Dr Rebecca Caines and Michelle Stewart

Rebecca Caines and Michelle Stewart

This research project starts from the premise that people living with FASD are the experts on FASD, and hold artistic and imaginative potential to harness unique improvisation skills such as impulse, imaginative narrative, and spontaneity. Those living with FASD have considerable expertise and wisdom that draws on their lived experience navigating social worlds and systems where FASD is stigmatized, racialized and misunderstood. This socially-engaged project blends art-based research methods with social sciences to explore new ways of understanding FASD, exposing the difficulties and opportunities inherent in this complex disability, whilst creating innovative creative with music, theatre, storytelling, craft, cooking and other improvisatory forms.

Grounded in a community-based arts practice and framed through a Participatory Action Research method, this project brings together and innovative research team comprised of the co-PIs and a collaborative team that includes: individuals living with FASD, their support networks (including caregivers, mentors and life coaches), researchers, socially-engaged artists, music therapists, native health educators, elders, and community organizations. Improvisation requires skills of active listening, collaboration, risk taking, and includes the productive potential of mistake and failure. By creating a collaborative space for improvised creativity with individuals living with FASD, this project will explore new ways of understanding FASD while being attentive to the difficulties and potentials inherent in this complex disability.

In 2017, the project expanded to address other areas where social isolation is prevalent and broadened to include outreach and mobilization activities in Northern Canada, Northern Ireland, and Western and Eastern Australia. Social isolation is a challenge facing many individuals including but not limited to senior citizens and people with mental health challenges and disabilities. Contributing factors can include the stigma surrounding the condition, familial and community disconnection and/or socio-economic hardship. Social isolation can impact access to appropriate resources and care while also contributing to the risk for adverse contact with health, social services, and the justice system.

Improvised art projects have historically been mobilized as a tool for communities to address local needs, express cultural specificity, reclaim subjugated ways of knowing, develop local responses to human rights issues and address barriers to social justice. In the last twenty years, Canadian scholars and practitioners partnered with community organizations have become global leaders in addressing social issues through research and practices supported by SSHRC. These large-scale projects utilize improvisatory methods that focus on real-time decision making, active listening, collaborative creative response, collective responsibility as well as vulnerable and open response to difference, and often engage with emerging tools and technologies (smartphones and tablets, web technologies, new kinds of educational computer gaming). These elements of improvisation offer a unique method to approach social isolation.

Interdisciplinary teams of artists, scholars, and communities have developed a large range of improvised arts practices for social benefit that have the capacity to move across barriers of language, culture, perceived ability, and structural inequality. This project will continue to mobilize findings from recent SSHRC-sponsored research to international partners, to demonstrate how applied community-based arts combined with social science interventions can assist those who struggle with social isolation.

Research Outputs

The Playing to Our Strengths improvisation kit continues to be downloaded free from the project website. Over 150 groups have downloaded and are using the kit in their own organizations. The Research Team continue to receive invitations to help set up projects based on the kit, and are investigating options for funding and support.

Workshops and demos of the toolkit and research with feedback sessions, were and are, still held in the following locations:

    • March 2017 – Ongoing, Regina (Major Site) and Saskatoon, SK, Canada
    • June – August 2018, Belfast, Northern Ireland
    • March 2018, Perth (Major Site), University of the Sunshine Coast and Griffiths University, QL, Australia
    • February – March 2018, Portland and Seattle, USA
    • December 2017, Guelph, ON, Canada
    • November 2017, Belfast, Northern Ireland (Major Site)
    • July 2017, Whitehorse, Yukon (Major Site), Terrace, Maple Ridge, and Vancouver, BC, University of Calgary and Lethbridge, AB, Canada
    • June – September 2016, Saskatoon and Regina, SK, Canada. 6 workshops were held at the FASD Network in Saskatoon, and 5 at the Regina Community Clinic in Regina.

Visiting Research Fellowship

Rebecca Caines was granted a Visiting Research Fellowship at Sonic Arts Research Centre in summer 2018. This Fellowship was generously supported by the British Academy and has allowed her to be based in Belfast to work on the project, and other research endeavours.


Conference/Academic Presentations

Michelle Stewart. “Improvise and Mobilize: addressing social isolation through applied research and arts practice,” Sonic Arts Research Centre, Queen’s University Belfast. November 24, 2018.

Rebecca Caines. “Fragile Devices: Migrating Across and Between Through Improvisation.” International Federation for Theatre Research conference, Belgrade, July 2018.

Michelle Stewart and Rebecca Caines. Breaking Barriers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Listening with Each Other Still Listening: IICSI Colloquium, McGill University, June 1-4, 2017.

Michelle Stewart and Rebecca Caines. ImprovEnabled: Interdisciplinary Responses to Social Isolation.” IICSI Thinking Spaces Speaker Series and Reading Group, University of Guelph, December 1, 2017.

Michelle Stewart and Rebecca Caines. “Justice Related FASD Research and the Playing to Our Strengths Toolkit.” University of Western Australia, Law Faculty, March 20, 2017.