Care & Destruction of a Childhood // Lemn Sissay

Where does one start with an energy like Lemn Sissay’s? Lemn appears on stage and immediately builds a rapport with the audience as only he can. Lemn takes us on an intensely personal journey full of humour and poignancy. I have been privileged to have heard many people speak about the care system, and it is indeed a privilege to listen to his thoughts and experiences.

Sissay’s story begins in 1966 when his mother came to England from Ethiopia whilst pregnant. As a single mother, she was sent to Lancashire to give birth to Lemn, who was then promptly placed into foster care in order for his mother to complete her studies in Berkshire. Lemn goes on to say that he was given the name ‘Norman’ and placed into the foster care of a white English family. “Norman?” he asks, “Do I look like a Norman?”. I feel stunned. He is talking of a system that is trying to take away his identity, his name, his culture, his background, his people. This is what that feels like.

Lemn is at pains to stress that to foster a child is amongst the greatest acts of humanity, and that his story should not deter from that. It is, after all, his story he is telling and no one else’s. Intertwined throughout his talk are profound observations like “Dysfunction is at the heart of all functioning families”. It takes a moment for that statement to truly sink in, but it makes complete and perfect sense.

Although it is the story of his journey, there are also life lessons. He talks of the need for people to be kind to themselves, to try and forgive, for it is only through forgiveness that Lemn has found redemption and a certain closure. I leave the auditorium reflecting on Lemn’s journey and what he has to say, and although there are moments where one feels dismay at the social care system, it is also a story of hope and never giving up on dreams and aspirations. Inspirational!

- Amar Hussein

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay (Profile) - Guardian

The Emperor’s Watchmaker (Lemn Sissay Blog)

Lemn Sissay: Why Does Society Hate Young People in Care? - The Big Issue

Poet sets out to help young care leavers - Channel 4 News

Children's Free Play // Dr David Whitebread

Children's Free Play explored the role of play in pre-school and beyond, and the impact that overlooking this in education has seen over the last thirty years, with increased childhood mental health and obesity problems and poorer cognitive, emotional, and psychological capabilities.   

In 2008 the Children's Society reported that 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) had a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of them had still not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early stage. Heads Together tell us that more than 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they begin school and almost 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.

Dr David Whitebread from Cambridge University 'grew up in a very different era' where as a kid he was packed off to ‘play out’ for the day and wouldn’t return until teatime.  I relate to that as, similarly to most kids back in the 1950s and 1960s, after having been taken to infant school once or twice you then took yourself.  I had a friend who was waiting for heart surgery due to a birth defect and two of us would take it in turns to push her there and back in a trolley.

Dr Whitebread tells us about how experiments have demonstrated that adults who don’t know how to play with their kids are less successful parents. Hovering supervision over children gives little wriggle room for them to test their boundaries and take risks. He recommended that instead of telling kids not to do something because it's dangerous, like rolling down a hill, we positively encourage them and do it together. Whitebread mentions that some early learning classes have discarded play areas in schools, which bypasses an opportunity to harness a child's creative imagining. Task-based projects, by contrast, give a wider brief to incorporate multiple subjects, develop better reasoning skills, and a passion for enquiry.  

Dr Whitbread informs us that brain development regarding games and their rules starts as early as three.  He shares a video to demonstrate how some little kids of this age invent a game which incorporates an unspoken rule of lining up in an orderly fashion to walk through a puddle of water.  And that when slightly older, children will spend more time negotiating the rules than they will playing the game itself. Roughly 80% of brain development is completed by age three and 90% by age five. A study in Jamaica which taught mothers to play with their children and twenty years later the results showed that those children were comparatively better adjusted, committed less crime and were earning 25% more than children who didn't get the learning through play intervention. Dr Whitebread's talk shows the ripple-effect that not prioritising 'play' is having on society as a whole and why policy makers MUST take these hazardous indicators more seriously.

-      Jane Unsworth


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

All Work and No Play - The Atlantic

Unstructured Play is Critical for Kids -

Children's Play Advisory Service

Play is Vital for Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing -

Lego Serious Play

Policy Resources - Young Minds

What Goes On In Your Head?

Let’s start with some questions. R+ + you = what? What would you do for dopamine? What goes on in your head? What goes on in your teenager’s head? The last question was focus of workshops run by artist Jim Lockey, and the culmination was What Goes on in Your Head?, an installation and talk on behaviour and the brain.

The installation presented a range of answers to this question from the teenagers that took part. The art and words they created ranged from the direct and light-hearted to the profound. The installation aimed to show that when we ask a teenager this directly, or in the form of an exasperated rhetorical monologue, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Tracy Mapp, an expert in the field of behaviour management, built on this with research about the growing teenage brain, paying particular attention to several areas. The first was the relationship between a person’s behaviour and the behaviour of those around them. The second was on dopamine and a teenager’s high senstivitity to it, as well as its implications for behaviour. What Goes on in Your Head?also looked at the changing structure of a teenagers’ brain, at the process of synaptic pruning in operation that takes the brain from a child to an adult. Moving on to consider ways of changing behaviour, Mapp challenged the view of punishment as an effective technique and explored instead the power of positive reinforcement - otherwise known as R+.  What Goes on in Your Head? explored behaviour; it’s origins, it’s influences and techniques to change it using science and experience.

-       Dave Horn


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Why Is Synaptic Pruning Important for the Developing Brain?Scientific American

Swedish Speed-Camera Pays Drivers To Slow DownWired

Wild teenage behaviour linked to rapid cognitive change in the brainGuardian

Kevin Becomes a Teenager Harry Enfield and Chums (1994)

Sponge // Big Imaginations and Turned On Its Head

Sponge is a feel-good soft-play disco for ages 0-4. It’s full of the silliness and mischief that kids love and targeted at an age range that forms experiences that open up theatre to them in the future. Kids are dazzled by the lights and props, the possibilities for play and the opportunities for participation. They run around without being told to sit down, throw things and shout out without being told off, and dance with the performers rather than sit still. It’s not strictly dance, theatre or comedy, but it is happy, bright and open.

The show is a slow escalation of size and texture. Buckets are used as drums and boats and sponges as building blocks, trampolines and rain. It makes a mess of textures, coarse, soft, honeycomb and stretchy. The sponges also prove oddly versatile as costume – here a crawling mushroom that looks like it’s from a 50s sci-fi film, there used to gently reference Charlie Chaplin’s potato fork dance from The Gold Rush or dance moves from Saturday Night Fever. These subtle allusions exist more for the adults in the room than the kid themselves, but they offer another level to the show, little Easter eggs to keep parents entertained alongside the kids

As theatre and performance for young people continues to innovate and expand across the country with new companies and artists, performances like Sponge are a soft and squishy entry into that world. Its allows all kids to feel the freedom of new performance and encourages its audiences to engage and have fun. It introduces from the first (perhaps the very first time for many of the children there) the idea that there is more to theatre than sitting in the dark whilst someone speaks. It can be anarchic, rough and ready, silly and bizarre, with no story to speak of but built on of a series of interactions between performer and audience. And that’s a good lesson to share. 

- Lewis Church


Links Relevant to this Diagnosis:

Sponge – Turned on Its Head

Purni Morrell on Children's Theatre - The Stage

Half of Teenagers 'Never Been In a Theatre' - BBC News

The Blob (1958)

Charlie Chaplin's Table Dance - The Gold Rush (1925)

HOW IS UNCLE JOHN? / Creative Garage

HOW IS UNCLE JOHN? / Creative Garage

Abuse often comes shrouded in code. It comes in signs. Physical marks and distress, eyes that won’t meet yours, garbled speech, a sort of radical shrinking. There’s the less obvious, mental iterations. Rapid and sudden introversion, anxiety, depression: another sort of radical diminishing.

IT FOLDS / Junk Ensemble & Brokentalkers

IT FOLDS / Junk Ensemble & Brokentalkers

At first, It Folds feels baffling, a blur whose beauty defies close analysis. It blurs the boundaries between life and death, making the ghosts of murdered children walk among their grieving families. It blurs the lines between truth and fiction, drawing on real-life stories of child abduction but muddying their details until they become universal. And most of all, it blurs the categories we place performance into. Its large cast mix dance, physical theatre, matter-of-fact monologues and disconcerting wit into a piece that creates a incense-heady atmosphere of its own.

DECLARATION / Sarah Emmott & Art With Heart

DECLARATION / Sarah Emmott & Art With Heart

Declaration draws on Sarah Emmott’s experiences and (late) diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Developed with medical professionals, ADHD and mental health support groups, the piece begins with a highly energetic and comedic tone. Emmott shares childhood stories of embracing her then-undiagnosed self-defined “weirdness” within a supportive family context.

DOUBTING THOMAS / Grassmarket Projects

DOUBTING THOMAS / Grassmarket Projects

Doubting Thomas is ostensibly about Glasgow's criminal underworld, but it's also about the consequences of childhood trauma and neglect, and it's about rehabilitation. Written and performed by Thomas McCrudden with support from the cast, it is the true story of his violent past, detailing his time both in and out of prison.

BUBBLE REVOLUTION / Polish Theatre Ireland

BUBBLE REVOLUTION / Polish Theatre Ireland

Bubble Revolution describes itself as 'a one-woman revolutionary fairy tale about growing up during and after the fall of communism in Poland'. The bubble of the title refers to bubblegum, something that was once very hard to get hold of and treasured as a result.

TRACING GRACE / OffTheWallTheatreCo

TRACING GRACE / OffTheWallTheatreCo

Sixteen people are diagnosed with encephalitis – severe brain inflammation – every day in the UK, yet most of the public have never heard of it. Based on the real life experiences of writer and director Annie Eves, whose sister Grace was diagnosed with the condition at just three weeks old, Tracing Grace aims to open our eyes to the existence of encephalitis and the challenges of living with its long-term impact.

THE ROOSTER AND PARTIAL MEMORY / El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe

THE ROOSTER AND PARTIAL MEMORY / El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe

There is a lot of dick-waving going on in The Rooster, most of it metaphorical, some of it actual. Based on the character of Al-Deek, the Rooster, in traditional Lebanese and Palestinian folk dance, this contemporary piece explores power and chauvinism through the medium of men acting like cocks.

ALL THE THINGS I LIED ABOUT / Katie Bonna and Paul Jellis

ALL THE THINGS I LIED ABOUT / Katie Bonna and Paul Jellis

Writer and performer Katie Bonna's latest work All The Things I Lied About, takes you by the hand and leads you gently into a maze of deceit. Contextualised within a faux-TED framework, we are deftly lured into a world constructed on a white lie here, an economy of truth there, until you no longer know what, or who, to believe.