Sensory performance and accessibility

Frozen Light creates multi-sensory theatre for people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) The Company was developed out of a collaboration between Lucy Garland’s company Seeing Beyond and Amber Onat Gregory’s company Tell Me A Tale in 2012.  Amber and Lucy felt that by creating a new company they could work together to create more exciting high quality sensory theatre.

Both Amber and Lucy have been working in sensory performance for 6 years. They both completed a Masters in Applied Performance in which they developed their approach to sensory theatre whilst working alongside a theatre professionals, speech and language therapist and specialised learning disabilities professionals. Both have used this development as a basis for their work and built on this foundation.  Both Amber and Lucy have worked closely with schools and groups of people with PMLD and have become experts in the field of performance for people with PMLD.

In sensory performance every part of the show is created to meet the needs of the audience whilst still focussing on producing a high quality piece of entertaining theatre.  Multi-sensory performance is interactive: each part of the show has a sensory element to explore be that sound, taste, smell, touch or things to see. Each individual is given the time they need to explore the particular sensory element.  Therefore although a group performance the show becomes very much an individual experience.

Sensory performance is performed to small numbers of people; this is so that each individual audience member gets the most out of the performance.  Due to the sensory element of the work if there was a large audience the performers would not have enough time to dedicate to making sure that the person with PMLD has had the time they need to fully access each experience. Mencap state that in working with people with PMLD you need to “Allow time for the person to respond. If they do not seem to be engaged, leave a little more time before you move on – people may need quite a while to engage and respond.” (The Arts and People with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities)

The performance needs to take place in close proximity to the audience as many people with PMLD cannot process what is happening if it is too far away.  Mencap state in their document The Arts and People with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities:

“It is important that work with people with PMLD takes place at close proximity. Any event, no matter how awesome, is unlikely to have any relevance to most people with PMLD if it takes place some distance from them.”

 It would also get extremely loud if there was a large audience and this would make the performance difficult for some audience members to cope with and they would become totally overstimulated.

Many of the audiences that we work with would struggle to access mainstream performance.  People with PMLD have many additional needs to that of a mainstream theatre audience and would find it difficult to access mainstream theatre shows for many reasons: the stage is too far away; the text is complicated; the only senses that are really used are sight and sound (very difficult for blind or deaf people with PMLD) and you are expected to sit in one spot and stay silent.  All of this on top of large audiences and mobility needs makes mainstream theatre very difficult to access.

Our audiences often need to move around to find an area in the space that they feel comfortable with, or to find a quieter, less stimulating space. Our audiences can have very complex medical needs and due to this may need to come in and out of the performance space.  They may find being in a strange space quite daunting and may want to leave and enter at their own will. People with PMLD are often pre-verbal and therefore a very wordy piece of theatre is completely inappropriate, this makes the sensory element of the piece of theatre completely integral.  By using sensory experience the young people can explore the piece of theatre and the story in their own way.  The sensory elements can re-iterate the story or can be enjoyable in their own right and completely enhance the theatrical experience. Our audiences often need to be noisy and this is completely fine.  The show is put together so that the actors are aware of this.  The main purpose of sensory performance is that the audience come first.  The show is very much built around the audiences needs and everyone involved in the project is completely on-board with this.  Sitting quietly in the dark for an hour or two (as is the norm in conventional theatre) is completely inappropriate for this audience. So therefore this means that specific sensory theatre needs to be programmed for this audience group.