15 & 16 October 2021 – online and at the CCA, Glasgow

A two-day festival of workshops, provocations, discussions, and performances curated by the Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network (SNPN).

NEUROSTAGES is a neurodivergent-led platform and space for artists and creatives, communities, individuals and industry professionals to find out more about either neurodiversity or performance. 

The NEUROSTAGES festival explores neurodivergent-made pathways, practices of solidarity and the potentialities of futuristic thinking in performance. It asks how can embracing neurodiversity change theatre and performance for the better? It is an invitation to join neurodivergent performers and artists to share perspectives, experiences and practices. It is an opportunity to enjoy new film work, to hear about the creative processes of the artists supported by the NEUROSTAGES mentorship opportunity, to physically delve into facilitated workshops and to celebrate a constellation of neurodivergent artistry from Scotland and beyond.

The programme includes two days of performances, film, workshops and discussions, online and in person. On the first day, renowned neurodivergent artist, Jess Thom of Touretteshero will offer a keynote presentation Disability Culture in a Time of Pandemic and the festival will be rounded off with a special evening of short performances from local neurodivergent artists, performed live at the CCA, hosted by Ivor MacAskill and Sanjay Lago.

NEUROSTAGES is curated by Aby Watson and Rachel Clive, on behalf of SNPN and is hosted by Aby Watson, Rachel Clive and Ivor MacAskill. Aby Watson is an artist, disabled dance maker, performer, and researcher, Rachel Clive is a neurodivergent theatre practitioner, researcher, and teacher/facilitator and Ivor MacAskill (he/they) is a queer, trans, neurodivergent live artist and theatre-maker based in Glasgow.

Beginning with the keynote presentation: in curating the festival, what is it about Jess Thom that encouraged you to invite her to present the keynote presentation?

Aby Watson

Aby Watson: Jess Thom is a powerhouse of creativity and an incredibly important and innovative neurodivergent artist, so it only felt natural to invite her to present our keynote speech. The essence of her inherent neurodivergent creativity can be heard through the vocal tics of her Tourette’s, as she produces incredibly quick, creative and very often hilarious one liners, word play and imagery.

Her collaborator and co-founder of her company Touretteshero, Matthew Poutney, was right when he said that not doing anything creative with her tics would be wasteful. Jess Thom is an excellent example of the creative value of neurodivergent thinking and the massive potential for it to thrive through artistic practice.

Jess’ perspective and experience as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world is important for the Scottish performance industry to hear. I have heard Jess speak about an awful, highly upsetting, and humiliating experience when she was forced to move when watching a performance due to complaints about her vocal tics from another audience member.

Jess then decided to take up space in the theatre in a position where she can’t be moved: on stage as the artist. Jess’ career signals how harmful the exclusive nature of normative theatre etiquette and culture is for many neurodivergent people, and champions alternative ways of creating and presenting theatre and performance in ways that are inclusive to neurodiversity and disability. This thinking is much, much overdue across the Scottish theatre sector and I’m hoping that our allies in the industry take note of her keynote.

A big way that Jess champions neurodivergent inclusivity in theatre is through her work with Relaxed Performance. For those who aren’t aware, Relaxed Performances seek to make viewing performance more accessible to neurodivergent and disabled people by ‘relaxing’ the normative rules of theatre etiquette – they allow for noise and movement from the audience, as well as tailoring light and light for those with sensory sensitivities. As well as creating and touring their own sell-out Relaxed Performances internationally, Touretteshero have recently launched the world’s first Relaxed Venue at BAC in London. This expands the Relaxed nature outside the theatre, across the whole venue and all its operations to make visiting the venue an inclusive, safe and welcoming experience for neurodivergent and disabled people. This work is ground breaking and world leading, and this is another reason why we are so thrilled that Jess is joining us and sharing her knowledge with us.  

Rachel Clive: Jess Thom is one of the most exciting neurodivergent artists currently working in the UK. She is a brilliant performer, whose show Not I contributes to new understandings of Beckett’s writing as well as to new understandings about neurodiversity. She is a leading figure in the evolution of relaxed performance and in the exploration of neurodivergent aesthetics. We are delighted and honoured that she has agreed to deliver the keynote presentation.

Neurostages seems to be concerned with asking questions rather than setting out the answers, but what inspired the formation of the platform? Was it a response to the way that neuro-divergent artists are treated, or does it have an educational or outreach intention, for example?

Rachel Clive

Rachel Clive: I’m not sure that anyone has any answers to the dilemmas of our time! But neurodivergent artists have some pretty  important insights and ideas and artwork to share as we begin to reimagine life, community and performance in a time of COVID-19 and climate change.

The festival is not ostensibly about education or outreach. It is about nurturing neurodivergent solidarity, celebrating and sharing neurodivergent expertise and centring neurodivergent aesthetics. 

Aby Watson: NEUROSTAGES as a platform for celebrating, sharing and discussing neurodivergent performance was borne out of the Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network (SNPN) – a network for neurodivergent-identifying artists working with and across performance practices in Scotland to connect and share practice, advice and solidarity. I (Aby) started the network as I was aware of the distinct lack of a visible neurodivergent creative community in the Scottish performance sector, despite knowing the large number of independent neurodivergent artists making work. I also understood Scotland to be behind in the discourse about neurodiversity and performance.

For years, I travelled to London to attend talks, workshops and performances from a neurodivergent creative perspective, and I grew frustrated how none of it seemed to carry through or be produced over the border. SNPN was created as an experiment to see if there was a need for such a community and network for neurodivergent artists, and there was!

After nearly two years of SNPN activity and with support of our partners, we are now able to present NEUROSTAGES – a two-day festival that platforms performance practice by neurodivergent artists, but that also intends to instigate dialogue about the neurodivergent experience in a neurotypical-centred performance industry. It’s clear to us that neurodivergent artists are more likely to meet disabling exclusive barriers than their neurotypical peers in the performance sector. It is essential that neurodivergent artists lead the discussion on how the sector can better support their talent and careers, and that they are given opportunity to voice their perspective and experience on a platform where our allies are invited to listen and take note.

It is fundamental that NEUROSTAGES as a festival space is held in a way that is inclusive, welcoming, safe, and accessible to neurodivergent people – centering their needs. A festival experience could be quite overwhelming and anxiety inducing for neurodivergent people, due to myriad of reasons be it sensory, social, organisational – so it’s imperative that we shape NEUROSTAGES with accessibility provisions that make the festival environment and space relaxed and safe, for the audience and for the artists involved.

As well NEUROSTAGES continuing SNPN’s overall aim of creating neurodivergent-led and friendly space for artists to connect, it is a central intention of the festival to creatively nourish and support the development of Scotland based neurodivergent talent in performance. It does this through offering a full programme of practical workshops, film screenings, panel discussions and live performance to the community – all led by neurodivergent artists. On top of that, we have our NEUROSTAGES Mentorship programme – where mentorships were awarded to four neurodivergent artists to develop a new idea, or aspect of their practice, with the support of a mentor, a small budget and rehearsal space at NTS’ Rockvilla studios.

I am sorry to have such a basic question, but how would you define neurodivergent within the context of performance?

Aby Watson: Not a basic question at all! Neurodiversity, neurodivergence etc. are terms that are relatively new to the social conscious – and I think there will be a lot of people who would find that definition useful. Neurodiversity is the natural variation of all human brains and minds, and neurodivergent as a term applies to those whose mental, cognitive or neurological function differs from what is societally considered typical or ‘normal’. It’s possible that neurodivergent identifying people may have diagnosed conditions such as Autism Spectrum Conditions, Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc. but they also may self identify as neurodivergent, meaning they don’t have a formal diagnosis. Including self identifying neurodivergents at NEUROSTAGES is important, as not everyone is able to – or wants to – go through the diagnostic process. Chronic mental health conditions too can also fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity.

Neurodivergent within the context of performance would apply to artists whose neurological make up is alternative to what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘typical’. It may also apply to performance work that explores neurodiversity as the subject, but in the spirit of the disability rights slogan Nothing About Us Without Us, it’s important to say that neurodivergent people should be leading when neurodivergence is being creatively explored as a subject.

Rachel Clive: Neurodivergent is a word that some of us whose neurologies deviate from the norm (in any way) use to describe ourselves. As a word it also signals solidarity among people who have encountered barriers or experienced distress as a result of living with neurological differences in a social world which demands neurotypicality and conformity. The neurodiversity movement is aligned with the social and affirmative models of disability and embraces intersectional understandings about human difference.

There is a remarkable line up of artists involved: what kind of process did you have in inviting them, and how far does this invitation perhaps differ from the generic invitation to a performance festival? Are artists invited to represent existing work, or was there a more open remit?

Rachel Clive: It has been really joyful to connect and in some cases to reconnect with leading neurodivergent artists from across Scotland -and beyond. The artists who are sharing work at the festival are all artists whose work explores new visions or experiments with new ways of working and performing, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes individually. Many of the artists have worked internationally and many are performers whose work breaks boundaries and opens ways for others seeking to explore how neurodiversity can intersect with performance. The festival programme is a mix of new work, evolving work and the showcasing of existing work. There are four mentorships or creative residencies at the heart of the festival, and these are for neurodivergent artists to experiment with new ideas that it might be difficult to access support or funding for otherwise. There were so many brilliant applicants for this and we would have loved to support every single one. But we do hope that the festival will create a new space for neurodivergent performers which will evolve in the future. We are hugely grateful to the  NTS, and to our other partner organisations the RCS, the NASS and the CCA for supporting the festival.

Aby Watson: As a central aim of NEUROSTAGES is to platform and celebrate neurodivergent performance practice in Scotland, it was very important to utilise the artistic network of The Scottish Neurodiverse Performance Network as much as possible. As curators, we wanted this festival to be an opportunity to further the practices of our members, so we shaped the programme around the broad, multidisciplinary performance practices of our membership. However, it was also important to not remain closed or nepotistic in our curatorial process, and to use NEUROSTAGES as an opportunity to widen the pool of artists who SNPN engages with. For example, we realised that there could be greater inclusion and representation of learning disabled artists and artists of Global Majority at SNPN, so we wanted to ensure opportunities and invitations were offered to neurodivergent artists of those communities. The festival is an opportunity for SNPN to grow, and learn about how to better serve and include neurodivergent artists across all intersections of identity and experience. The NEUROSTAGES mentorship programme was also central to our aim of expanding the reach of the network, and supporting neurodivergent artists new to it. We were also aware of artists in other regions of the UK who are leading the way for neurodiversity and performance, and were keen to invite them to present at NEUROSTAGES as a means of connecting the Scottish community of neurodivergent artists with others further afield.  

And in a predictable mode: what are you hoping that the audiences will experience through the festival?

Aby Watson: We hope audiences will experience a burst of neurodivergent culture and creative practice in a way that they have not yet had opportunity to in Scotland. We hope that the environment of the festival itself, both online and in person at CCA, is an experience that feels relaxed, inclusive, welcoming, and safe for different minds and bodies. And finally, we hope that audiences have a good time! 

Rachel Clive: I hope that audiences will experience calm, joy, surprise and solidarity. I also hope they will have the chance to make new connections, explore new ideas and ways of working and develop new understandings about the huge potentiality of neurodivergent centred performance!

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