Jolyon James discusses the role of creativity in nurturing, respecting and supporting young people.

A few years back I found a video I had made with my son. I had built a WALL-E style robot for him out of a nappy box and some coffee cups. Creative projects have always been part of our language and instinctively as a parent I noticed that they were often our clearest moments of communication. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with autism two years later that I realised the importance of this style of play with him.

My background is in visual arts. In a sense it was my first language, as I grew up in a family of professional artists. Over the last 40 years I have been squirrelling away ridiculous ideas that I imagined might someday be useful and somehow they have all coalesced inside my new theatre show, Robot Song. There was something about the language and experience of creativity that is fundamental to my son’s and subsequently my own, ability to understand the world.

Robot Song is primarily a personal reflection about parenting and the profound ability creativity has to cut through when language fails. The show uses live animation, animatronics, puppetry and photography culminating in an actual giant robot I built with my two sons in my own backyard. Visually its ridiculous!

After my son’s diagnosis, I had to radically reassess many fundamental things that I had taken for granted. This show is a story about parenting and the challenges parents may face as guardians of a child who is seen as ‘different’ or needs a little extra support.  But at its core is a conversation about the right to define ourselves on our own terms.

Young peoples lives are noisy complex places full of competing and often contradictory agendas. As both a parent and an artist who spends considerable time working with young people I can see how dangerous it can be to hand that definition of ourselves to others. What can sometimes arise is the idea that we are at the whim of things beyond our control, that we are powerless.

The lead character, Juniper, has a successful journey through this complex process, which can hopefully provide a blueprint for other young people. Juniper learns about acceptance and the idea that acceptance can only happen with self-acceptance. This is a highly tough nut to crack for anyone let alone an 11 year old girl but with the unconditional love and support of her parents it is achieved in the most spectacular way.

I’d love to think Robot Song provides a glimmer of optimism in a world that feels desperately in need of it. I don’t pretend that it provides all the answers but if it can spark a conversation about how we can nurture, respect and support our most precious commodity, children, then I feel it has been worthwhile.

Jolyon James is the writer, director and designer of Robot Song, playing at Theatre Works, St Kilda www.theatreworks.org.au

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