Most theatre entreats you to take your seat, to surrender your imagination for however brief a time and let the performance wash over you – there are worse ways to spend a night out.
And while Kaleidoscope is theatre – in part – it is a style of performance you’re unlikely to have seen before. The story of Ethan Hugh – who, at age four, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome – is one of spontaneity, colour and impression, in which the audience is invited to not simply watch the now 13-year- old Ethan and his Company 2 circus cohorts, but to experience the world through his very unique perspective.
“What’s beautiful about Ethan and his creativity, and it is part of who he is with Apserger’s, is that he’s very singular, very pragmatic,” Ethan’s mother Joanna says. “He doesn’t really have much self- awareness, but as a parent, I have seen him be creative since [he was] a little boy, and always this uninhibited creativity – it’s very natural and unrehearsed. I think that really comes out in his performing, his humour, his physical comedy. And that is just him in his everyday; he doesn’t realise it. It’s wonderful that the director Chelsea McGuffin can actually observe that as well, and she navigates his performance skills. It’s such a unique quality that she has as a director, working with a child who’s not necessarily seeking fame or performance.”
“It’s good,” Ethan agrees. “You make a lot of friends. It’s really fun, and also gives a message. Well, Asperger’s, you can either be really shy or really creative. And I’m in the creative side, yes. Basically, Asperger’s is thinking outside the box, and if you mix that with creativity then you get some really unique experiences and ideas.”
Kaleidoscope first saw life in a different form altogether. Joanna began writing her observations of Ethan’s life – his insights and struggles with the outside world – at the urging of a friend. Though she never had any intention of transporting her words from page to stage, when McGuffin read the story of Kaleidoscope, she saw clear potential there to open up Ethan’s world to an entirely new audience.
“It was just my way as a mum of processing the grief that we’d been through together,” Joanna says, “but finding the beauty through that grief, and drawing out the best of this experience and the best of this little boy, and celebrating the life we had together. I had no agenda of it going any further. I suppose translating a written word to the lyrical arts world, I write in a very poetic way. It’s not a clinical story, it’s not a checklist of the day or the struggles. It’s written in a lyrical way, and that enabled Chelsea to translate it poetically to the stage as well.”
“Though without you the book wouldn’t have happened,” Ethan reminds her. “And I wouldn’t have been born.” Joanna laughs.
“Here’s some backstory for you,” he continues, choosing his words carefully. “Mum, me and the rest of the family saw a circus show, and I liked it so much I asked Mum if I could do circus. And she tried to find anything you could learn circus from, and it took a bit of finding. But we eventually landed on Flipside, though it was an hour drive away, but it was worth it. When I was at Flipside, during and before, Mum, because I was so special, wrote down my little thoughts and things in a book called Kaleidoscope. Chelsea somehow found that book and she liked it a lot. So she came up to me and Mum and said, ‘Hey, do you want to have a performance based on your life?’”
“While I think Ethan’s story pushes boundaries in terms of perception and creativity,” Joanna says, “Chelsea also pushes boundaries within the circus/acrobatic world. We’re all on this learning curve together and all taking risks together, but it’s really allowed the poetry of Ethan’s life to come through. It’s very deep and intimate, but it’s also very delightful and humorous, because it does draw in all these different elements of musicality, of physical comedy, a little bit of improv from Ethan, the unexpected – and all of the cast are prepared for that. He’s not a trained professional, and the cast has this way of nurturing him that no one really notices. We’ve found our tribe.”
It is a busy period for the mother/ son circus team. Prior to their performances at Sydney Festival, they will be undertaking workshops at the Woodford Folk Festival, where Ethan is conducting social circus classes (“For youth, by youth,” he says, “which is really exciting.”). A commendable aspect of Kaleidoscope is its embrace of relaxed performance, a feature rarely seen outside of children’s theatre.
“It’s such a unique way this all happened,” says Joanna. “It isn’t your traditional, ‘Hey, we have these themes and we’ve thrown these usual elements together, and hey, we have a performance!’ It wasn’t like that at all. It’s a very inclusive creation. Often the culture with performing arts is as an audience you’re quiet, you don’t intervene in any way, while relaxed performances allow a variety of audiences. If you have noisy children, or people with disabilities, people can feel they can engage with the show but not feel embarrassed by having any peculiarities that may interfere with the show. There’s a lot of love there.”
Kaleidoscope is playing at Riverside Theatres from Friday January 13 – Wednesday January 18 as part of Sydney Festival.