In September 2012, puppeteer Roosa Halme and Matthew Bernier, art therapist and associate professor in art therapy at Eastern Virginia Medical School, visited four institutions in the Satakunta region: an assisted living facility, a child welfare institution, and two daycare centres for special needs children. On every visit, Halme gave a Block Theatre performance and conducted a workshop. Bernier observed, analysed and occasionally participated in the activities. Both the performance and the workshop concluded with a discussion with the target group and staff about their experiences, observations and thoughts.

One benefit of the wooden blocks that emerged in connection with all Block Theatre sessions was their neutrality: the blocks carry no inherent symbolic meanings, they are neither good nor bad nor do they represent any gender. They give more room for the user’s thoughts and imagination, thus making a more lasting impression. The blocks leave it up to the child, young person or senior citizen who use them as to what they want the blocks to represent at any given time. Another important aspect that emerged in the discussions is the feel, shape and smell of the blocks that are made of different woods. Simple blocks proved to be surprisingly multisensory things.

Children in the special needs daycare centres made spontaneous comments about the characters and events during the Block Theatre performance. The most common reaction was to shout out when one figured out what the blocks were going to become. Often the children also began imitating the sounds in the performance, such as the vroom of a motorcycle or the hooting of an owl. They were carried away by the rhythms of the music and began to move and clap their hands. One of the things the children built from the blocks in the workshops was their family. All kinds of block families of different sizes were built, from blended families to single parent families. There were also cases in which the block play actually revealed more about the child than the staff had known previously. For instance, one special needs child built a family that had no mother. The child explained that her mother had died, whereas in reality the mother was simply not present in the child’s everyday life. However, this was the child’s way of telling her own story and perception of her family. Another child included a kind of ghost in his family, but was unable to explain its function. Asked about the identity of the block figure, he was puzzled himself for having included this block as part of the family. According to Bernier, the figure in cases such as these often represents a dead family member or a social worker.

In the child welfare institution, recalcitrant young people who were unaccustomed to working in pairs or groups, watched the performance quietly in total concentration and joined eagerly in the individual as well as group assignments in the workshop, to the surprise of the staff. The things built of the blocks by these young people included a futuristic dwelling and a mansion with a prison on the roof, and the themes expanded to include such subjects as singing rap artists or vehicles. The last assignment was to build a collective work to which each participant contributed a block in turn. During the building process, the youngsters gave each other advice about where the next block should go. The result was a large animal that changed its shape according to the fears of the individual participants. After a short discussion, the work was christened Boogey Hogan. The collective effort inspired the group to talk about their fears and to consider what form the block animal would take in the case of each member of the group. The blocks served as a conduit from superficial conversation to more profound and even sensitive themes. Since the visit, the young people have processed their experience further by giving written feedback on their own perception of the Block Theatre. Some of the feedback was provocative, such as ‘I just pretended to be a child’. According to the staff, the most genuine and direct feedback of the workshop was the youngsters’ behaviour in the workshop itself.

In the assisted living facility, all residents as well as staff gathered to watch the performance. The situation was solemn and the mood expectant. The residents were excited about the prospect of watching a theatre performance given by a real actor. Their reactions during the performance were restrained, but clearly interested. Afterwards, all residents were given a block to study, and their attention was immediately drawn to the surface texture, smell and shape in particular, and they wondered which kind of wood each block was carved from, and by whom. The seniors had great appreciation for the professionalism of Roosa Halme as well as the carpenter who had made the blocks.

In the workshop in the assisted living facility, each participant began by building his or her own childhood family. Many of the families were large, and a great number of blocks were needed in the workshop. The assignment also inspired the participants to tell stories about family members and family life. It gave them a chance to reminisce about their childhood, deceased family members and the place they grew up in. The seniors considered very carefully which family member’s role they would ascribe to each block. One of them took a very long time contemplating which of the blocks she would choose to represent herself, and finally decided on the most beautiful piece. The next assignment was to build one’s favourite place. For some participants, it was their childhood home, for others their workplace. As the walls of cowhouses and saunas began going up, the old people began recalling stories of their childhood and youth. The memories found a concrete expression as childhood homes and their surroundings took shape on the table, one wall or an apple tree at a time. Memories became easier to verbalise when one could see them as a physical block structure, not just an abstract image in the mind. Thanks to the blocks, one of the participants even discovered a new memory from her past. Having first placed three blocks in a vague configuration, she suddenly saw in it a kiosk complete with a bench and a cash counter, and remembered having once worked there. The memory was new also to the staff.

You can find more information in the project report: Palikkateatterin terapeuttiset mahdollisuudet (linkki) (in Finnish only)