Hannah Aria is a multi-disciplinary Artist from Ipswich and the founder of Neurodelicious, a ground-breaking new live performance concept involving neurodivergent artists. Ahead of the debut show in Cambridge next week, she explains how this could be just the start of a neurodivergent performance movement for East Anglia
Hannah Aria found out she had ADHD whilst studying for a social work diploma at the University of Suffolk, in her 30s. ‘I was the day dreamer type,’ recalls Hannah, who turns 38 this week. ‘I got chucked out of Brownies for talking too much. Inattentiveness is probably the best way to describe it. Then, when I went to uni, I really struggled to sit still. And I was really struggling with everything academically.’
It was suggested that Hannah get tested. She was subsequently diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Irlen Syndrome – a perceptual processing disorder. The bright lights and the whiteboard in the lecture theatre had proved particularly challenging. ‘You can get tinted glasses that reduce the glare of everything,’ says Hannah. ‘When I got my Irlen glasses it was like my eyes went on holiday.’
Since being diagnosed, she says: ‘My whole world has changed. It’s been an amazing revelation – everything makes sense.’ Hannah went on to work in sexual health for a year, before studying for a degree in Arts Practice. ‘Ever since I was young, I’ve always loved the performing arts.’ In fact, she was studying Performing Arts at Northgate High School when she found out she was pregnant with her son, who is now 19. Hannah also has a 6-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with ADHD.
As a multi-disciplinary artist, Hannah is particularly passionate about advocating for reasonable adjustments and access in the arts. Thanks to her own experience, she says: ‘It’s opened my eyes to access generally and the need for us to be more inclusive in all areas of life, particularly culturally.’
During lockdown she managed to access a free business support and mentoring programme for creative businesses and arts freelancers working in the performing arts, called Mercury Creatives, delivered by Mercury Theatre in Colchester. ‘This was really significant in launching my career, to be honest.’ She says: ‘I never thought I would get a place on it, because of the dyslexia.’
Also in 2020, she became a board trustee for Unlimited, an arts commissioning programme that enables new work by disabled artists to reach UK and international audiences. And she received a National Lottery project grant to produce and art for wellbeing YouTube series with interactive live streams and social justice themes during the lockdown of early 2021.
Most recently, Hannah has founded Neurodelicious, a collective of neurodivergent artists from East Anglia who will be debuting a ground-breaking new live performance concept at Cambridge Junction and then Colchester Arts Centre (as part of Colchester Fringe) next month. Neurodelicious Launch Pad, as the shows will be known, has just received full funding by Arts Council England and The National Lottery UK. ‘It’s an amazing opportunity,’ she says.
‘We are playfully turning the idea of “reasonable adjustments” on its head. We thought about asking non-disabled, neurotypical audience members to let the venue know ahead of a visit what their access needs are, so that reasonable adjustments can be made for them, and seating allocated accordingly. The joke being that usually it’s the other way around, of course. It can be very difficult for a neurodiverse audience to enjoy a spontaneous entertainment experience, because so much advance research and planning work is usually required around accessibility.’
Neurodelicious Launch Pad also lifts off its debut show by challenging theatre etiquette. Hannah adds: ‘Audience experience should be at the heart of planning every show. The Neurodelicious live experience won’t leave audiences trapped in a shaming prison of silence, sitting in total darkness or sitting on their own if they are a wheelchair user. You can expect tactile furnishings, sensory toys, freedom to move, live captioning and BSL. You can stand if you wish and come and go as you please.’
And she makes the point: ‘Most people would prefer a comfy sofa!’ How does she find going to the theatre? ‘I always make sure I have an end seat to escape quickly.’
Neurodelicious Launch Pad’s reasonable adjustments will mean the entire audience can expect a humorous, safe and entertaining environment. ‘We are bringing a sense of balance so you can experience the whole spectrum of sensory delight and entertainment.’
Hannah adds: ‘If people make noises or swear, they will not be told to leave. They are welcome to be who they are, which is quite counter-cultural. We really want to produce something for everybody.’
So how would she describe the show? ‘It’s a cross between a variety show and a cabaret,’ says Hannah. ‘It’s giving people a taste of different types of neurodiverse talent, and we’ve used the ice cream analogy: vanilla is your neurotypical flavour but there are so many other flavours out there. We’ve got people with ADHD; people with autism; people with dyslexia and dyspraxia. Hannah has dyspraxia, which affects co-ordination. ‘I’m not a trained dancer but I’m going to do a dance performance,’ she says. ‘It’s definitely going to be unique and authentic.’
Each person will have 10 minutes to showcase their talent, whatever that might be. It’s a real mix,’ says Hannah. ‘We’ve got the whole spectrum.’
Neurodelicious Launch Pad promises to be a fresh take on the traditional variety show, featuring seven artists – including Kate Bush impersonator, Virginia Betts, a performer from Woodbridge.
Hannah is looking forward to ‘people coming together and showcasing and celebrating extraordinary talent.’ But in the long term? ‘It’s about a neurodivergent movement for the East of England.’
As she says: ‘We will be applying for funding to do a tour next year.’ And beyond that? ‘We can start a network, and look at potential collaborations, and just see where it takes us, really. Hopefully, great things will happen.’
Neurodelicious, a collective of neurodivergent artists from East Anglia, is debuting a ground-breaking new live performance concept at Cambridge Junction on Friday October 7, then at Colchester Arts Centre (as part of Colchester Fringe) on Sunday October 23. For Neurodelicious Launch Pad at Cambridge Junction, call Box Office: 01223 511 511 or email email@example.com.
Featured image of Hannah Aria, Neurodelicious founder, by Imogen Indigo