How theatre helps children with special needs express themselves

Mar 07, 2018
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This week, we will look at ‘World Through Their Eyes’ using theatre. How does theatre help kids with special needs? Can it help or accentuate the communication process? Answering these questions and many more, we had a conversation with V. Balakrishnan, Founder and Artistic Director of Theatre Nisha.

Bala's profile picture

V. Balakrishnan is an alumni of the National School of Drama (New Delhi), and is the Founder and Artistic Director of Theatre Nisha (Chennai), which has staged over 100 plays in the past 17 years. He has been using theatre as a tool to improve communication and combat learning disabilities for the past 16 years. He has directed over 200 plays, acted in over 150 plays and written 10 scripts. He was recently awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching 2017, completed his inquiry project on Theatre Necessities and Application: Role Play for Liberation from Indiana University.

Avaz: What is expected of you when you teach theatre to children with special needs? What kind of curriculum is used and what sort of engagement happens?
V. Balakrishnan: With special children, my work so far, has not been dictated by a curriculum given by the school. The curriculum has mostly been the one which I have developed. I do not follow a set lesson plan because each day is very different. We have to improvise quite a bit on the original plan. Broadly, we do have bifurcations of what we will work on; physicality, voice, reading and acting but what we end up doing changes everyday depending on how the children respond.

We work outdoors with the children in these schools. There are particular days when the children may be slightly more hyperactive or it may be too hot. In such cases, we look at what best needs to be done, than stick to a curriculum. Simply put, the curriculum is about making sure that the children are able to intuitively, impulsively and instinctively use their imagination and respond. The final line in any training for actors is to be able to respond honestly and this forms the basic title of our curriculum. What goes into forming this curriculum is something that changes with each school.

Avaz: What is your approach to building your own curriculum for these schools?
V. Balakrishnan: The broad guidelines are the same but the thought process is more or less developed only after meeting the children. We tailor-make the curriculum according to their needs. When we see children who have some difficulty with motor skills, we try to use a little more of silambam or martial arts. For children with a speech problem or shyness or some kind of complex, we use a lot of storytelling, voice exercises and speech exercises. With some children, we just play games. We just keep playing games till we reach a stage where we can start introducing drama theories and allow the children to understand the responsibilities of acting.

Avaz: What are some of the necessary building blocks (like motor skills) to be included in a theatre curriculum for children with special needs?
V. Balakrishnan: We make sure both the vocal and physical aspects are completely touched upon. We use movement, rhythm and tempo, speech exercise, introduction to acting concepts and making them explore small scenes using their imagination. Within these aspects, what gets stressed upon a little more than the rest, depends upon the group of children we are working with. Sometimes we understand that there is a speech therapist at work with the child. Then speech intervention is not required from us. We then work more on the motor skills.

We work more on something like silambam, an Indian martial art form. Silambam has had some remarkable results with children. It has really helped them because moving the fighting stick from left to right is quite a brain-challenging thing to do. It’s not easy and we have seen some really good results in children who started doing silambam. We have also seen some wonderful results in children who do storytelling, group exercises and probes that we do. It makes them understand social responsibility and work with group dynamics and leadership.
Avaz: What is the outcome that schools hope for, by engaging the students with theatre?
V. Balakrishnan: Quite frankly special schools do not have drama in their curriculum. It is a regular class, it is marked down as a period in the timetable but they don’t have to write an examination on it. All they have to do is to put up a performance at the end of the day. Although the objective is out there in the open, when the children come to us for the class, it is that we are getting ready for a performance. But what we are working on is trying to understand and identify children who have a problem with expressing themselves or with possibly understanding tempo and rhythm or with reading and so on. So we (the team) divide to figure out the challenge that the child faces and particularly like to work on those aspects. The final performance only becomes a huge excuse (may be) in order to be able to follow these interventions in order to finally make the child confident and believe in themselves.

Avaz: Often caregivers find it difficult to understand the child when he/she faces a certain challenge. What can caregivers do to better understand them?
V. Balakrishnan: Children always express themselves. When we are talking about learning disabilities, I don’t think that these children per se have any problems vis-a-vis children from “regular schools”. Learning disability is only the disability of our cerebral process to be able to indulge in one particular function with a block. So the child is not able to read or write or draw or do math. But this is something that occurs to every child, even you and I would have one aspect or more than one aspect where we totally suck. I might be tone deaf, but recognising tonality is not a requirement of social order. Hence it is not recognised as a learning disability whereas reading, writing and math is. Apart from that, it is not a disability. It is just one aspect and we are trying hard to make them do it. It is quite possible that a person can live happily without having to write or read but unfortunately it has become a norm in our social order. The only way we can survive is to be able to read, write and calculate. When it comes to children with autism and asperger syndrome, they do express themselves very brilliantly and clearly. Unfortunately, we are not able to read it because we are always trying to make them conform to responding in a way that we think is correct. We are trying to teach them how to smile, laugh, show anger and distaste, while they have their own way of doing it. I think what we really need is some kind of space where these children can be free in their environment and not be taught to conform to a way of living, trying to make them be like us. I think it’s more important to be the way they are but that requires so much of compassion on the part of the entire world and I don’t know if that’s possible.  


What do you think of theatre as a form of communication? Leave us a comment!