Head into The Forest with multi-sensory theatre specialists Frozen Light
Theatre company Frozen Light invites teenagers and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities to join them on a mythical quest, with a bit of an unusual romance thrown in. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to co-artistic director Amber Onat Gregory and even gets serenaded.
Gregory says we always expect people with disabilities to be in our world. What she and co-artistic director Lucy Garland say is let’s go into their world for an hour.
“That’s a key focus. Normally when you create a theatre show for a mainstream audience you don’t always think so much about them, which is perhaps why sometimes shows go a bit pear-shaped. You’re thinking so much about the work. When you’re thinking about what the story is, what that will mean to your audience... (It results in) a really strong bond with them and hopefully creates a really high piece of work.”
Essentially, The Forest is a journey of self-discovery. For many of their audience, it will be their first time in a mainstream theatre. She and Garland, who have years of experience working separately and as a duo with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, want them to experience an experience most of us take for granted.
Thea (played by Gregory) hasn’t left her home in a really long time, seeking solace in her writing instead. When she accidently hits the music loving but very bored frozen statue Robin (actor and musician Al Watts) in the head with a discarded poem, he falls in love with it. The result is an unexpected adventure involving Ivy, caretaker of the forest (Garland) that changes their lives.
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“Creating a character like Robin, that’s also a musician, immediately makes live music integral to the story... We don’t want a musician in the background, he’s a main character. Ivy is the storyteller of the piece, she tells us how the characters are feeling.”
So reflecting the audience’s feeling of isolation?
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“Exactly. In terms of sensory moments, when Thea tears up the poem you’ve got the paper going over the audience. When they go into the forest, there’s a forest smell. When Thea makes a fire, we found a shampoo that actually smells like burnt wood so we’ve put this over the logs.
“When Robin builds a shelter, these... They’re almost like dream catchers, like hula hoops with ivy and twigs coming down off it, come down over each audience member. During the storm there’s a huge opportunity for sensory elements. At one point when Thea is very hungry a supermarket appears and we’re using dried apricots that we soak in water so they’re really really squelchy that people can touch.
“A lot of our audiences have very complex needs and food can be quite a difficult area, so we also have an apricot squash spray the audience can taste...”
Wheelchair friendly, the audience are very much a part of the storytelling. Performed to a maximum of 12 people – six with disabilities, each supported by a companion or carer - they’re met in the foyer by the cast who accompany them into the performance space.
There are one-to-one interactions, including being sang directly to - which I experienced while popping by the first day of rehearsals - and you’re encouraged to touch the props. Background noise like public address announcements are kept to a minimum and the specially composed music is pitched at a level sensitive to the audience’s needs.
“When people come with their family it can be quite emotional just for the family to be able to do something together. We focus on the one-to-one element, but it also (has to be) a show the rest of the audience can enjoy,” says Gregory.
A lot of work goes into making their pieces age appropriate, something she and Garland learnt when visiting schools where they would perform to five-year-olds in the morning and 18-year-olds in the afternoon.
“It can feel quite uncomfortable sometimes so one of the things we really focused on was ‘okay, how can this be appropriate for our audience?’ You’re not going to hear any songs that sound like nursery rhymes or anything like that. Our last show, Tunnels, was created specifically for teenagers - I think we even had a drum and bass and UV section.
“What we found when we toured was a lot of adults came to see the show. Speaking to carers they said there’s nothing for adults to access once you’re 19 plus you’re out of the system, you completely disappear and become very, very isolated. We decided when creating The Forest, as opposed to just focusing on teenagers, how can we make it still age appropriate but actually make it so it’s not too teeny, that will be universal? A love story is something we hope teenagers and adults will be able to respond to.”
Most importantly says Gregory, they want people to leave The Forest feeling they’ve experienced something unique, uplifting and truly memorable.
“And to feel the theatre is a new place they feel comfortable in and can return to.”
According to research there are more than 16,000 people in England with profound and multiple learning disabilities with, on average, each town having around 80 adults with such profound needs.
Collaborative initiative Frozen Light - an associate theatre company of the New Wolsey Theatre - was founded in 2013 by multi-sensory performers and co-artistic directors Gregory and Garland.
It specialises in productions for audiences with PMLD, born out of the fact arts venues rarely cater for audiences with such complex disabilities. This is despite the fact theatres are improving disabled access and putting on more autism-friendly performances.
The company wants to change that, encourage people into venues that are new to them and for them to be seen in the community.
“What I think is amazing, with Ipswich anyway, is the New Wolsey had Wave here a couple of months ago which was for an audience with PMLD. There was (Red Rose Chain’s) Green Children which was amazing...,” says Gregory.
“Our Saturday show this time around is already selling a lot faster than last time. I think that’s because there’s more accessible theatre being programmed in Ipswich. Our audience is becoming more aware of things becoming available to them, hopefully that will encourage them to go to other theatre events in the future.”
Gregory spoke about carer and family members’ reaction to watching the audience open up during shows, how they’ve never come to the theatre as a family or seen them respond the way they have.
Take Sharon Slade and her daughter Lauren, who came to see Tunnels last year.
“As a parent of a child with PMLD, to have a production such as Tunnels to go to is a total delight. It was a sensory extravaganza, my daughter was transfixed and as a parent I could relax sitting next to her knowing she was calm, happy and thoroughly enjoying herself. Theatrical environments tend not to be geared towards audiences with such complex needs but why should my daughter miss out?”
The Forest premieres at Ipswich’s HEG High Street Exhibition Gallery, May 22-23, ahead of a national tour in the autumn.