As 2015 draws to a close, we take a wee step back to reflect on what’s been happening in the first year of Upfront Performance Network (UPN), and the fascinating sector we are part of.
UPN aims to more clearly define and connect the international landscape of theatre for and with people with learning disabilities and complex needs. It’s been a big year, and we’re here to celebrate the achievements some of the most creative and committed companies and artists working in theatre today!
So here is our UPN 2015 top 10 for learning disability theatre:
We were delighted to see Take Off Festival; the largest theatre festival for young audiences in England, programme two pieces of theatre that were specially created for audiences with learning disabilities. ‘Down to Earth’ by Bamboozle Theatre and ‘Underfoot’ by new company about NOWish were both fine examples of highly artistic work made with this audience at its heart. It’s encouraging to see more festivals taking this inclusive approach to programming; not shying away from the challenge of meaningfully catering for this ‘hard to reach’ audience.
Lung Ha produced two professional theatre productions this year, in collaboration with, and performed by, artists with learning disabilities: ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde‘, and ‘Thingummybob‘ toured Scotland to venues such as the Traverse and Dundee Rep, proving, once again, that it is possible for this work to go beyond community settings and be part of a wider professional theatre programme.
“As one of Europe’s leading companies working with adults with learning difficulties, Lung Ha Theatre Company works here with Drake Music Scotland to achieve its usual impressive production standard…inspired by a deep feeling for a story which becomes a passionate cry against the prejudice that would confine people to lesser lives, because of an accident of birth.” (Scotsman review: Four stars)
Upfront are on a mission to champion venues who are committed to inclusive practice. Here, Upfront‘s Lead Artist; Ellie Griffiths (UP) chats to the team at The Lowry Theatre, including: Kate Fitzgerald; Visitor Insight Manager (KF), Francesca Waite; Studio Young Persons & Theatres Access Programmer (FW) and Tori Hryniw; Digital Communications Executive (TH)
UP: Firstly, it would be great if you could explain to me a bit about your role at The Lowry, and how this plays a part in the venue’s overall remit or vision?
KF: I work in the Marketing Department, as Visitor Insights Manager my role has three areas:
- Research – I conduct lots of research, working with different audiences, departments and visiting companies/artists to give us a richer picture of who is coming to us.
- Evaluation – we evaluate nearly everything we do and we can get lots of information about our audiences from our Box Office system.
- Audience Development – to identify and work with audiences who don’t currently engage with The Lowry for whatever reason that may be.
FW: I work in the Theatres programming department with two main responsibilities:
- Programming the work for families in the Studio – I actively seek out the best work for family audiences.
- Coordinating a programme of accessible work in all three theatres.
The Lowry aims to allow access to the arts for everyone and I enjoy that my role helps to make that happen.
TH: I am responsible for social media and website communications. To ensure that we can be accessible as possible, we promote all of our accessible performances via social media and tag everything on the website so it can be easily searched. I am extremely passionate about access to the arts and make sure that it is included, where possible, in all of our communications.
UP: Brilliant. I would be interested to hear about the ways The Lowry has invested in making their program as accessible as possible for audiences with different types of disabilities?
KF: Our commitment to making our theatre programme accessible comprises three strands; the presentation of work made by disabled artists; the presentation of work made specifically for an audience of people with disabilities; and the varied interpretation of our regular theatre programme – This includes:
- Audio Described – a live verbal commentary on the visual elements of the production, designed to improve the enjoyment of visually impaired theatregoers. Free touch tour before the performance.
- Captioned – converts spoken word into text as they are sung/spoken giving people with hearing loss access to live performance.
- Signed – a BSL interpreter interprets the show live on stage for deaf/hard of hearing audiences.
- Relaxed – open to everyone, but particularly appropriate for anyone who many find the usual theatre environment challenging, be that due to an Autism Spectrum Condition, a learning disability, or a fear of the dark, loud noises or confined spaces.
- Baby Friendly – open to everyone, but particularly appropriate for anyone who would enjoy the opportunity to attend a grown up production during the daytime, with their babe-in-arms.
In this article, I want to interrogate what the term ‘accessible’ means in the context of theatre for children and adults who are disabled. Huge progress has been made in recent years in broadening access to performances in mainstream venues. However, we need to question whether improved access necessarily equates with meaningful artistic engagement.
To begin, let’s imagine we’re going to the theatre. Let’s say we’re seeing a play at the National Theatre. Which show we are going to see is not important; instead let’s focus on our expectations of the experience: The National is one of the country’s most respected dramatic institutions, so it is likely that whatever we’re seeing will fall into the category of ‘high art’; cerebral, story lines rich in subtext and symbolism; impressive sets; authentic costumes. In short, it will be ‘theatre of the mind’ – but whose mind?
As Lyn Gardner acknowledged in a recent article for The Guardian ‘Live Theatre needn’t be watched in respectful silence’, a dominant culture exists around the act of spectating. The theatre as an institution expects something of us, its audience, too. An unspoken set of rules exists, based on arguably elitist traditions of ‘how one behaves at the theatre’. These include: be quiet when the lights go down; don’t talk during the show; sit through the entirety of the piece, even if you find it, irrelevant, lifeless, or, (the worst of all theatre sins)- boring. These rules are policed by ushers who can remove us from the audience if we fail to behave accordingly.
It is easy to see how this behavioural contract often excludes people with certain disabilities – many of those on the autistic spectrum, for example, cannot necessarily guarantee silence for an imposed period of time.
“Sometimes you get breakthroughs – epiphanies…parents looking at their own children with wonder because of the way they are responding to something that we have created all together. That’s fantastic! How could you not want to be involved in that?” Tim Webb
Upfront (UP – Ellie Griffiths) caught up with Tim Webb (TW) – Artistic Director and founder of Oily Cart Theatre Company in a break between performances of their new piece ‘Light Show’ which is currently touring special schools and venues throughout the country. Oily Cart has been making multi sensory, immersive performances for young people with complex needs for the last 34 years. They are the flagship company for this work. Here Tim talks about what motivates him, inherent challenges, and his creative influences.
UP – Thank you for agreeing to this interview Tim. As the UK’s leading specialist in the field, it’s a great way to kick off this series of artist interviews. Firstly, I would be interested to hear you talk about how your work has developed artistically through the lifetime of Oily Cart, and how this audience has played a key part in influencing that.
TW – The reason we got into working with people with learning disabilities was because the Head of a special school asked us to do a show for the young people in his school, because he knew we made good theatre for under 5s. We always tried to do age-appropriate theatre, so the first question we asked him in response was, “how old are the young people?” He said they were 3-19, so then we thought, how could our work for under 5s be alright for someone who is 18 or 19? We did a bit of research, the Head Teacher invited us into his school and we spent a few days finding out what the young people did, what the teachers did, what the parents did and we discovered three guiding principles which are dear to us to this day:
- One is that there is a range of abilities in each school that are almost as wide, as those in society as a whole. There were so many different types of people, and we needed to find a way of making a show that appealed to that range of audience.
- The second point is about duration – the teachers were keen to tell us that it wasn’t any use doing a standard 45 min- 1 hour long show, because the young people in that school would need longer to get used to us and we would need longer to get used to them, to form an effective relationship. So the first show we did, lasted the whole day and gave us a chance to meet the young people and interact with them in their own spaces. We have since done shows that last an hour, but we also do shows that last a week. We have a show planned for next year where we go into a school for a week but then a year later we go back to that school for a week and again the year after that. So this will be a three year cycle, a sort of long term performance, to see what effect this has on the show’s impact.
- The last thing was to make a piece, which used alternative sensory pathways and didn’t necessarily involve things like sitting and looking at a stage and listening to what would happen. This came directly from the staff, which were keen to emphasise that there are more senses that need to be involved in this kind of work than the usual five. In particular we were very interested in some of the kinesthetic work they were exploring in the school in those days. This involved swinging people in an old navy hammock, which the young people obviously adored. If you’re deaf/blind, most the sensory pathways explored in traditional theatre – seeing and hearing, are of very little value to you.
UP – Until that point had your work for early years been multi sensory?
TW – I think we probably had a bit of a predisposition. Taking it back a few more years, when we started in 1981, I remember we spent a lot of time doing performances in parks, and there were an awful lot of pitch invasions! We spent a whole summer trying to fence off the stage and find ways to somehow keep the audience out of the performance area, but then we thought, well why do we have to do that? If you are a curious involved child, don’t you want to get on the stage? And don’t you want to tell the actors what to do and help them do things? And maybe also feel the props and textures of the costumes? But certainly as soon as we encountered a special school audience, you quite simply couldn’t use conventional theatre methods, you just couldn’t get away with it. Necessity was the mother of invention.
UP – Was your background and training in conventional theatre? And has your involvement in this work shaped or changed those tastes? Or have you always been interested in experimental styles of performance?
TW – I was lucky to be brought up in Stoke on Trent, where the theatre, The Vic, was in the round. Now, theatre in the round, arena theatre, whatever, is quite accepted, but back then in the sixties it was very controversial. But it was my normality; I probably saw a hundred shows that were in the round. I think it was then I started thinking about the location of theatre. The Vic in Stoke was also a theatre that very, very rooted in the community, they would do Shakespeare, they would do panto, but they would also do verbatim pieces; choosing a subject matter for social and political reasons. These often, because of the issues in the show, drew in many people as an audience, that would not normally have attended the theatre. I think all that had a big influence on me, it just felt like that was a logical way of going about things, thinking, ‘what is this community that I’m living in interested in and excited about?’ Making theatre that is significant and would answer that need.
So one side of me is very rooted in the West Midlands, but the other side is very interested in visual art and music, particularly jazz. The way those media challenged convention had a big influence on me, especially jazz. When I was at university in the states I saw a lot of experimental jazz, it was improvisatory and free, challenging the framework of music. Again that seemed a normal or logical thing to me. At the time in the 60s, the work was getting freer and freer, same in the world of painting, it was a time of experimentation when people were doing improvisatory art and installations, the art of our time. I could never understand or relate to the more literal, representational art, or in music playing composed tunes and not challenging what was considered to be the orthodoxy. I think what’s good about making work for people with severe disabilities is that whatever your predilections, whatever your background, you have to start thinking in a free way. You have to start challenging the conventions, addressing what language these people are actually using, not just assuming that they speak the same language as you, that all you have to do is say it at them a bit louder! Or, (in the case of relaxed performances), a bit quieter. I think those strict undeniable forces make you examine theatre, make you examine your kind of theatre and make you come up with something new. Then you try out this new thing and observe the results, questioning whether your audiences are relating to this. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell because many people with severe learning difficulties have barriers which prevent them from communicating with other people in society. The other thing you do, is to be open to what the effect is on yourself? ‘Is it exciting me? Do I think its funny? Is it making the hairs on my neck stand up? And if not, why not?’ So although you are making it for a group of other people, in this case with disabilities, you also have to be making it for yourself. We’ve always tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience.
In the safe and cosy bubble of Oily Cart (a theatre company who make interactive theatre for young people with learning difficulties), it’s easy to indulge the affirming notion that disabled children all over the world are consistently being treated to thoughtful and stimulating, multi-sensory theatre pieces developed specifically for them. The parents and carers that come to Oily Cart’s shows regularly observe the most amazing reactions from their children, often ones they have never seen before, as one parent articulated:
“Finley’s disability often means that he is always being asked to conform or work hard to fit into a social norm that is not suited to him and so he struggles. But as soon as we walked into the (theatre) space, Finley’s differences were embraced and even celebrated. I felt like we were in a bubble of Finley’s world and it was just magical. It was a stark contrast to the harsh world outside. I found the whole experience very emotional to watch and the Oily Cart Company have reminded me how wonderful my son is and we should be encouraging people to accept his differences rather than make him ‘fit in.” Parent, JW3 venue June 2015)
As a Theatre Artist I have created and performed in numerous theatre productions, many of which are interactive and take theatre into different contexts. I have never witnessed such unguarded joy, anarchy, intimacy and as many deeply moving responses from the audience as in this work.
There are other UK companies like Oily Cart who specialise in creating SLD theatre (theatre made primarily for, not necessarily by, people with severe learning difficulties)– but, to my knowledge, only three: an organisation called Bamboozle, who work mainly with puppetry, one in Northern Ireland called Replay, and a relatively new company based in Norwich called Frozen Light. Considering there are over 11 million disabled people in the UK – not to mention their family and carers – it becomes clear that this audience is by-and-large ignored by the theatre industry.
Internationally, I have heard tell of some ‘good stuff’ happening in America. The Lincoln Center in New York, (mentored by Tim and Amanda from Oily Cart), recently produced a huge multi-sensory theatre performance for autistic participants ages five and above, with theatre company Trusty Sidekick. And in Chicago there is the Red Kite Project (also mentored by Oily Cart). Yet the more I research this field (to inform my own theatre-making), the more I find that these – apparently rather isolated – companies are the exceptions to the rule.