Francis Italiano), scientist Flo (Daisy Sanders), and the spaceship robot Phonic (Jamie David), dressed in chunky silver uniforms which match the glittering metallic interior and exterior of the spacecraft. The four performers interact directly with audience members as we experience hyperspace, yummy space food, surprise space tech breakdowns, and the mysterious Planet X—an area cloaked in black light and furnished with neon coloured strings, ooblek, and fabric covered spiky balls hanging from repurposed fishnets—before making our safe return to earth.

I should mention, this show was intended for young neurodivergent audiences. As an autistic reviewer, I was excited to literally get my hands all over this playful and heavily sensorial experience, and to exist in the imaginative outer space world of Whoosh! as myself, rather than respond how I typically would with “performer brain” in an immersive theatre show for any other audience. However, what should have been a space for autistics and other neurodivergent folks to experience an hour of freedom from society’s expectations on us to be “normal”, unsurprisingly became yet another site of being misinterpreted and obliged to follow patronising levels of conformity.

A neurodivergent child and an adult gaze at a screen
A child engages with the interactive sensory theatre show Whoosh! Photo by Sarah Walker

Autistics and other neurodivergents are taught from birth to camouflage ourselves into neurotypical society, and our worth and safety in this world are contingent on how “well” we can do this. Masking, as it’s notoriously known in our community, is a highly exhausting survival tactic of suppressing all the ways we naturally express ourselves and experience the world—be these expressions or experiences of joy, pain, concern, or anything else. Being forced to mask for prolonged periods of time leads to something called autistic burnout, which is one of the most common causes of emotional and interpersonal challenges among autistic young people. It is common knowledge within the autistic community that respites from masking, which don’t put us in danger of social ridicule or abuse, is the best way to prevent autistic burnout and its related effects on the body, mind and spirit.

In Whoosh!, the neurodivergent children participating alongside me were repeatedly probed to engage with the world of the show through neurotypical frameworks. Children who connected with others through respectfully sharing space, but not with eye contact or verbal expression, were encumbered by performers who looked them right in the eye and wouldn’t leave their space, in the hopes the child would abandon their neurodivergent traditions for the performer to interact with them through eye contact or verbal expression. Another child who infrequently went to lie face down on the floor would then be encouraged by the neurotypicals in the space to get up, and allowed to be visibly reprimanded by support workers when they didn’t, even though this child was likely feeling overwhelmed or scared, or perhaps was dyspraxic and physically couldn’t get off the floor.

We don’t always want to connect or participate with other people, as we often find this very exhausting. If it is okay for neurotypical adults to have the right to pass in participatory theatre, then our right to say no and have the space to make our own decisions should be respected too, at any age.

We were also discouraged from screaming or rocking during points of the show that were intended to provoke anxiety, and “reassured” by performers through unsolicited touch. Screaming and rocking are how we naturally communicate through emotive sensory expression, and verbally or physically directing us not to do so sends a message that we should not express emotions or concerns that are important to us.

Retreating into familiar safe stories inhabited by amicable characters who make us feel normal and loved has always been an important coping mechanism for neurodivergents when surviving in a neurotypical world. Audience members were introduced to the exciting, holographic foil world of Whoosh! beforehand through Sensorium Theatre’s app, and in the performance I attended the children seemed enthralled to get to meet the characters in person. Nonetheless, I cannot honestly say this is a show that is suitable for young neurodivergent audiences.

The world of Whoosh! is built precariously on neurotypical frameworks of communication and social interaction, and subsequently denies neurodivergent children an opportunity to be trusted, encouraged, and free to be ourselves—an opportunity fundamental to the healthy development of any child’s self-confidence.

A participatory multi-sensory experience can play a role in liberating neurodivergent children from the everyday strain of having to mask our sensory regulation practices—although, I personally left on the brink of a sensory meltdown and unable to handle the State Theatre Centre courtyard’s regular Monday afternoon ambience. I also noticed several other neurodivergent audience members expressing overwhelm in our own ways throughout.

Further to this, Whoosh! does not promote freedom on a cultural level by honouring the inherently valuable and exceptional ways of filtering and navigating the world which is brought to the space through the presence of its intended audience. Instead, it pushes an experience of restrictive paradigms and conditional autonomy onto neurodivergent children, asserted by non-disabled people and broader systemic ableism as “necessary”.

Until “disability theatre” positions disabled folks as the owners of our narratives and bodyminds, it will not be theatre for us—it will remain a theatre which privileges and canonises non-disabled artists and ideas at our expense.

A note on language: the writer uses the language of the social model of disability, which makes a distinction between bodymind and disability. The social model defines disability as barriers encountered in society, hence the language of specifically being disabled in a society that places social, attitudinal, architectural, and institutional barriers specific to our bodyminds in the society we share. Bodymind is a disability studies term referring to an individual’s context of their own body and mind, and how these are inseparable from each other and from an external body politic.

[Editor’s note: This show by its nature will change with each audience. This is what the reviewer experienced on the day they attended. It could be vastly different on a different day.]

Whoosh! opens to the public on 29 September as part of AWESOME festival

Read Sensorium Theatre’s response to this review.

Picture top: Whoosh! performers interact with a school group. Photo Christophe Canato

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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