Robot Song - celebrating diversity in a technologically evolving world

    22 January 2020

    What do you do when your child is diagnosed with autism? Jolyon James, director and writer, created the theatre show Robot Song.

    Robot Song is a deeply personal story, that shares an honest, intensely funny and often unconventional window into Jolyon’s experience of parenting a child on the autism spectrum. It features 11 year old Juniper, who receives a petition signed by her entire class stating that she is ‘the most hated person in the school’. After exhausting all other avenues her parents resort to the only thing they have left, a giant singing robot. Jolyon says, ‘Robot Song is a snapshot into the life of a very smart, bright, idiosyncratic girl.’ The show employs cutting edge digital technology, startling animatronics and a beautiful original musical score.

    It is a family show that is joyful and full of hope; a universal story for any child who has ever felt isolated, and any parent desperate for tools to help. 

    Robot Song has been selected to showcase at the prestigious International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) Showcase in Philadelphia taking place in January 2020. IPAY is an annual international platform for artists, agents, producers, organisations and presenters working in theatre for young people, to build connections and engage in the development and touring of meaningful performing arts experiences for young audiences. IPAY offers Australian artists and producers an opportunity to share their work, develop partnerships in North America, and support Australian art to reach a global audience.

    We caught up with Jolyon before he travelled to Philadelphia for the showcase.


    Robot Song, Arena Theatre Company. Credit: Brian Conroy. 

    Q&A

    Tell us about Robot Song?

    My son was diagnosed with autism and my partner and I had to radically rethink how we parented him. We were both on a massive learning curve. My wife comes from a medical background, she’s very pragmatic and implemented all the fantastic support systems available to us. Being an artist I threw everything I knew about creativity in his way and Robot Song was born, the combination of my learnings around creativity and autism with regards to my son. 

    What tools aided you when communicating with your son? 

    Creativity has this fantastic ability to seep into all the gaps. Young people on the spectrum very often live a very specific and literal life, this is definitely true for my son. The beautiful thing about creativity is that it manages to get into all of those boxed up compartments and joins them together, often in ways that you could never have imagined. 

    In the show, Juniper is being bullied at school because of her autism. Her parents try all the traditional means to support their daughter but they don’t work. Finally they fall back on the thing that they know best - art, music and play. The result is an incredible breakthrough and redefines this terrible situation. The reason the character in Robot Song is a young girl was because there is far less information about girls on the spectrum and I thought it was a good opportunity to contribute.

    The giant singing robot on stage represents all three characters in different ways but more specifically the Dad, because it mostly mirrors my relationship with my son. The robot cuts through in a way that the Father can’t because he’s bigger and much clearer in his intentions and agenda.

    Robot Song, Arena Theatre Company. Credit: Brian Conroy. 

    How does Robot Song reflect your artistic practice and fit into your career development?

    In many ways the show is the sum of all the things I love and do. I have a background in fine arts and I come from a family of artists and writers. Creativity has always been central to my life. I’m a sculptor so I love making and building and it's a big part of my relationship with my kids. I kind of fell into theatre and went to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and studied to be an actor which I have done for years. Suddenly I’m 50 and I’m finally doing the thing that I think I should have been doing all along. 

    The process of making the work was to find out which of these elements could tell the story, whether it be words, or design, or direction, or music. I selfishly took nearly all the creative roles so I never had to defer to anyone else and could make a huge amount of the decisions on the fly.

    Why do you think Robot Song has been so successful?

    This is a show that says we need to celebrate and embrace differences within ourselves if we’re going to have any chance of an optimistic way forward. 

    I visit hundreds of schools with Arena Theatre (VIC). I’ve been seeing a rising level of anxiety within our young people.  I feel that young people especially need some optimism. This is a show that embraces everybody’s difference and potential and hopes to provide, through the parents’ role in the show, a practical approach to solving problems in an unconventional way. I hope the audience leaves feeling that they are equipped with some new tools. 

    Robot Song, Arena Theatre Company. Credit: Brian Conroy. 

    How do you think creativity connects people?

    Often with Arena Theatre when we go to into schools a teacher may ask, ‘how does this art residency relate to the curriculum’ and my response is - 'creativity is its own curriculum, it is everything, it supports and embraces everything, problem solving, lateral thinking, self-esteem and play. It covers numeracy and literacy issues and in my opinion should be a compulsorary part of our education'. It is the thing that holds us together in every respect. There is nothing more important than creativity in our lives, particularly for our own sense of wellbeing. When we go into schools and work with kids without prescribing outcomes, they’re given autonomy and grow in the most profound ways. I would advocate having artists in schools permanently, I believe we would see incredible changes in those schools and those communities. 

    What inspires you as an artist and a creative person?

    I’m really curious all the time about everything. I love technology which is perfect when you make work for young people. They are some of the first adopters of new technologies many of whom are digital natives. For me growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who would always talk about and discuss art, creativity and writing. I got into the habit of seeing the world in that way. Fundamentally, if I didn’t do it, I think I would be a mess. It is the one thing that keeps me stable and consistent and gives me a useful mirror to understand myself. 

    Robot Song, Arena Theatre Company. Credit: Brian Conroy. 

    What part do you think funding and investment play in developing art and artists?

    Everything. Especially in such a relatively small industry like Australia. A small investment can give extraordinary and exponential results often in indefinable ways. Often we don’t know what we want until we see it. It’s very difficult to sell someone on an idea that just seems crazy. If I just rocked up and asked someone to invest in a show about a singing robot and a girl who’s best friend is a giant recycling bin, they’d probably run quickly in the other direction. Robot Song only exists because of funding and investment. I think it’s really critical. 

    How do you think International audiences will respond to this work?

    It’s hard to say. We are going to China this year so it will be a really interesting process to see how the ideas translate. We had delegates come from a festival in Shanghai to see it last year when it was touring and they responded to it in exactly the same way as Australian audiences so I’m hopeful. I think at its core it’s a very human story.  I think many people recognise the feeling of being an outsider, being marginalised, being different. This is a universal human trait that I hope will translate well. 

    Robot Song, Arena Theatre Company. Credit: Brian Conroy. 

    What are you hoping to achieve at IPAY?

    I think ultimately I would love opportunities for a bigger life out of this work. We receive emails from people that have seen the work telling us how important it has been to them which makes me feel incredibly proud and humble. As far as I’m concerned the more eyes the better. I think it can only do good. Ultimately it’s not really a show about autism at all, it resonates well beyond that. It is about celebrating differences of all kinds. I think through IPAY Robot Song may have a much longer life hopefully for many years to come.

    Robot Song won the Helpmann Award for Best Presentation for Children and Young People in 2019. 

    The Robot Song showcase at IPAY 2020 was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts International Arts Strategy Outcomes Fund, through its producer Nicholas Clarke Management.


    About Arena Theatre Company

    Established in 1966, Arena is one of Australia’s longest-running producers of theatre for young people. Arena’s longevity is a testament to their ongoing investigation of the central question ‘What is the role of performance for young people in today’s world?’ Over more than fifty years the responses to this question have ranged from their modest beginnings performing school holiday shows, to their current incarnation as a leader in contemporary theatre practice. Supported by Creative Victoria, Arena Theatre Company relocated to Bendigo in 2018 to be one of very few professional theatre companies based in a regional area. This spotlight at an International market is timely in recognising that a regionally based company can operate and deliver on the world stage.

    Arena Theatre also received funding through Creative Victoria’s, International Engagement grant round - supporting Victorian companies to take work overseas.

    Australian delegation at IPAY 2020

    • Jolyon James, Writer/Director and Designer and Artistic Associate, Arena Theatre Company
    • Sharon Custers, Executive Director, Arena Theatre Company
    • Norman Armour, International Development Consultant, North America, Australia Council for the Arts
    • Amanda Wright, General Manager, Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP)
    • Andrew Threlfall, Director, CDP Theatre Producers
    • Susannah Sweeney, Creative Producer, DreamBIG Children’s Festival
    • Jessica Wilson, Independent Artist
    • Craig Harrison, IPAY Board Member, Chair of Cirkidz Inc and the South Australian Circus Centre
    • Jeremy Miller, Executive Director, Monkey Baa Theatre Company
    • Nicholas Clark, Director, Nicholas Clark Management
    • Penny Camens, Company Manager, Patch Theatre
    • Teena Munn, Producer, Patch Theatre
    • Rainbow Sweeny, Producer, Polyglot Theatre
    • Sue Giles, Artistic Director, Polyglot Theatre
    • Georgia Stanley, Associate Artist, Slingsby
    • Andy Packer, IPAY Board Member & Artistic Director, Slingsby
    • Stacey Baldwin, General Manager/Producer, Slingsby
    • Johanna Clancy, Director, Wagana Aboriginal Dancers
    • Ross McHenry, Associate Producer, Windmill Theatre Co
    • Georgi Paech, Associate Producer, Windmill Theatre Co
    Exit off canvas