Imagine. A young boy who can’t communicate suddenly laughs. A girl who has never spoken starts to sing. An infant, only nine weeks old, starts tracking a light, though she has been diagnosed as totally blind. Imagine.
For the families and carers of most young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), such scenarios seem like the stuff of fairytales, but thanks to the work of pioneering Belfast- based Replay Theatre Company, children with PMLD need no longer be excluded from accessing high-quality art.
These far-fetched scenarios are just some of the comments made by those who have had the good fortune to attend the performances with their children.
Replay Theatre Company has been a leader in the field of theatre for young audiences since its foundation in 1988. Over the past few years, however, it has extended its audience to include children who are often excluded from the theatre, young babies, and, in particular, children with PMLD.
"We had always performed work in a disability context," explains Janice Kernoghan, special educational needs co-ordinator with Replay. "But in 2010 we held a year-long consultation, talking to people involved in the arts, education and the disability sector, to get people's opinions about how theatre was being delivered for children with disability.
“What we discovered was that, while there was a good level of opportunity for young people with disability to get involved on a participatory level, and some level of accessibility for children with milder disabilities, there was no provision at all for the professional theatre experience for children with PMLD. Taking these children out of school to see a play just wasn’t an option. The children have so many physical needs, in terms of medication and mobility, it was just impossible.”
Bringing theatre to schools
Replay began to investigate the idea of bringing theatre into special schools instead. “But we quickly realised that just bringing a play into the school would not necessarily make any difference to accessibility. Sitting at the back of a hall while a group of people on stage pretend to be someone else would not be enough to engage a child whose world mostly happens within a few feet of their body,” says Kernoghan.
Their shows, Kernoghan and her colleagues decided, would involve intensive interaction instead: building a one-on-one relationship, actor to audience member.
Following the lead of London's Oily Cart Theatre, Replay began exploring different models that might better cater to the cognitive levels of their audience. The traditional theatre model is based on two senses – sight and hearing – but many children with PMLD have limited vision and aural function. "Using a more sensory approach that engages with their awareness of touch and smell and taste, would give us a greater toolbox for stimulating [the audience]," explains Anna Newell, Replay artistic director.
“If they can’t see the elaborate feathered costume, we could let them touch it, run the feathers along their skin.”
Replay conducted a series of workshops with students, carers and families at a variety of special schools in Northern Ireland trying to find the right balance.
For visual cues, they experimented with finger lights and bright projections. They explored auditory signals such as bells, glockenspiels and rainsticks.
Kinesthetic experiments included the use of wind, bass vibrations, massage, and water mist. Olfactory elements drew on relaxing scents of ylang-ylang and lavender.
They saw immediate results in how the audience were engaging with the sensorial experience, and this heartened them.
At the beginning of their research period, Replay experimented with tailoring performances specifically to individual audience members’ needs.
“People with PMLD have a range of disabilities and complex needs,” Kernoghan says. “At the start we asked for a list of the children’s conditions and how that might affect their perception of the performance, but we quickly realised it was pointless. Actors have to work so much in the moment that it is irrelevant to know if someone has gastro problems.”
What the company also discovered was that too much information also placed limitations on audience, Kernoghan explains. “In one example, a teacher said ‘Sam can’t see, so there is no point in doing visual elements.’
“However, in one of the performances, the actors had lights attached to their fingers and that boy was clearly tracking the light. As far as we knew, he was profoundly blind. We might not have bothered. But it turns out he actually had some sight.”
The company decided instead “to purposely disregard [the children’s] condition, so that we would be a bit more openminded about what they might be able to experience”.
Ultimately, Newell says the audience “are our creative consultants; they let us know what works for them and what doesn’t. Theatre is not about diagnostic, clinical or physical care: it is about communication between two human beings.”
The culmination of Replay's research was an hour-long show called Bliss, which toured throughout special schools in Northern Ireland. It was performed inside a specially designed geodesic tent structure, the Replay Bubble, which "created a distraction-free space that removed the visual and oral distractions", according to Newell.
Their next two performances for children with PMLD took a similar environmental and sensory approach – Into the Blue was performed in hydrotherapy pools, while Closer was performed in the Replay Bubble, with audience members nestled in soft cocoons.
Transformative James Curran is the principal of Parkview Special School in Lisburn, which caters for children with severe learning difficulties and a range of complex medical, sensory and physical needs. Replay are regular visitors to the school
and Curran observes that the sensory experience and magical environments have had a transformative effect upon his pupils.
“Our pupils do not get the opportunity to experience professional performances as they are unable to access regular theatre trips. Also, the theatres rarely put on performances that would be appropriate for our pupils.” Replay’s work, Curran says, “tailors performances that appeal to all our pupils regardless of need or disability”.
The fact that the work is performed in “a safe place for our pupils, where we can ensure they have the required medical and staffing support necessary”, is a bonus.
Replay's forthcoming show Snoozle and the Lullabugs is designed specifically for children under five with PMLD. Performed by three actors for three audience members and their adult companions, it places audiences in a bespoke "snugbug" in the Snoozle Tent, a hammock that gently rocks as the soothing bedtime story unfolds.
It will be performed in a number of special school settings in Northern Ireland, and accessible theatre venues across the island.
For some of the young audience members, this will be the first immersive experience of art that they will have had in their lives. Imagine that.
Snoozle and the Lullabugs premiered as part of Belfast's Young at Art Festival and the four-week tour continues until the end of the month. For more information, see replaytheatrecompany.org
A sensory approach to literature
Young adult (YA) writer and teacher Deirdre Sullivan brings a multisensory approach to storytelling in her forthcoming workshops at the Mountains to Sea festival in Dún Laoghaire, south Dublin.
Designed for children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and their families, the sessions will allow children to explore Chris Haughton's picture book, Oh No, George, through gentle use of their senses.
In a calm, quiet atmosphere, workshop leader Sullivan will explore (fake) soil, taste chocolate cake, and meet a real live assistance dog trained by My Canine Companion, if they would like to.