Our latest blog post comes from Frozen Light, a company who have recently finished a tour of Tunnels with house.
Frozen Light creates multi-sensory theatre for audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). In 2012 Lucy Garland and I received Arts Council funding to create a piece of theatre for teenage audiences with PMLD- the result was Tunnels. Tunnels toured special schools across the UK and premiered at The Garage in 2013. As artists that had previously performed a lot of multi-sensory theatre in special schools it was wonderful to see how our audience with learning disabilities responded to accessing performance in a theatre venue. After the success of Tunnels at The Garage we decided to set up Frozen Light- a theatre company that would tour theatre shows for audiences with PMLD to theatre venues across the UK.
Due to the high and often complex needs of our audience, Tunnels is only for an audience of 6 people plus there companions. This small audience number is essential to the way the show works; it is interactive in nature and we spend a large amount of one to one time with each audience member during the show. As I’m sure you can imagine this makes the work expensive to program as very little is made at box office due to the small audience numbers. Due to the cost of the show it has been a challenge for us as a new theatre company to tour Tunnels. We can’t work on box office splits and venues need to pay a guarantee to program it. house enabled us to tour to 11 diverse house venues in the South East, as our first theatre tour the trust that house put into us and our work was invaluable.
As there is so little theatre programmed for audiences with PMLD marketing the work is also a challenge. The learning disability community may not be expecting there to be a show programmed at their local theatre which meets their needs. We delivered box office and marketing training at every venue before tickets went on sale and Front of House training with ushers before the show. This was to make sure that venues felt supported and prepared for an audience that they may have not previously engaged with. Marketing our show takes a lot longer than marketing your average theatre show and audiences do not seem to turn up to buy tickets on the door. It can also be a labour intensive process as it can often be a challenge speaking to relevant people (in schools, day centres, care homes, community groups etc) who would book the show. Venues really need a commitment to reaching out to audiences with PMLD and their support networks who will book the show.
Due to our previous experience of taking this work to special schools we felt confident that local schools would be excited to organise an excursion to the theatre. It can be very challenging to find appropriate activities for students with PMLD to access outside of school settings. Diane Quadling, a teacher from Priors Court School who saw the show at Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury said: “An excellent theatrical piece which was totally accessible for our older students with PMLD. Really wonderful being able to go to the theatre and have the whole theatrical experience which is so difficult for people with PMLD.”
The shows programmed during the daytime during the week usually sold to school groups but as a company we also want to encourage people with PMLD to come to the theatre with their friends and family. We were therefore excited when some venues booked general public shows during the evenings and weekends. The general public shows have 6 tickets for people with PMLD, 6 tickets for carers and 12 tickets for friends and family. Even though the audience is small it is difficult to engage with a community does not usually access theatre. On our house tour of Tunnels we found out that 40% of our audiences with PMLD had never been to the theatre before. This demonstrates that due to the Tunnels tour a new audience base have been able to access their local theatres. It is particularly difficult as a touring company as communities need to get to know you and your work which is not possible when you are only in places for short periods of time. We hope that in time when communities become more aware of accessible work being programmed that it will be easier to sell the general public show. We did find that venues who had previously programmed relaxed performances and ran outreach groups for people with learning disabilities, found it easier to sell the general public shows as they had a database of audience members who may be interested in the work. This demonstrated that once venues start opening their doors to a new community group they will come back for future events suitable for them.
The Front of House support we had at all the venues was incredible and staff members made audiences feel comfortable in a place that might have seemed strange and scary. We had a lot of positive feedback about how safe and supported our audiences felt and we couldn’t have achieved this without the support of the venues. We hope that we will be able to keep working with the venues that we have toured to, to keep developing those community links. We would love to hear from anyone who has any suggestions for working with communities with learning disabilities or venues who are interested in looking into the accessibility of their programming.