Gerda Stevenson, actor/writer/director, was invited to give the following Keynote Speech, to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, at their Members’ Meeting, in Perth, on August 26th, 2010.
Speech and Language Therapy services, throughout Britain, are currently undergoing savage cuts, and the R.C.S.L.T. is now running a national campaign called Giving Voice, to combat these cuts.
Good morning! It’s a pleasure and an honour to be here.
The title I’ve been given for this keynote speech – YES WE CAN - is of course a quote, though I’m sure it wasn’t Barak Obama who said it first!
It’s the mantra of many mothers I know. And it’s said all the time in theatre.
YES WE CAN is the theatre director’s natural territory.
I’m a mother, a wife, and I’m an actor/writer/director. I work almost exclusively in the public, subsidised sector of the arts. Now and again I’m employed by independent TV and film companies, but the commercial sector hasn’t been the main-stay in my so-called career. Someone once said – I can’t remember who –
“My career has been more of a verb than a noun!”
That’s definitely true of mine. I’ve never had any particular strategy – just followed my instinct - my aim is simply to work with people I respect.
And to tell stories. People’s stories. Lives. All artists are story-tellers in one form or another. And actors are, of course, natural story-tellers.
I was brought up in a small village in the Scottish Borders. Although I, and my siblings attended the local primary and high schools, my family has had a long connection with the Steiner system of education, through Garvald, a residential centre for adults with learning difficulties.
Garvald was founded on the principles of the great Austrian educationalist Rudolph Steiner. My mother worked at Garvald many years ago, and my brother and I both worked there when we left school. So did my son. Steiner was an holistic thinker, and an artist himself.
He said: “The healthy social life is found when, in the mirror of each human soul, the whole community finds its reflection; and when, in the Community, the virtue of each one is living.”
I believe this. And I would say - I certainly hope - my work as an artist expresses this belief, whether I’m directing my own play about the war in Afghanistan, orperforming in Gogol’s hilarious satire The Governemnt Inspector, running story-telling workshops with children in Easterhouse, co-writing and directing a community play, or founding Stellar Quines, which has become Scotland’s leading women’s theatre company – all of these projects, and many more, carry the same ethos. They’re about community, inclusion, and an examination of the status quo, which isn’t always necessarily desirable, and often has to be challenged. And these projects have frequently involved ignoring people who’ve said to me: “You can’t do that! No way can you do that!”
Along with fellow actor/writer/director, Gerry Mulgrew, I now run a theatre company called Communicado. It’s been going for nearly 30 years. We’ve never operated under a business model – we don’t employ consultants. We reluctantly tick only the minimum of boxes. We put the money into the actual art.
We try to ensure that the meagre public subsidy we have, is put onto the stage, into the actual raison d’etre of the company. The Art. Not the management.
It means we can sometimes do plays with a cast of between 8 and 10 actors, rather than the all-too-frequent 2 or 3 actor productions, which, catastrophically for theatre, has become the norm in Britain. We were told recently by the Scottish Arts Council – now reincarnated as Creative Scotland – that our board is too heavily represented by artists. Excuse me??
We don’t go over budget. We run a tight ship. Our last production, earlier this year, was a hit, and played to 98% box office.
But times are bad. In the subsidised sector of the arts, budgets are being slashed. Our YES WE CAN mantra is being truly tested at present. In over thirty years of my professional experience, things have not been quite so very bad as they are right now. They’ve never been all that good for the arts, really. Britain sees the arts as a kind of frill – an add-on. I believe that Art, like Education and Health, is a fundamentally civilising force in society.
Communication. Mutual communication. To understand one another. We need this to be healthy. This is what art is about.
And, as an actor/writer/director, words are my medium. Reaching to people through words, their richness, their playfulness, their layers of meaning.
When I founded Stellar Quines, 17 years ago - the women’s theatre company I’ve already mentioned – the first play I set up with them was all about communication. It was about a woman who’d suffered a head injury, and had become aphasic. At that stage in its evolution, the company had no money, just a YES WE CAN belief in itself – the playwright – one of New York’s highly respected writers, a company of seasoned professional actors, the designer, director, stage management and technicians all doing it for nothing –
for what we call “profit share.” I remember we each earned £84, and we all agreed to put it back into the company.
Before embarking on the central role in this play, I researched aphasia for three months at Queen Margaret Univerity’s Speech and Language Therapy Department – my first contact with S.A.L.T., which I found absolutely fascinating. I didn’t know then how indebted to your wonderful profession I would become, a few years later.
When I was expecting our third child (our first daughter died when she was 10 days old), we discovered from a blood test that there was a chance this third child might have Down's Syndrome.
Galina was born 12 years ago, and she has that extra chromosome.
She was an easy baby – very happy, a delight to be with. She hardly ever cried. She’s still like that. An incredibly positive person. The most CAN DO person I know. Her brother once said, when she was a baby:
“I don’t know why they call it Down’s Syndrome. They should call it Up Syndrome!”
A friend wrote to me shortly after Galina’s birth, saying that early intervention and stimulation are very important. Another friend told me about a little boy she knew, who had Down’s Syndrome. “He’s lovely, so sweet, but he doesn’t speak.
He had four words when he was a toddler: ‘Mummy,’ ‘Daddy’ and ‘Postman Pat.’ Then he stopped speaking. He’d said it all!” That story haunted me.
I was given a small book, by a professional from the local Educational Psychology department. It was entitled:
The development of language and reading skills in children with Down Syndrome - this book, produced by the incomparable Down Syndrome Educational Trust in Portsmouth, was crucial. Like the sowing of a seed.
It made clear that early intervention in the form of signing and reading would be vital in relation to Galina’s speech and language acquisition.
Ten years ago, there was no support for such an approach from Speech and Language therapy services in our area. Galina’s first two S.A.L.T. therapists didn’t use signing. The professional who had loaned me the book said she knew of no parent in our area who used signing; and that if I signed with Galina, I’d probably be the only person who would. So Galina would be limited to signing with me alone. Having read the book, I thought, “Well, if Galina can at least communicate with me, and I’m with her most of the time, then that’s surely better than her not being able to communicate with anybody.” YES WE CAN, I thought. YES WE CAN.
I was giventhe Signalong manual - Phase 1 by the local S.A.L.T. department, when Galina was about 18 months old. I wanted to join a class in Signalong, but there weren’t any in my area. I started using the signs at home anyway.
Then a very lucky opportunity opened up for me in April 2000. I was invited, through a friend, to take part in a course aimed at teaching parents of deaf children to sign story-books to toddlers. The course was initiated and organised by a friend of mine, a brilliant woman, who ran a professional story-telling theatre company for the deaf, called Stories in the Air. This course – 15 weekly classes in signing story books for toddlers - was conducted in British Sign Language, and was held at Donaldson’s School for the Deaf, in Edinburgh.
BSL, I discovered, is a complete language, with syntax, dialects even!, and a whole culture, incredibly rich. Signalong, of course, is simply sign-supported English, using only key words. People told me that this could be very confusing, but, actually, it wasn’t at all. I just used what I wanted of BSL, and adapted it to Galina’s needs, BSL, Signalong and Makaton signs having a lot in common anyway.
(Bi-lingualism is something that I’m at ease with, living, as I do, in a bilingual family. My husband is a native Gael from the Isle of Skye, and has always spoken Gaelic to our children. Research has long established that bilingualism is a huge advantage in the early education of children; yet I often experience, in our predominantly – and, I might say, unimaginatively - monoglot nation, how unnecessarily jittery and defensive people become about exposing their children, at an early age, to more than one language – i.e. English.)
Signing story-books was a wonderful way of learning to sign: children adore repetition, and of course, repetition helped me and Galina to learn the signs.
We weren’t allowed to speak during the class at Donaldson’s – it was total immersion for this group of parents, signing in silence, led by my friend’s deaf story-telling colleague who was brilliant, and very funny.
As a professional actress, I found this wonderfully stimulating. By day, I was rehearsing the title role in Phaedra, at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, spouting pages and pages of Edwin Morgan’s superb translation from Racine - being torrentially verbal. But on Tuesday evenings at Donaldsons, for two hours I had to communicate in silence.
With Galina, of course, I’d always speak and sign simultaneously, signing being in our case, a visual support to the spoken word.
A couple of weeks after I’d started the night class course at Donaldson’s, I placed a photograph of her brother, near to her cot as she slept. When she woke up the next morning, she looked at the photo, and spontaneously signed her first three-word sentence. “Rob bagpipes door” and lo and behold, that is exactly what Rob was doing in the picture, playing the bagpipes at the front door! Galina was using her own sign that she had invented some weeks ago, for “Rob.”
For me, this was an absolutely thrilling, eureka, YES WE CAN moment!
Galina loves books, and will spend ages reading and leafing through them. When she was very small, I always faced her, propping the book up against me, in such a way that she could see the pages and watch my hands and mouth speaking and signing. It meant I had to read upside down – but there you go – another handy skill! She loved watching me, and I could see her trying to join in. And, of course, I loved having an audience!
I learned from the Downs Ed Trust research that not only early signing, but early reading also significantly enhances speech and language acquisition. I bought a really useful video from them, which demonstrated the effectiveness of their early reading programme, and circulated it among parents and professionals. In our area, at that time, there was very little knowledge of this research-based practice.
I became a member of the Trust and bought a lot of their teaching materials.
In September 2000, I travelled to Portsmouth to attend an international conference held by the Downs Ed Trust. I applied to the local Rotary Club, who paid my conference attendance fee of £200, and fortunately, an old family friend gave me a bed for the night. The subject of the conference was
Speech, Language and Cognitive Development in Down Syndrome.
It was largely attended by professionals, with only a handful of obsessive parents like me! I found it completely fascinating, and I was lucky enough to meet a Speech and Language therapist there, from an independent organisation called Symbol UK.
This is a non-profit-making organization, a registered charity, based in Kent, staffed by fully trained, highly experienced Speech and Language therapists. Their manifesto states that they are: dedicated to promoting effective and innovative solutions to the communications needs of children and adults with learning disabilities. Our driving ambition is to see a more equitable society where language enrichment can unlock the true potential in people with special needs.
And on their website, one of their highly experienced staff says: “Unlike other (statutory) organisations I`ve worked for, Symbol is independent of unnecessary bureaucracy, decision for change can be achieved quickly and effortlessly with commissioners and partners and we have the freedom and scope to offer innovative and effective solutions to service provision & service user needs.”
I asked the Symbol Uk therapist I met at the conference if she might assess Galina. We arranged for her to visit us at home in Scotland in February 2001, when Galina was two years and ten months.
Galina’s NHS S.A.L.T. therapist very generously agreed to join the meeting at my house, in her own time. At the end of the session, we all discussed a target plan, which was drawn up and posted to me the following week, giving us a structured programme to work on with Galina. So many possibilities opened up during this assessment, filling me with a new sense of motivation and inspiration.
The following July, I went down to London, to observe the same Symbol UK S.A.L.T. therapist working for a full day with a series of groups of children who have Down’s Syndrome.
I found the Symbol UK techniques tremendously imaginative and useful.
I was fortunate to have this work supported by Galina’s NHS S.A.L.T. therapist, at the time - our third in less than two years. She was genuinely excited by the Symbol UK approach, and there was a tremendous feeling between us – the two of us working together– a feeling that we had a creative, challenging programme to tackle.
I really admired her openness – there was no professional defensiveness there. We were a real CAN DO parent/professional partnership.
There was a lot of play with the Symbol UK approach – dolls and tea parties, a whole range of possibilities. And everything was signed. I dramatised all the work I did with the Downs Ed and Winslow sound cards, Why/Because cards, verb cards, verb tense cards - three pictures of each verb: past, present and future tenses: “The man is going to brush the dog. The man is brushing the dog. The man brushed the dog.” Grammar was a hard nut to crack, but regular rehearsal paid off. (I’m used to rehearsal – going over a move, or a speech on the rehearsal floor, again and again, until it’s embedded in the creative subconscious.)
I remember one day, I asked Galina to put the chopped carrots into a pan, to keep her occupied while I was cooking.
She dropped each piece into the pan from a height saying: “Carrot jumping!” As the carrot hit the pan, she said “carrot jumped!” She was developing her own games from the verb tense picture cards we’d been practising.
We did endless action games and songs, listened to audio tapes and CDs, and lots and lots of play. For me, as an actor, I was in my element - story-telling and using drama as much as possible.
I believe you can teach most things to children through story-telling and drama. I’ve recently discovered a way of teaching Galina to tell the time, through story-telling. Having failed to crack it with the various techniques I’d researched, we finally found a way. She tells me the subject of the story she wants – it usually involves her! And then I improvise a cliff-hanger every five minutes of the clock’s face, turning the hands at each exciting stage of the story. She’s got it, now – we met the target of being able to tell the time before high school started last week. YES WE CAN, I kept telling myself, and we did.
One of Galina’s favourite matching games was Hospitals, with all her dolls and toy animals. They all had names, which she knew well - Balloo and Bagheera, Winnie The Pooh, Rupert, Peter Polar, Sammy, Dolly Dancer, etc. We’d line them all up on the sofa, and make beds for them, using dish towels for blankets. I made laminated flash cards – one for each doll's name, and from the local chemist, I got a whole load of little brown plastic pill bottles. I wrote each doll's name on sticky labels, and stuck them to the bottles. Then we’d get out Galina's play medical kit, dress her up in the nurse's uniform, and with my help, she’d put the flash card names onto each doll's bed. Then we selected the medicine bottles, and Galina gave all her patients their medication, from the correctly named bottle for each one. (I was directing a play, really, I suppose!)
She especially loved taking their temperatures - I sourced a lot of plastic cocktail mixers, which were vaguely the size and shape of thermometers, and we'd put them under each doll's arm (these were not labelled – it was important to make sure there was always easy fun activity, so that the reading task just became part of a game). Then I'd dramatise the situation - I'd look at the result on one particular bear's thermometer, and exclaim "Oh, no! Rupert is really ill - his temperature is VERY high. Better get the medicine, and a cool flannel!" Eventually, Galina could select every name, even distinguishing, I remember, between Daisy Dancer, and Dolly Dancer - I introduced fine tuning like this,
once I was absolutely sure she really was reading the labels. But the whole thing was always fun.
We also made a posting box together, painted it with gold butterflies – Galina’s idea – posting the laminated flash cards would be the reward for matching word to word. We had a wonderful puppet, called Molly – you know the kind, with a huge mouth and movable tongue, and full fingered hands – Molly was almost as big as Galina - and Molly would take turns to do the matching, often getting it totally wrong, to Galina’s great delight! Molly would match the word ‘shoe’ with ‘bath,’ or ‘window with banana,’ and we would laugh at Molly's silliness, and Molly, of course, would be hilarious in her response. (She was my out-of-work alter-ego – there’s nothing like Speech and Language therapy to fill the gap when you’re an unemployed actor! ) Galina and I would help Molly to get it right.
It was noticeable how much better Galina articulated when she read words, rather than just spontaneously saying them.
In those days, I didn’t have a website, but, at a meeting with a parents’ lobbying group and our local NHS Trust, I was asked to write about my work with Galina, and to list the resources I’d used. The subsequent article was put up on a friend’s website. It had so many responses from parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, who were desperate for help with Speech and Language Therapy, that my friend, a website designer himself, told me I was going to have to get my own website. So that’s how my website started – even although it’s now mainly about my professional work as an actor/writer/director, it actually started through my involvement, as a parent, with Speech and Language Therapy.
Two correspondences have developed from these contacts I’ve had, via my website, with parents – one is a Romanian professional actress, working in the Yiddish Theatre in Bucharest, and another, a mother who lives in Ireland. I would love to publish these correspondences, and the three of us are talking about putting them up on my website. They spring from a very real and sometimes urgent need for help, and from mutual caring and sharing.
Galina loves words. She has an extensive vocabulary now, all her grammar is in place. She loves reading and writing. And she loves making speeches. (I wonder where she gets that from?)
In Primary 6, she decided to stand for the Pupil Council. 4 children stood for election in her class - no boys, interestingly – and, like Barak Obama, each one had to deliver a campaign speech. Galina and I discussed hers, wrote it out on a series of cards, (just a couple of simple lines on each one), and she spoke very confidently - so her class-mates told me. Here's her speech - all her own ideas – a YES WE CAN rallying call, if ever there was one:
1) You should vote for me to be
on the Pupil Council because:
2) I care about people’s feelings.
3) I like to listen to people’s ideas.
4) I like boys as well as girls.
5) I love my school.
6) I would get the school to build
a space ship in the playground
for the children to play in.
7) Vote for Galina MacNeacail.
I’m told it was a landslide - almost the whole class voted for her! I find it very moving to think that Galina's peers considered her to be capable of representing their interests. I had suggested to the school that if by any chance Galina won the election, she should have a class-mate to support her on the Pupil Council, and this was arranged. Sadly, the space ship mission never materialised – blocked by dreaded Health and Safety.
Speaking of which, we were told, when Galina went to High School that she would have to go in a taxi, instead of the bus. All the children with additional needs go in the taxi, with an accompanying adult. But Galina didn’t want to. She’s always gone on the bus to primary school, with no supervision, only the bus driver. But suddenly a Health and Safety issue raised its head – even although there had never been one up until now. So we said that she CAN go on the bus. Because she wants to, and has the right. And it turns out she does have the right. And she’s going on the bus, with all her pals, and there’s no problem.
YES WE CAN is something my daughter says to me all the time, in one way or another. “I can manage, Mummy! I can do it!” I have never met a more CAN DO person in my life.
I’ll finish with a poem I wrote about Speech and Language Therapy. It’s called:
Every word we've planted,
you and I, has been
so slow to grow,
each a seed bedded deep
in your mind's loam.
In the silence, we've waited,
as the seasons change, and meantime
learned that hands can speak;
until, at last,
shoots of green sound reach
from roots through your throat's reed,
leaves unfurl, spilling sunflowers from your lips,
dark seeds wreathed in gold for us to sow,
more and more golden words for us to grow.