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BLOCK THEATRE AS A TOOL FOR WELL-BEING

2012

During the fall of 2012 the KO-KOO-MO Block Theatre brought joy to nearly a hundred kids, youth, and adults in different institutions. The target groups were special needs children, elderly people, and young people living in residential child-care institutions. In addition to visiting the institutions, the aim of the well-being project was to incorporate art therapeutic approaches to puppetry. The show was followed by a workshop Bernier and Halme had designed, where the institutions’ residents were able to use the blocks to address themes such as family, home, and childhood. The team succeeded in recruiting an art therapy expert and pioneer from the United States to participate in the project.  Associate professor in art therapy Matthew Bernier spent a week in Finland in September
2012 as a guest of the Block Theatre and toured the institutions with the rest of the team. The project also included a seminar with Finnish and international experts on the theme of puppetry and art therapy. Matthew Bernier gave a summary of his observations and experiences of the institutional visits with the Block Theatre. For Halme, the Block Theatre well-being project was part of her job as the regional artist for the Arts Promotion Centre of Finland. The well-being project was realized in collaboration with a puppetry union Nukkero ry.

 

Matthew Bernier, a US art therapist and the associate professor in art therapy at the university of Virginia, together with the puppeteer Roosa Halme, visited a nursing home, a residential child-care institution, and two day care centres for children with special needs in September 2012. On every visit, Halme gave the Block Theatre show, and the accompanying workshop. Bernier was there to observe, analyze, and if need be, participate in the show. Once the show and the workshop were over, there was a discussion with both the target group and the institution staff about their experiences, observations, and emotions.  

 

At each Block Theatre session the neutral essence of the wooden blocks was seen as positive thing: they did not symbolize good, bad, or a specific gender. The block leaves more space for the individual’s own thoughts and imagination, and leaves a more permanent mark. When a child, a youth or and elderly person is holding a block, they have the say on what they wish it to represent and to mean. The feel, form and scent of the blocks was also an important factor. A simple block turned out to me a surprisingly multisensory element.

 

At the day care centres for children with special needs the commentary on the Block Theatre characters and events was very spontaneous, even during the show. The most common response was to call out the character the blocks seemed to be turning into. The children were also eager to imitate the sounds of the show, things like the buzz of a motorbike, or the cries of an owl. The rhythmic music got the children moving and clapping, and during the workshops they could build for instance their own families. The blocks turned into families of all shapes ans sizes, from stepfamilies to single families. Sometimes the task brought out more information on the children than the staff had to begin with. For instance, with one special needs kid the family did not have a mother. The child explained the mother had died, when in reality she just was not involved in the child’s life. However, the child had come up with their own way of expressing their story and the experience of their family. Another special needs child built a ghost-like character into their family, but could not explain its function. When asked the blocks personality, the child got confused and did no longer understand what was the block doing in the family. According to Bernier, in cases like this the character often represents either a dead family member or a social worker.

 

In residential child care institutions the young people with severe issues, unaccustomed to working in pairs or groups, followed the show fully concentrated, without uttering a word, and in the workshop they participated in both individual and group tasks with an openness that took the staff by surprise. In their hands the blocks turned into a futuristic house and a manor with a rooftop prison, and the themes included singing rap artists and vehicles. The last task was for the entire group to build something together, everyone placing a block on their turn. During the process the participants gave each other advice on where the next block should go to. The result was a big animal, shifting shapes according to the participants’ fears. After a brief negotiation it was named Boogey Hogan. The joint work brought out conversation on fears, and made the members wonder what shape the animal would take with each participant. The blocks were a path from shallow chitchat to deeper, difficult themes. The Block Theatre visit was also discussed later at school, and the youth were asked to write feedback, some of it quite provocative (eg. “I was playing a kid”). When asked, the staff thought that the most genuine, straight-forwards feedback was the way the young people were behaving during the workshop.

 

At the nursing home, every resident and all the nurses were present for the show. The situation was festive and the mood anticipatory. The residents were excited to have a real theater, and a real actor, present. During the show the audience responses were subdued but interested. After the show, each resident got a block in their hands; everyone was immediately drawn to the scent, form, and surface; wondering from which tree every block was made of; and who had carved them. The elderly showed great respect towards the craftmanship of both Halme and the carpenter who’d made the blocks.

 

In the nursing home, the first task was to use the blocks to build your own childhood family. The families were big; plenty of blocks were needed. At the same time the stories were woven: on the family members, on the everyday life. The elderly people got to reminisce on their childhood, their late family members, and their home. The participants paid great attention to which block would they give to which family member. One resident pondered for great length which block would they themself be, and finally decided on the block they thought was the most beautiful one. The next task was to build their favorite place. For some it was their childhood home, for some their place of work. As the walls of the cowhouses and sauna buildings started to rise, the residents started to tell tales of their childhood and youth. As the house and its environments started to appear, one wall and one apple tree at the time, the memory turned into something more tangible. It was easier to verbalize the memory, when it was a block construction right there in front of you, not just an abstract image in your mind. Thanks to the blocks, one of the participants was even able to find an entirely new memory from their past. After putting three blocks together they suddenly saw a park booth with its benches and cashiers, and remembered having worked there. The memory was completely new to the staff as well.

Palikkateatterin pilottihankkeen raportti (Therapeutic Aspects of
Block Theatre: Pilot Project Report)

Download pdf (in Finnish)

Palikkateatterin terapeuttiset mahdollisuudet -pilottihanke: Projects
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