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Behind the scenes of Frozen Light's latest show for people with PMLD

PUBLISHED: 13:27 03 October 2016 | UPDATED: 13:27 03 October 2016

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

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Embracing the belief theatre is for everyone, Lucy Garland and Amber Onat Gregory formed Frozen Light which specialises in shows for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage found out more.

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA PhotographyFrozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA Photography

Frozen Light co-founders Garland and Onat Gregory love going to the theatre. Their belief is why shouldn’t people with profound and multiple learning disabilities be able to go to the theatre too?

Norfolk-born Garland met Onat Gregory, from London, while studying how to put drama into community settings and working with groups who may not have access to theatre, at the University of Kent. They both pursued it as a career, albeit separately, after graduation. Keeping in touch, the benefits of joining forces soon became clear.

“We used to phone each other every few months and go ‘oh God this is awful, there’s no work’ or ‘this happened in the project and I don’t know how to do that, I don’t suppose you can help me’ even when we were on the other side of the world,” laughs Garland.

“We love to go to the theatre and were seeing that within the theatre there really wasn’t an offer that meant that our audiences could access it, to get what they needed from it.”

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA PhotographyFrozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA Photography

They started collaborating in 2012, really cementing the company in 2013.

They’re passionate about being Suffolk-Norfolk based. Frozen Light is an associate artist of the New Wolsey in Ipswich, and gets a lot of support from The Garage in Norwich. The pair work hard to employ local performers and crew members. Their musician’s based in Norwich, their production manager in Ipswich, their costume designer’s in Norwich.

“It’s really important we’re shouting about the eastern region saying ‘yeah, good work gets made here.”

First show Tunnels visited Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridge, Colchester and Harlow. Follow-up The Forest played Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Harlow and Peterborough.

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA PhotographyFrozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA Photography

New show Home recently visited Ipswich’s High Street Exhibition Gallery and Colchester Arts Centre. It’s at The Garage, in Norwich, on October 6-7.

Frozen Light is a full-time job for the pair. Very much project funded, the majority of money comes from the Arts Council and they then get funding from private trusts and foundations from project to project.

“We know at the moment we’ve got funding until the end of October. If this next grant we’ve already put in, if we don’t get it then we’re out of a job. We love going to the theatre and our belief is why shouldn’t people with PMLD be able to go too? It’s about somebody who cares for someone with PMLD being able to pick up a brochure and expect to find something in there for them and just have a really nice time. For us, it’s also about trying to reach as many people with PMLD as we can.

“We just took The Forest to the Edinburgh Fringe, that was the first time it - the world’s largest international arts festival - had ever had a show for people with PMLD and they had something like 3,000 performances so it’s just mad. For us it’s just about it being a level playing field, about theatre being accessible to all.

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities.Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

“So now for people with physical disabilities you can adapt performances that already exist. Our audience just need that little bit more. When we’re creating work it starts with who are our audience and what do they need from us to be able to access the story that we want to be able to tell.”

Frozen Light creates multi-sensory theatre for audiences with PMLD who find it very difficult to access mainstream shows. This is achieved by creating a world full of smells, sounds, textures, colours and live music.

Everybody gets a visual story explaining what will happen before they enter the venue, which helps combats anxieties; especially with people on the autistic spectrum.

“That’s quite scary if you’ve never been to the theatre before and you don’t know what to expect.”

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA PhotographyFrozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA Photography

Entering the auditorium through a corridor of clothes, the space and each character has an individial smell so if somebody’s visually impaired they can recognise who’s interacting with them. For example, in Home cinnamon has been added to the sand they play with.

You’re met by the musician who will make you feel at home before the show starts with the performers singing a “name song” to each audience member. I can personally attest to how well it works, having being serenaded by Garland and Onat Gregory on their last visit to Ipswich.

“So often, people with PMLD and with autism are asked constantly to fit into the constraints of this world, how it works and the social constructs of how you’re supposed to behave. We want to spend an hour in their world.”

Passionate about the story and the characters, both need that sensory element.

Frozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA PhotographyFrozen Light stage Home, their latest show for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Photo: JMA Photography

“If it’s a bowl of sand you take it to that person, listen to them, watch them and learn what they want from you. They might want to put it on their hands, they might want to put their hands on it and not want you anywhere near them, they might want you to hold their hand and put your hand in it.

“In The Forest we created a storm so much that I brought out a leaf-blower which was the wind. Although that seems quite extreme the majority of our audience absolutely loved it - what other time are you going to have a leaf blower blowing in your face,” Garland laughs.

“It’s very much about letting our audience lead us. You’ve got to create a connection quite quickly, the show’s only an hour and each of those connections is short.”

The current show, Home, presented by Frozen Light in Association with New Wolsey Theatre, is a tale of unexpected friendship. The world isn’t how Scarlet and Olive remember it. Where are they now and where is their home? Together they must learn how to survive and create a future together in an environment full of surprises.

It’s aimed at ages 13 plus because the pair feel the opportunities for people with learning disabilities seem to get less and less the older they get.

“Finding appropriate activities for an adult with learning disabilities can be really difficult so a lot of the way we do make it age appropriate is the music and the set design,” says Garland.

“A lot of our audience who are older teenagers and adults have said this is great because the only theatre they’ve felt comfortable going to before was a kids’ show or panto because that’s where they’re not going to get in trouble if they make noise or move around. Often our audience need to do that and that’s okay with us.”

The aim is to have as much fun with their audience as possible - and they never know exactly what’s going to happen or the response they’re going to get.

“It’s the most fun we have and we all love it... It does feel great to be able to say you’re making theatre accessible for people that may not necessarily be able to access that or have that experience. Even having the problem now with these eastern venues because this is the third time we’ve been to them that they’re sold out.

“I’m having people like schools we’ve built a relationship with over the years contacting me saying ‘you’re sold out and we haven’t got tickets’ and we’re just like mortified although really excited the show is sold out.”

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