Something akin to musical chairs appears to be the order of the day in the Edinburgh church hall where members of Lung Ha Theatre Company are gathered to rehearse their new show. As a trio of professional dancers from the Curious Seed company join in the fun, simulating waking up to a brand new day in a place unknown and pulsed along by a percussive soundtrack, it is clear from some of the strange behaviour on show that We Are All Just little creatures does what it says on the tin.
By the time this co-production between Lung Ha and Curious Seed opens in Edinburgh later this week, there will be forty performers from Lung Ha’s ensemble onstage alongside the dancers, with seven children aged eight to ten years old from the Craigmillar-based Lyra company up there with them. Together, they will be moving in some kind of unison to a live soundtrack composed and played by David Paul Jones and Kevin Lennon. All of which makes for a very different kind of show for Lung Ha as the premiere theatre company for performers with learning disabilities.
“It’s not a traditional story which starts, and then has a middle and an end,” says the company’s artistic director Maria Oller. “It’s episodes of life.”
The roots of the show came from Christine Devaney, artistic director of Curious Seed, who is co-directing We Are All Little Creatures alongside Oller and Lyra’s artistic director, Jo Timmins.
“I’d had an idea for a show, based around the idea of us all being little creatures living in this world” says Devaney. “That’s all that we do. We’re born and we die, and stuff happens inbetween, and we’re all kind of the same, really.
Out of this has come a series of impressionistic moments rather than a conventional play.
“There’s not a narrative as such,” says Devaney, “but there’s a sense of a journey through being in a place together, whether that’s metaphorically being in life together or being onstage together. Because of devising the work in the way we have, coming in with an idea rather than a script, and asking the performers to contribute to that, even the process of the show is part of that. Just being here, sharing space and thinking about the world in which we’re all bonding metaphorically.”
As Oller points out, “This is quite different for Lung Ha, because we haven’t done a movement-based production before. That’s why Chris came in so early, to build up stamina and skills, and how to tell a story with movement.”
Devaney talks about how the process was more to do with “being expressive of the body, giving people keys into how you can story tell without it being mime, and it becoming about self-healing and self-expression, and really gathering a lot from how people respond, taking that and shaping it.”
Devaney first worked with Lung Ha on the company’s productions of Around the World in 80 Days and Jekyll and Hyde. While both of these saw her lead the company in more general movement work, the effect of more intensive sessions over the last eighteen months has left its mark on all involved.
“They love it,” Oller says of the response of Lung Ha’s performers. “They are moving in such a different way. So what they have got from Chris during this last year is going to shape every show we do from now on. It’s amazing how they are. Just the other day, one of the actors said, I can’t believe it, I was on the floor.”
For Devaney, “Things that movement artists might take for granted a little bit, we really have to take time over with people here. It can be really tricky for someone to get on the floor, or it can take time for someone to realise that their arms can go further back than they thought. Then to get them to repeat it, and find out how it feels emotionally, and that it’s not just physical, that’s been amazing to see.”
On a practical level, Oller points out how “The actors are more aware of each other onstage. Because there’s some quite fast movement and there are loads of them, there’s none of that bumping into each other anymore.”
For the professional dancers too, “That learning process completely turns around,” says Devaney, “because we’re re-learning about time and process, rather than thinking we can just do it, and what that brings in terms of a sharing of process the other way round as well.”
This surge in confidence among the performers has rippled out beyond the rehearsal room.
“One of the mothers of the actors said that there’s something in her movement that has made her daughter much more confident walking in the street,” says Oller, “and she’s not holding on to her mum as much as she used to do. During this process she’s become more aware of her body and how it’s moving, and has become more in charge of it. Moments like that matter.”
Once the idea began to take shape, Lyra was a natural fit.
“Curious Seed share an office with Lyra,” says Devaney, “and I had done a residency with them. During that time, one of the questions I was exploring was about delight and small things in people’s lives. Jo and I did a bit of research into what we thought delight is. We went around collecting delight from people, and brought young people into it. Then when we started talking we thought it would be good to bring all the stuff about delight in small things into this, and Jo said yes. Seeing the young people come in brings a different energy.”
With all three companies finding common ground, We Are All Just Little Creatures aims to become a microcosm of the everyday epiphanies experienced by everyone.
“It’s about being connected with other people,’ says Devaney. “It’s about difference, and celebrating that difference, knowing that we all go through inner turmoil, and no matter who you are or where you’re from, you’re going to have that shared experience. What you bring out of that is what connects us up.”
For Oller, this has a wider resonance.
“I hope the audience will reflect on their own lives, and realise that every little moment is special,” she says. “We rush through life to easily without thinking, doing things automatically. We get up, go to work, come home, sleep, but life is so much more. Every day is different, and they’re full of special moments to delight in.”
We Are All Just Little Creatures, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 28-30; Byre Theatre, St Andrews, April 2.
The Herald, March 26th 2019