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All cultural organisations are concerned with making their work more accessible. A new report by Maria Varvarigou on sensory and inclusive theatre for disabled children and young people provides a model for doing just that.

outdoor theatre production
Doorstep Jamboree Festival 2020

Suzi Corker

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the disabled community, and caring responsibilities have increased for parents due to removed support. Unable to tour to venues or schools, or to create close-up theatre that uses touch as a central technique, theatre company Oily Cart has spent the last 18 months exploring new formats to expand its reach and make sensory theatre in an accessible and Covid-safe way for disabled children, young people and their families who are shielding. 

Making theatre more democratic

Oily Cart has been creating innovative, multi-sensory and highly interactive productions for children and young people since 1981. The organisation was founded by Tim Webb MBE, Claire de Loon and Max Reinhardt, who aspired to make theatre more democratic, and to take it to places theatre had never been before.  

In 1988 the company began creating work for disabled and neurodiverse children and young people. It has always begun the creative process ‘from the ground up’, thinking about the people with the most barriers to access. So, their point of departure has always been working in a sensory way. 

Oily Cart productions use sounds, smells, touch, light, music and movement, and take place in immersive wonderlands, whether that is created on a stage or a trampoline, in a hydrotherapy pool or up in the air. More importantly, Oily Cart productions and projects are made for and with children and young people, regardless of their age or perceived ability. 

The company commissioned me to write a report to capture and reflect on the new formats explored during COVID-19 and to share learnings that may have benefits for other artists and organisations beyond the pandemic when engaging disabled audiences. It is called the Uncancellable Programme and focussed on three projects.

Uncancellable Programme

Doorstep Jamboree consisted of pop-up performances from the travelling Jamboree band, who played on doorsteps, in school playgrounds and via Zoom to disabled young people, with a particular focus on those young people who communicate differently and do not rely on verbal language, and families still shielding. 

Space to Be offered a new sensory experience created for and with disabled children and young people and their families to share at home. Space to Be performances were led by a parent or carer, guided by a series of audio pieces and using beautifully crafted sensory packages. The focus of Space to Be was on promoting sensory wellbeing for both the adult and the child or young person in the household under their care by exploring new ways of being together in a sensory space. 

Something Love was an exploration into sensory film, created for and with neurodiverse young people. By collaborating with a team of Autistic, disabled and non-disabled creatives on this project, Oily Cart explored new accessible ways of working with artists who face barriers to engagement with traditional creative processes and in-person performances.

Areas of experimentation

In particular, the Uncancellable Programme experimented with a variety of new methods to achieve enhanced accessibility including: 

  1. New ways of co-creating: the music in Doorstep Jamboree was co-created with the audience participants in real time. 
  2. The first remote experience of sensory theatre: Space to Be, enabled families with disabled or neurodiverse children who would not have otherwise accessed sensory theatre to experience it.
  3. Remote Collaborations: disabled and non-disabled artists, Autistic young people, the creative team, the audience and peer evaluators engaged in collaborative conversations throughout the process of creating Space to Be and Something Love.
  4. Access: all three shows went to where people are - on doorsteps, in playgrounds and in their homes via Zoom.
  5. Inclusion & diversity: all three projects included diverse casts and creative teams, such as disabled lead artists / decision-makers; neurodiverse artists, non-disabled artists, as well as performers from different cultural backgrounds.
  6. Power-balance: throughout the process leadership and decision-making roles were shared between audience and artists in response to their artistic and creative needs.
  7. A variety of modes of communication: video and audio messages, oral conversations alongside written emails were adopted to facilitate exchange of views in an accessible and meaningful way for both audiences and artists. Through Doorstep Jamboree, Oily Cart also tested ways to communicate over Zoom with young people who communicate differently and do not rely on verbal language.

Impact on future practice

The accessible and inclusive arts practices adopted in the Uncancellable Programme could influence sensory theatre practice for the wider sector. Firstly, Oily Cart will continue to offer a blended approach to sensory theatre experiences beyond the pandemic so that it can reach families still shielding or experiencing barriers to accessing venues. 

Secondly, it is important to give audiences options to engage in sensory theatre in the way that suits them best, for example, by creating different versions of the same show. As it emerged through the Uncancellable Programme report, the shows that were online and remote appeared to be equally or more valued to face to face experiences. 

Finally, offering disabled and neurodiverse artists different layers of support on artistic and operational issues could facilitate their creative and collaborative engagement throughout all the stages of creating sensory theatre experiences for others.

Maria Varvarigou is a Lecturer at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. 

The report will be launched on Zoom on 14 October. More information and tickets can be found here

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