Diana Tholoor and Her Work in Theatre for Autism
Diana Tholoor dons many hats. She is a corporate trainer, a theatre artist, a dancer, a documentary filmmaker and she is a leader in the field of theatre for autism.
“I always believed anyone can do anything, we just need the right method, the right understanding and of course, a really really strong heart with a never give up attitude,” said Tholoor, 64, a woman who has successfully used theatre as a therapy for children on the autistic spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder and is characterized by challenges with social skills, speech and nonverbal communication. Theatre for autism is a niche field, which uses theatre skills to help autistic children improve their social competence skills.
Tholoor recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Chrysallis Performance Arts Centre for the Challenged, on 14 February 2019. Of the two decades spent in helping children with difficulties, Tholoor has worked exclusively with autistic children during the past eight to ten years.
Her motivation to start The Chrysallis Performance Arts Centre for the Challenged, goes back to an incident that occurred in December 1998, when she had been working with underprivileged teenage girls.
During the Christmas season of that year — the 26th of December to be precise — Tholoor had decided to host a Christmas program to be attended by both normal and specially challenged children.
“I had planned to have two sets of musical chairs — one set for the normal kids and one set for the physically challenged. Then one boy, Hanumanthappa, I think that’s what his name was, came up to me and said ‘Aunty, I want to join these children’. He was around seventeen or eighteen years old and a victim of polio. His affliction meant that he could only move on all fours, but to my surprise, he won the game. This was my first experience of inclusion and it made me think: ‘Wow, how ignorant can one be?’ ”
Later when she asked if anyone wanted to sing, Hanumanthappa was the first to take the microphone from her and start on a tuneless song, even before she could finish her question.
That was the very moment, according to Tholoor, that felt she had stumbled onto something important. Two months later, on the 14th of February The Chrysallis Performance Arts Centre for the Challenged, was formed.
“We all look at performance arts as something for people who are complete and whole, because we assume that we need to be whole and complete to function in that area,” explained Tholoor as the reason behind choosing to teach performance arts to special children.
“One of the first performances was in the Westend Hotel. It was a dance production, a movement in wheelchairs. It was a very novel idea,” said Mary Paul, one of Tholoor’s closest friends who has worked with her and watched her work for over 25 years.
Since then Tholoor has gone on to start several initiatives in the area of community and special needs. She has conducted and worked on over 200 stage plays. This includes staging plays with and for people with mental disorders like schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar and behaviour issues, and the training and staging of a play exclusively with blind students and an all-deaf stage cast.
Tholoor goes to great extents to create an inclusive environment for special needs children. Her pan-India programme called Know Your Special Friend successfully brought together children with special needs who partnered with disability-free children to do art.
Her annual Christmas gifting program Christmas with Chrysallis has reached around 100,000 children in 20 cities across India. Yet, all of the above are just a few of her many achievements.
Amongst all the work she has done till date, it is her last three productions The Jungle Book, Aladdin and The Lion King, which were both the most challenging and rewarding at the same time.
“I want people to know that children with challenges are more than capable of performing. I believe my last three shows, including The Jungle Book, where I choose to work with children with autism, proved that the actors in these shows are deserving of an audience who would pay to come and watch them perform,” said Tholoor.
While the final performance might look easy on the audience, a lot of work goes on behind the stage. It takes a minimum of a year or sometimes a year-and-a-half of work on each of these shows.
“Our children have difficulties in learning, in following instructions, in adhering to rules and to address the demands of the theatre. We need a lot of manpower and we need to make sure that it is practised many many times,” said Sarbani Mallick, head of the Bubbles School of Autism, Bangalore, who has been working with Tholoor for the past six years.
These difficulties don’t deter Tholoor.
“I see a challenge not as a challenge but as a process to obliterate,” she said.
But what is her secret, one might ask. What gets her through the day when it gets tough?
“It’s no big secret. She prays a lot, and the joy she receives from God spills onto us,” said Richard Tholoor, her son who along with Tholoor is the co-founder of the Richard David Tholoor Dance Project and The Upper Room Ministries — a performance arts ministry for Christian youth and children.
Tholoor feels her work with autistic children have saved relationships and have helped in fostering a deeper understanding and communication amongst the people associated with the children.
She tells the story of a seventeen-year-old autistic boy, who is the son of a highly placed man. A gifted singer, the boy sang in all the seven shows of a play she was directing, after being trained by Tholoor for three months.
“This gentleman then quit his job, went to the US and admitted his son in a music school there. This work gives me so much hope. It has made me feel that I’m doing something that is making a difference not just in the life of the children but in the people around them as well, especially their families.”
The children she teaches all have a special rapport with her and enjoy the space for dance and music and movement.
“They also have their routine, for the last eight years they associate Tuesday with Diana,” said Mallick.
“She’s a very good disciplinarian,” adds Paul. “The children all listen to her and they obey her. She’s both: a very strict and a very good teacher.”
In return, the children have taught Tholoor many things.
“Love and forgiveness. I am very strict with them. You can’t imagine how strict I can get at times because I want a certain level of discipline and perfection. But in the end they’ll come to me say ‘ma’am’ and give me a kiss,” said Tholoor fondly.
The Jungle Book, Tholoor’s most recent work has brought her production work with autistic children to a pause.
“We have no future plans for a play, as we feel that all what we had to do with theatre and addressing the social skill deficit in children with autism, has been accomplished well. We are looking for another big need in the autism community, and how we can work towards it,” said Mallick.
Tholoor has a few ideologies she lives by, which makes her the unstoppable firefighter she is.
“If I start allowing any doubts to seep in, then what good am I going to be to the community? This is why I am careful about the words I speak and why I choose to be always encouraging. Sometimes when I start to work with a new school, the teachers aren’t sure their children can do much. So I tell them, ‘If you, the teacher, say the children can’t do it, then how will the children do it? When you believe they can do it, they will,’” Tholoor explained.
Tholoor encouraged her son, Richard Tholoor to pursue his passion for dancing during a time when it was not considered a valid occupation.
“My mum has this great gift of being able to speak, and when she does speak she can encourage people and change people’s opinions,” he said.
Together over time, Tholoor and her son’s work have sometimes overlapped with each other, leading them to collaborate on several major projects. Their largest one till date, was a show in Delhi Public School, Bangalore, where almost 2,500 children were involved.
“My son is one of the most cherished people in my life. We even dance together. I love to jive and whenever there is a jive choreography on stage I join in,” said Tholoor.
Some of the most positive reactions to Tholoor’s work are from those who are already exposed to autism and are appreciative of her pioneering work. The other category is those who have no idea what autism is, making it hard for them to imagine what theatre for autism might entail. According to Tholoor, these people just need to be educated.
“I wanted to do a play on par with regular theatre, just like any normal school does a play. It started with The Lion King three years ago, then Aladdin, and finally The Jungle Book. The height of what I could do and what I’ve done was in The Jungle Book, where I used ropes and ladders, smoke and darkness. The simple purpose was to show what the children could do,” said Tholoor
And just like any so-called normal school, the casting of the character for each part is integral to the betterment of the play.
“Diana finds the hidden talent in each student,” explained Joby Sam, who started out as Tholoor’s dance student, who then turned volunteer and is now a close friend.
“Her character portrayal and casting are phenomenal. We always feel that no other person could fit into that character. She has a deep understanding of the student, their potential and their capabilities. These are some of her strengths,” said Mallick on Tholoor’s’s ability to foster talent.
“At the end of the day, we see a child who couldn’t speak, go on stage just to say one word. Those moments are very rewarding,” explained Mallick.
In the two decades of working with special children, Tholoor has accomplished a lot. She is the recipient of several awards including the Sadguru National Award for Women in Social Work (2004), the Kalasha Woman Achiever Award for Social Work (2004) by the Inner Wheel Club and the Shristhi Special Academy Social Excellence Award (2003).
However, what she holds as her greatest accomplishment is overcoming all odds to bring out the best in the children.
“I don’t have any precedence for this kind of work — past accomplishments that I can look up to or research on. I say this not out of pride but owing to a sense of completion and for the parents of the children who are so excited to see their children do ‘normal’ things,” she said.