Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Chapter 108: He Ain't Heavy - Grania Pickard at VOLT: Women In Circus

He Ain't Heavy - Grania Pickard - Photo: Peter Blakemore and Ausform

Autism in the family, that must be a burden to carry. He Ain't Heavy comes the response of Grania Pickard, using a combination of trapeze and puppetry to portray life with her autistic younger brother Sean. It was the first in a double-bill of performances of works in progress at VOLT: Women In Circus (see previous post) that locate circus in a theatrical context, as discussed by panellist Flick Ferdinando earlier in the evening. I was interested to learn as well that Grania has been working with Lyn Routledge, who had just received a mention in the nominations as an inspirational role model in the world of circus. 

Grania's project that caught my attention a couple of months ago. I don't know anyone who has been officially diagnosed with autism, but I have met many people over the years who function on some part of the spectrum, and have lived in a community of adults with severe learning difficulties. Even so, I was unprepared for this incredibly poignant and intimate portrayal of sibling love through puppetry and an aerial swing.

Sean is a life-sized puppet, an inspiration of a creation, made by Jo Munton for Vagabondi puppets ( - click here). He is fashioned but not painted, very much a blank canvas; he is Grania's younger brother, but also everyman with special needs. The absence of a range of facial expressions underscores this notion that autism is a condition where it is difficult to express emotions through subtle social cues, but Sean has his own unique way of communicating. His body is expertly manipulated by Nathan Keates, in the guise of his carer "they're all called Linda", but Grania also uses the audience to bring Sean to life and get behind his language. You have to see Grania in action: she is a highly skilled circus performer, storyteller and connector, lighting up the entire stage. Grania takes us through how Seany signals things that are important to him: the tv is "the presser" ('cos that's what you do with the remote), "the pa-a-r-k", "the swiiing", Grania is "Yaya" - we repeat the intonations as well as Sean's unique lexicon, we adopt his speech, and when you do that, you enter his thought patterns too. Suddenly it becomes apparent that life is so simple for Sean, his needs are direct and his love is unconditional. 

A couple of seats next to me have been left clear. I assume it is because they are in the line of action for the trapeze opposite and it's a safety measure, but it turns out they also serve as the park bench where Sean sits while his sister does all sorts of tricks on the swing to get his attention. It reminds me of being a parent in the early days, all the faces you pull, the cooing and all manner of peep-bo games just to catch a gaze, and that glow of unconditional love as the baby or toddler responds. Children, I hear, lose that innocence at some point, but those with severe learning difficulties never do, and it is a wonder. Georgie, a member of the audience on the other side of the empty space, is invited to look after Sean ("don't let him go off to sleep!") and does so as though she were made for that role. I loved that implicit trust in the audience to join in the narrative, an investment that reaps dividends. As Sean watches the steady repetition of the swing, the swoop of joy that almost skims him as he cranes his neck to see, you could spend hours there beside him in amiable companionship, hypnotised by the rhythm as well. And when Grania takes Sean up with her on the swing, cradling him in her lap, there is a protective tenderness and care that goes beyond words, and you wonder for a minute who is carrying who. 

A television set is brought into play and we see home movies of Grania and Sean, so very familiar. The technology gets stuck, frames freeze, that itself working as a meta-narrative and deftly handled by Grania, who weaves it into the story where communications can be jarred, and the comedy that can arise from such situations. "If you want to know how to treat a child with autisim, look to their sibling" so the saying goes. He Ain't Heavy is a case in point. Grania's work in development is already a full-bodied, eloquent meditation on life with autism that raises awareness, builds bridges with a mainstream audience, and connects us to the beauty of accepting life as it is and loving unreservedly.

Check out Grania Pickard's own blog charting the genesis of "He Ain't Heavy" at (click here).

All support welcome to develop this project further. See the video below:


  1. Wow-what a beautiful response to such an admirable project. So eloquently written-it helped me to imagine myself watching the performance, as I sadly didn't see it. As I expected, it was clearly a skilled and moving performance and I indeed hope that it will grow into something even bigger. Well done to all involved and for such a glowing review. Charlotte x

  2. Hi Charlotte, thank you so much! Am sure Grania's project will carry on growing and developing given how quickly it was funded, and the general response that evening to the performance. It was so beautiful, I hope you have the opportunity to see it next time round. All the best, Lucy x


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