During phase 1 and 2 of the project the artists engaged with children and their families in the Paediatric unit at University Hospital Galway (UHG). This included in-patients, out-patients, their siblings and adult relatives.
- To extend Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture opportunities to hospital communities across the West and North West region.
- As part of a wider programme of exhibitions and commissioned artworks, to explore the importance of connecting hospitals with the natural world.
- As part of an overall programming objective, to bring nature and stories to wards, corridors, and waiting rooms of Saolta to enhance the hospital experience of young patients and their families – allowing them to imaginatively escape the clinical environment.
- To create an intimate magical experience for children and families in hospital settings.
A Bird at My Window and Other Stories was developed through an extended process of engagement with paediatric patients and their families at University Hospital Galway. This was divided into three stages: Phase (1) Research and development through participatory workshops with children and families. Phase (2) Research and development of bedside performances in this context. Phase (3) Touring the work to five hospitals in the Saolta Group.
Phase 1 set out to share and explore the content of the project. The Italian children’s book Nine Stories about Love by Giovanna Zoboli and Ana Ventura, was used as a narrative framework, and allowed the potential for subtle emotions and feelings to be shared in a poetic form: Tales about the natural world and the humans’ relationship to it, love for the weakest and smallest creatures, love for diversity, and the deep significance of caring for those in need.
In the primary phase the artists engaged the children through a participatory process incorporating play, animation workshops and storytelling. The aim was to test out the children’s and families’ responses to the stories and content in order to inform the development of performative ideas in this context.
In phase two, the clinical environment presented new opportunities, limitations, and possibilities to perform and present the stories in different ways. From walkabout interactions in the waiting area, to ways of engaging and reaching children in isolation. This included using the windows of isolation room doors as screens for shadow play and using mobile phones to play accompanying soundscapes inside the child’s room. Playfulness and adaptability were key to the performative development process. Also, the need to find ways to transcend and transform the clinical setting and allow the viewer/participant the possibility to imagine and experience a different space through sound, storytelling, and shadow play.
The artists created short performances in the wards and at the bedsides using miniature sets, props, puppets, and shadows and explored new ways to adapt to the clinical context.
The original intention was to refine these performances and to tour the work to the five Paediatric Units of Saolta University Health Care Group. As access to the hospital was no longer possible due to the pandemic, the artists felt it was important to create something that had a physical, tactile presence. It needed to be something that children and parents could share and create together, an intimate experience that involved care, attention, and imagination to bring it to life.
To stay true to the content and ideas that informed the project, the artists decided the final output would take the form of a series of bespoke handmade shadow box theatre kits. These were gifted to children and families in all five Paediatric Units in the Saolta Group across the West – North West region and the three hospitals of Children’s Health Ireland in Dublin. The artists created a suite of downloadable stories, soundtracks, an instruction video, and a PDF of shadow puppet characters to help young patients animate their shadow play. These are also available for any family to access on the Saolta Arts website.
- A series of workshops/performances with paediatric patients and their families.
- 60 shadow box theatres for the paediatric patients to assemble, complete with a series of stories and soundscapes available at saoltaarts.com. Also, an instruction video and downloadable templates to print and play at home.
- A short documentary illustrating the project.
- A series of photographs for promotional use.
The residency was monitored through regular meetings and correspondence between the artists and Saolta Arts.
The artists also kept a weekly reflective journal for the duration of the two phases of in-person engagement in the Paediatric unit.
Questionnaires were distributed to children and adults following every engagement and a feedback form was enclosed with the shadow box theatres. The latter invited families to share images of their shadow play with Saolta Arts via WhatsApp.
The collection of feedback for the final phase of the project is ongoing and was made more challenging by the fact that Saolta Arts could not be onsite due to the Covid-19 pandemic and access restrictions also meant that healthcare staff did not have the usual support of play volunteers. To enable over-stretched healthcare staff to contribute to the evaluation process, a WhatsApp group comprising play therapists was created to facilitate reflections about the project amongst colleagues. A phone interview between an artist and a play therapist was also facilitated.
Feedback from the research and development phases:
‘It captured her imagination and took her mind off her operation. I think it is just perfect for a hospital setting.’
‘The experience was magical. My little girl forgot where she was.’
Feedback from the final shadow box theatre phase:
‘We loved the shadow play. [Our four year old daughter] was in hospital for six days and it was lovely to do this on the quiet dark evenings. It changed the atmosphere in the evening. It helped the wind-down. Us parents enjoyed it too – it’s for adults and kids. It took away the boredom. It’s such an amazing idea! She has three brothers at home and she is excited to do her play for them and they are excited to do it too.’
From an artist point of view, positive reactions to the engagement were immediate and heart-warming, you could read on the children’s faces that they were captured by the stories and sounds. Parents were happy to engage and be part of the conversations. We had very positive responses in feedback forms from children and families, and from chats with staff during our engagements in the ward.
It was very stimulating to be working with another artist with different skillsets and we had great support throughout the project and time to develop it. Our learning and the challenges we encountered centred on flexibility and continually having to adapt to the everchanging situations of the hospital context. Our engagements were often interrupted by doctors and nurses – sometimes the moment was lost and it was difficult to re-engage with the children. We also needed to adapt to children’s varying ages in a way we would not for a theatre venue but the freedom of individual engagements meant that we were able to adapt the project for much younger children than we previously imagined.
When the pandemic meant we could not visit the children in hospital with bedside performances we had to re-imagine the project. It is great that A Bird at My Window and Other Stories was given the opportunity for new life when it didn’t seem possible, for children and families to engage with our work even without us being present. However, the access restrictions presented by Covid-19 meant that feedback from the final re-imagined stage has been slow and limited. Whilst this is understandable it is frustrating.
Having enough time factored into the planning of the project from the start gave it strong roots. I felt so well supported as an artist working in this context. I think this makes a tremendous difference to what can be achieved.
It was great to work in partnership with another artist and to be able to reflect on the process and develop our ideas together.
As yet, the feedback from families or staff from the hospitals that received the shadowbox theatres has been limited. The timing of COVID and then the cyber attack has had a huge impact on this. It has been difficult to make contact and gather responses of how the project has been received, shared, and accessed by the children. This is disappointing as it would be great to get feedback from staff and family members. One play therapist observed that one of the most noticeable things to her was the way that all the children made it their own and invented their own versions of the characters and created new stories from them.
From an artistic point of view, I am very happy with the work that we were able to create out of this. From an arts and health perspective, I would like to know more about what the audience experienced from the final phase.
Documentation and Dissemination
- During the weekly engagement phases in the paeditaric ward, the artists kept a whiteboard in a corridor comprised of photographs and artwork created by project participants in response to the stories. This was accessible to staff, patients and families walking through the Paediatric unit daily.
- A short documentary was produced at the end illustrating the project: https://vimeo.com/534083427
Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, Saolta University Health Care Group (including University Hospital Galway, Mayo University Hospital, Portiuncula University Hospital, Sligo University Hospital and Letterkenny University Hospital)