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Lucy Garland explains how her company makes theatre accessible to adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

A photo of a man performing with a guitar to a disabled audience with a sensory set
A performance of ‘The Isle of Brimsker’

© JMA Photography

Frozen Light was formed in 2012 to make high-quality, accessible theatre for adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). We wanted to make theatre that was programmed alongside other contemporary theatre shows so it has always been important that we perform in professional theatre venues. Our audiences are then able to access art in a local venue like everyone else. (For example, we were at The Lowry in Salford recently.)

Sensory interactions

People with profound and multiple learning disabilities access the world on a sensory level, so for theatre to be meaningful to them it needs to take place in a sensory world. We are currently on tour with our fourth production The Isle of Brimsker, where each part of the story is underpinned with a sensory moment. These moments are explored on a one-to-one level between performer and audience. They range from vibrating ropes and water dancing in a rock pool to grated ice and water sprayers during a storm.

Each part of the story is underpinned with a sensory moment and these moments are explored on a one-to-one level between performer and audience

The one-to-one interaction enhances communication between the performers and our audience members, many of whom are non-verbal. As performers, we listen to what our audience needs from us – it may be touching a stone with their hand, holding it on their face or smelling it. We are led by them and what they need from us to access the show in a way that suits their needs.

We perform to small audiences of six people and their carers or companions, who sit on the stage with us. To work with a venue, we must have level access to the stage, so often we perform in black box studios or spaces where there is front-of-house access to the flat level floor.

The most crucial part of our work is that we create a safe space for our audience – for us to take risks in. We want to provide our audience with a full theatrical experience, so we use full theatre lighting and tour with our own sound system to get proper directional sound and music quality.

Partnerships with venues

One of our aims is to work closely with theatre venues to make their space accessible to audiences with PMLD. We also work on audience development and provide box office and marketing training for staff in reaching our audience. Due to a historic lack of provision within the arts for people with PMLD, those who support our audience or their families do not expect to pick up a brochure and find something in there for the person they care for. So traditional marketing methods do not really work for our productions.

The best way to reach our audience is through direct marketing, phone calls and personalised emails. This works if the venue is willing to put in the time and resources needed. We also have someone in our team working on audience development during tours. We think that marketing our work should be a partnership activity with a venue – we know our audience and they know the local area. If a venue embraces this partnership, then it can find a new, enthusiastic audience and reach a group that is isolated due to lack of provision and access.

Faithful audiences

Our audiences are faithful and we have a high percentage of returning audience members. If a venue makes them feel welcome and valued, then many will return again and again. Our audience is one of the most invisible and disenfranchised in society and the arts can be a way to show that they are valued. That is what we want to achieve with our work.

We currently have the capacity to tour once every two years (it takes a year to make a show and we then tour it for a year), so the majority of our audience only see a show of ours once every two years. We hope that in the future more companies will make work for this audience so that they, like everyone else in society, have a choice and can access meaningful theatre as much as they please.

Lucy Garland is Co-Artistic Director of Frozen Light.
Tw @frozentheatre

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Photo of Lucy Garland