Sound Symphony is a ‘sensory performance’, a special show developed for young people on the autism spectrum that engages them through interactive music performance. I was compelled to review this show because of my own diagnosis. I grew up with the support of a fantastic mum who helped adapt me to a loud and busy world by immersing me in it; however, I learned, again and again, the hard lesson that control over my stimulation is difficult, and any event can be a fine line between heaven and hell. Initially sceptical of how performance with something as in-your-face as music could be designed with sensory overload in mind, my horizons have been expanded by Sound Symphony.

Touring around Scotland this May 2019, the show has definitely accommodated the diverse needs that those of us on the spectrum have. The waiting area included considerate touches such as bean bags next to chairs, stimulating toys like rain sticks, and ear defenders to help control sensory input. Throughout the show, attendants were quick to help those that needed to leave the space, move to different seats, and re-enter when they were ready. A helpful guide (in multiple formats) told us what would happen, and when.

Performers that played instruments, were supported by assistants that helped with costume changes and interacted with the audience by presenting and playing with props. The assistants’ role, though not front stage, was important in creating such a wonderful atmosphere. There were additional crew on hand operating lighting, rigging and more, which seemed simple and effortless but was probably quite difficult.

Starting in the foyer we, the audience, were introduced to the main performance step by step. Consistently throughout Sound Symphony the performers radiated their joy into the audience. I don’t believe there was a single young person there that didn’t laugh, smile or clap during the performance, and their engagement in the overall story of the show (such as yelling “oh no!” or “wow!”) felt natural and fun, not intrusive or rude.

Encouraged by the performers, the audience got hands-on with props and instruments; feeling the vibrations of Sinclair’s cello, playing Usui’s marimba, or wearing and delighting in costumes from previous parts of the show. Sound Symphony met the audience on whatever level they were comfortable at. No part felt pressured, with all performers being reactive to the audience’s willingness to engage. During the show, musicians moved in and out of the audience, moderating sound while doing so. At no other show could you get so close to a musician; I could hear the breath and buzz of Allori’s clarinet, and the gentle clack of its keypads.

It’s difficult to name a favourite part of the performance, but thinking back I tear up over the air of inclusivity and receptiveness in the room. Often in performances, overstimulation creates oppressive anxiety; those emotions demand your energy and focus to master them until you can decompress in a quiet and private space. Here, at this performance, I felt welcomed and comfortable. Performers joined in audience members in their vocalisations and mannerisms, not to mirror or imitate but to incorporate them into the performance. There was no dread of doing the wrong thing or interrupting. In this space, it was okay to be autistic, and stim, to laugh and squeal with joy, to clap whenever you were pleased or just watch and smile. I don’t often feel that safe in public.

There is some gentle critique with this review. In the beginning, we were all told specifically not to touch a triangular shaped stage piece. It’s a reasonable rule; the stage in question is stood on, and climbed up and over by the musicians. However, after invited to centre stage to interact close up with a musician, some audience members found it a natural resting place to retreat to. Though performers were accommodating of this and crew fast to respond, guardians become anxious that their charges were disrupting the performance, when actually they were most immersed in it. Attending alone, I personally don’t know what procedures are in place to support guardians attending the show. However, this was the first performance and with each show, I’m sure communication will get even stronger to keep everyone at ease. This otherwise minor critique doesn’t mar the astounding and personally touching event that is Sound Symphony.

After the show, I spoke with director and lead artist Ellie Griffiths about the development process. She elaborated on the consultation process held with someone on the autism spectrum to access the suitability of each venue space of the tour, as well as the training received by the performers. It’s clear she and the whole team have invested the thought and time necessary to create a considerate space for this show. I see that effort, and I’m thankful it’s in the world.

Photos courtesy of Brian Hartley

For more information on Independent Arts Projects who produced Sound Symphony click here