According to youth critic Gully Thompson, Whoosh! – a show designed for children with autism or complex disabilities – is a total knockout
With children’s theatre, I tend to divide shows between narrative-based performance and those that are more focused on sensory experience. For some reason, I’ve never really considered a combination of both.
And then I saw Whoosh!
To say that Whoosh! is an interactive, hands-on experience does not do the show justice. It’s so much more than this. I wasn’t even in the audience: I was simply an observer. Even from that position, it’s an emotional, enjoyable experience.
Whoosh! is a show intended for children with autism and complex disabilities. It centres around a crew of four space explorers who invite a group of 14 children into their space ship to take them on an interstellar tour. The show is a mix of free play inside the spaceship, exploration and activities that focus on team-building.
It begins as the children are taken into a waiting room decorated with beanbags, tactile toys and musical instruments that create a gentle, rhythmic soundscape when the children play them. After 10 minutes or so the performers enter, wheeling in a sort of electronic podium with 14 small buttons. The children (or perhaps I should refer to them as cadets) form a circle around the performers (our ship’s crew) as they begin a slow, light song inviting the cadets to join them in space. They do this by singing each child’s name along with an invitation.
The cadets looked nervous and reluctant to begin their interstellar adventure (except for one kid who was constantly screaming “I LOVE SPACE!!!”) A few weren’t comfortable joining the others at the podium. As we would soon realise, the crew was very much ready for this kind of situation – all the buttons could be detached and brought over to the cadets who didn’t want to join in. Pushing the button symbolised joining the adventure, and while some cadets were still reluctant, they all pushed a button.
The crew then guided the cadets into a secondary room with a large dome in the centre. The kids enter the dome, while any observers (parents, carers and me) follow them in and watch from outside the dome.
Inside is a very Doctor Who-esque setup: there’s a podium in the middle and small screens and interactive puzzles are attached to the surrounding walls. The observers and any cadets who are reluctant to enter the ship can view what’s going on inside. For the one or two kids who don’t want to join in, there’s a small chair surrounded by toys and an iPad with a live feed and large window into the ship. The set design is really something to behold.
The games and puzzles are mechanisms that enable the more nervous cadets to calm down, relax and enjoy their time in the ship. There are many elements in this show that work to build the social skills and confidence in kids who find situations like this difficult.
After a bit of free play, the ship blasts off into space! Screens light up with displays of the Earth growing smaller and smaller as the kids scream and cheer. Already I can see how the cadets are warming to the experience. Free play continues, and then the crew regroups the cadets to invite them to eat some “space food”: whipped cream, frozen strawberries and condensed milk. Some assistants bring out space food for the reluctant kid to try, and gently ask if he’s ready to come inside. The kid declines the offer.
In small instances like this, the treatment of the audience really shines through. The crew never patronises the children. They are always their equals and the children may choose to do what they want with the time they have in the ship. The performers are obviously well-prepared to cater to the needs of social disability, and the subtle ways they build the confidence of these kids is really quite astounding to watch.
In the final act of the show, the ship crash lands on the mysterious “Planet X.” Here, the crew and cadets emerge from the ship into a spectacular second set made to look like a strange alien planet. It’s full of tactile objects: alien goop hangs from the ceiling and set-ups, and there are toys, giant inflatable sets and beanbags where the cadets can relax. I was told that the part of this set has been designed to help children who feel overwhelmed take time to calm down and focus, which is important after a rapid change of scenery like this.
Dear reader, I don’t want to spend the rest of the review obsessing over this ending but shut up, I’m doing it anyway. The crew discovers electronic orbs that glow and produce unique sounds which, when put together, create a soundscape. The way the performers describe the orbs to me is that they “talk to one another”. Eventually, the cadets place their orbs on the broken control podium: every single one of them joins in and works as a team to rescue their crew. The show has transformed this group: they are all more confident, more sociable than before. Watching this unfold is quite incredible.
The energy of the orbs powers up the podium, fixing the ship! The cadets and crew board and blast off safely to home. Cheers and screams of excitement!
When the doors are opened, you honestly cannot tell that these children have only known each other for an hour. They look like the best of friends. This show has built their confidence enough to enable them to work as a team and ultimately befriend other kids. Even the single kid who couldn’t build up the courage to join in at the beginning is now cheering along with the rest of the gang. This final result is quite an emotional thing to see – not just for the parents of these kids, but for us as observers.
Whoosh! achieves so many different things with a simple concept. There is a perfect balance of sensory play and theatrical immersion, and an undying respect for their audience. The confidence building is just astounding. The production, set design and plot combine to create something that entices even the most reluctant child to join in, enabling them to warm to the social interaction. It’s beautiful to see this kind of growth unfold. This show is out of this world.
Whoosh!, directed by Michelle Hovane and Francis Italiano. Performed by Jamie David, Michelle Hovane, Francis Italiano, Daisy Sanders and Bec Bradley. Set design by Matthew McVeigh, costume design by Cherie Hewson, composition and sound design by Jamie David, digital and technology design by Steve Berrick, dramaturgy by James Berlyn. Arts Centre Melbourne, June 29. Closed.