The circus with a purpose, since its inception in 1987 the Cheshire-based Circus Starr has brought world-class circus into the lives of over a million disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. Working with Therapy Box and Glyndwr University, through the R&D Fund, Circus Starr are working on a new app project called Show & Tell which aims to engage autistic children and their carers in the performing arts. Samuel Fry meets Cath Logan, Circus Starr’s Community Engagement Officer to find out more.
Samuel Fry: How would you describe the new Show & Tell app?
Cath Logan: Show and Tell is an interactive visual story app being developed specifically for children with autism. It features a range of circus images and video footage that will help children familiarise themselves with the circus experience before they go. Children can also upload their own captions and images to create a personalised story book they can edit and playback as many times as they like. By alleviating anxieties associated with unknown experiences, the app will help enhance a child’s enjoyment and increase their confidence at a live performance (in this case the circus). We hope this will go on to open doors to their exploring other arts and cultural opportunities (theatre, museums, galleries), with siblings, families and friends.
Where did the idea come from?
Circus Starr prides itself in providing a ‘relaxed performance’ environment where children feel welcome and where parents are able to relax knowing that their child’s behaviour won’t be an issue. We’ve been touring for 27 years now and time and again parents of children with autism would tell us how their child had enjoyed our show like nothing ever before (sat happily through the whole performance and engaged with all the acts). In the past, we would email parents troupe shots to help them prepare their children for the ‘Big Top experience’ …but knew there was much more we could be doing to help support these frequently neglected audiences. Building on the ‘Social Story’™ concept, and taking on board some lessons learned from the Prince’s Foundation’s Relaxed Performance Project, we set out to create an interactive, personalised story app that children and carers could author and customise for themselves.
The project involves a number of different organisations. How did you all come together?
Circus Starr attended a networking seminar where we were introduced to London-based app developers, Therapy Box who specialise in producing communication and therapy apps. We then approached Glyndwr University and met with Dr Tracy Piper-Wright. Tracy is a researcher in public art, audience and aesthetics as well as an artist and lecturer in Fine Art. With the dream team shaping up nicely, we approached Heather Wildsmith, Development Officer at the National Autistic Society who recently worked as advisor on The Lion King and the Autism & Theatre Inspiration Day. Heather agreed to be our Advisory Expert and will be informing all elements of the app’s development from design, content and functionality to selecting research participants, training and testing.
The app will provide autistic children with some prior understanding of an arts event, so as to alleviate their fear of unknown experiences. Can you explain how this will work?
Children with autism can get stressed or anxious in unknown situations so this app will help them familiarise themselves with the circus experience before they go through a range of images, audio, footage and text … from how they’re going to get there and who they’re going with to the sounds they’ll hear and performers they’ll see – even what happens in the interval is illustrated in detail (as this is a more unstructured part of the show when children with autism are more likely to become distressed or might want to leave altogether!). There’s footage of the acts introducing themselves behind the scenes ‘out of character’ and a library of circus photography ranging from the support staff, ringmaster and acrobats to the portaloos, circus lorries and merchandise stalls.
When are you hoping to launch the app?
Over the next six months we will develop, test and measure the positive impact of the app with 180 children and their families. This will be achieved through built-in app analytics, questionnaires, one-to-one interviews and social media feedback. An iterative development process throughout will ensure that the end result is as user-appropriate as we can make it. The app will then be launched in September 2014 and will be free to download.
What impact do you feel that this app could have on the likelihood of autistic audiences attending art events in the future?
The app will help children prepare for exposure to an unknown ‘live performance’, increasing confidence and so encouraging further exploration across a broader range of arts and cultural activities. The real beauty of our app is that the story it tells can be tailor-made and personalised to best suit the needs, requirements and anxieties of each individual child. The parent, carer or child can adjust and customise the content as required to tell as much or as little of the story as is needed at any particular point in the process (some children might find too much in-depth detail stressful and may only require information about when they’re going and how they’re getting there … in which case, the app can be used as a reflective, reinforcement tool after the show).
Our app is also being developed to be easily customised by other arts organisations and we believe it will lend itself to supporting a host of other new experiences.
Circus Starr, Therapy Box and Glyndwr University’s “Show and Tell” project is part of the Digital R&D fund for the arts. Image courtesy of Circus Starr.
Samuel Fry is the editor of Create Hub, an online magazine about innovation, technology & the arts.