When I heard I’d been granted a couple of writing days at People United's Beach Hut 136 I was so relieved! I had been on a mission to write my next piece of multi-sensory theatre for some time and had been struggling to make space in my head, or in my schedule, to get my ideas down in an intelligible format. A weekend of writing at Herne Bay – considering the story is set at a traditional Kentish seaside town – was utterly perfect! Space, time and plenty of inspiration!
Crabby arose from a year touring with Little Meerkat’s Big Panic. This show for early years children and those with complex needs, is an adaptation of trauma and parenting expert Jane Evans’ storybook of the same name. The show explores very neatly - using multi-sensory elements, original songs, and signing - the neuroscience of calm and anxiety for very young children. We always offer a sensory play session after performances to embed the information, and to show grown-ups and children alike how low cost/no cost resources can be used to help them feel calmer and more connected. During these workshops we continually heard from children, parents, carers and professionals: Could you do something about anger? And Crabby will be the result.
As it was the end of summer, and my four-year-old twins would soon be starting school, the opportunity to bring my family with me on this adventure to make some memories was very appealing. So, we decided to camp nearby with the idea being that, while I worked in the hut, the children would have two uninterrupted days on the beach doing whatever two small boys like to do on a beach - and they've always loved the beach.
We had always been aware that one of our twins struggled with anxiety, and it’s partly because of him that I decided to adapt Jane’s book: to create for him the kind of aesthetic and learning experience he would most love and need to not only begin to understand theatre, but to understand himself better too. So much of my current theatre writing and practice has developed out of my parenting, especially around meeting my children’s complex emotional needs. Therefore, while we expected him to feel and show his anxiety whilst on this seaside adventure we were not prepared for quite how extreme things would become.
Writing, as a parent of young children has, since their birth, usually been a solitary and late at night thing. While my children knew I wrote, they did not often see me do it; though we talk about my work a lot and they have had a considerable amount of input into Crabby. Imagine then, my anxious child’s experience of seeing Mummy writing and, more than this, despite having a whole seaside of experience before him, and another parent devoted entirely to giving him a wonderful few days of play, he really, really could not get his head round what I was doing.
Every few minutes he would appear and bring me some new treasure from the shingle. He came and lay on top of me and asked for hugs, he asked endless questions about nothing much, he hid my pens, he lay on the floor with his eyes glazed over and refused to play, he could not bear to be away from me or to let me do any work: everything was just too much. Now, it may be very easy to say that he was being naughty, but when you work with anxious children and you understand how anxiety works then his behaviour becomes much more understandable: attention-seeking children are looking for attachment. They need it. Not because they’re being naughty or manipulative, but because they feel disconnected and dysregulated and insecure. For my son, these feelings were so big that even playing on a beach – and he LOVES the beach – wasn’t enough to distract him; my other son, by comparison, was utterly immersed.
Looking at my son’s furrowed brow and twitchy body language against the sea and the sky I suddenly understood something: we had become so good at managing our son’s anxiety in the course of our daily routine at home that we had become complacent and hadn’t realised quite how big a reaction he would have to our trip to Herne Bay and, more than this, because we were so skilful at managing him we had missed out on some rather important red flags. At Hut 136, whilst trying to write about an angry little crab, I recognised for the first time that our son probably has Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism.
At that point, I put the pen down and decided that the writing would have to wait because this little, complicated, very anxious and unhappy little boy needed something different. It was then he picked up my camera.
He went for a walk through the lens.
The camera became his eye and shield against the beach, and he snapped a series of beautiful pictures with real care, control and precision; an anxious child’s eye view of the beach and the things around him he felt demanded his attention. These are his pictures.
Coincidentally, we’d arrived in Herne Bay during carnival weekend. On the Saturday we watched the parade (from a bank in a garden beside the sea front where we could get away from some of the hustle and noise), and then on Sunday it was the beach hut owners association’s day and many of the huts were proudly and imaginatively decorated…if only we’d known!
Thankfully, I had brought down a few props and bits and pieces to photograph whilst at Hut 136, so we worked together to set up a modest amount of decoration. We also worked with our children on a pebble art impression of Crabby, copying the image that will be used on the show’s posters.
As someone who’s worked in community development and the arts for many years, I was really struck by how Herne Bay came alive for the carnival – I haven’t ever seen such a vibrant, big, and well-supported community carnival parade before! The beach hut day was similarly wonderful and, when my son would allow me, I was able to have some really good conversations with passing beachcombers, walkers, families about Herne Bay. This is a community with a right to be exceptionally proud of its ability to put on public events.
As we left Kent, I may not have had all the notes I wanted, but I did have a memory card full of great pictures taken by my son, a clearer idea of what the production will be cover, and a very new understanding of my son’s perceptions of the world and his needs. I did not expect these outcomes - usually I am so focused because having two small children and a limited amount of time necessitates it – but I am exceptionally grateful to People United and Hut 136 for helping me to see my family much more clearly, albeit in such an unexpected way.